Pakistan is building schools to provide jobs, rather than education

The article was published by The Guardian.

With more than 20 million children out of school, Pakistan has, at last, begun talking about its education crises. Our media and civil society routinely grill politicians on a lack of funding for public schools. Opinion sections of national newspapers usually publish a few articles a week on how the lack of quality education is becoming an existential threat to Pakistan’s social cohesion. Foreign aid funded projects take primetime television ads to tell parents about the importance of educating their children.

It has had some impact; education has become a key talking point in political debates. The government regularly boasts about the growing education budget with promises to provide an “excellent environment” to students. But what is lacking in this increasingly noisy debate on Pakistan’s education crisis is the experience of parents and students on the ground.

The lack of nuanced policy is leading to an alarming trend. Education spending on the ground is being translated into schools as a means to provide jobs, rather than to provide children with a quality education. One of the leading research papers in this field is Pakistan’s Education Crisis: The Real Story by Wilson Center fellow Nadia Naviwala, and Ahmad Ali from the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences in Islamabad.

There is a very strong political element to education spending, as legislators are customarily elected on the basis of how many jobs they can provide to their constituents, and hence hiring new teachers takes priority in budget allocation, particularly when close to a general election. For the government, this preoccupation appears to kill two birds with one stone; an easy fix for the education crises, and sought after permanent government jobs for their constituents. As a consequence, education departments are typically the single largest employers in most provinces.

Increasing the number of teachers across the country has also been an easy policy for everyone to get behind, especially since the public discourse on fixing the education crisis has largely been focused on the need to spend more on education. In 2016, Pakistani provinces spent between 17 to 28% of their budgets on education, while the global average was 14%. Combined that’s $7.5bn spent on public education nationally, with most provinces doubling their budgets within the past five years.

But as Naviwala has argued, Pakistan can’t simply spend its way out of its education crisis. On the ground, most of the spending is being used for hiring non-performing teachers or providing salary hikes for existing teachers. A small section of the spending is set aside for new education infrastructure however about half of it, on average, goes unspent by provinces every year. In fact, the proportion of spending on much-needed education infrastructure has decreased, as salaries take a larger than ever proportion of the spending total.

The problem is that this rapid rise in spending isn’t translating into education for all. School enrollment nationally has continued to stagnate. Even if enrollment drives are able to get students into schools, evidence shows that only one in four children who enroll in the first grade remains in school by the 10th grade. Even of those students who remain in school, most aren’t learning basic skills like literacy. Studies have shown that over half of all 3rd graders, children aged 9-10, in government schools are illiterate.

The 4% GDP public education spending target – which is promoted as the gold standard by donors and campaigners – seems to provide a simplistic solution to Pakistan’s education crisis. Take for example, Sindh, Pakistan’s second largest province. In 2016, the province spent 12 times more on teacher salaries than it did in 2010; despite this increase the majority of its fifth graders can’t read a 2nd-grade level text. Sindh has been on the forefront of a general trend of turning public education departments into employment agencies.

Ironically, Sindh’s provincial government has itself admitted that as many as 40% of its schoolteachers are ghost employees, meaning that these teachers don’t show up for work, and in some cases they don’t live in the towns where they are posted to teach. But the same teachers keep getting pay rises. Unsurprisingly, this toxic combination of political patronage and ineffective policies has seen a decline in net school enrollment rate in the province.

Parents rightly ask what’s the benefit for them in sending their children to school when the children are unlikely to learn? Especially when these children are economically more beneficial for families when they are working.

Pakistan has to build more schools and train its teachers. That requires it to “spend better, not simply more”. Something international donors need to understand. Pakistan’s private education sector – which educates about 40% of the country’s students – can serve as an example here.

Private schools on average pay five times less to their teachers than their public school counterparts. What’s even more fascinating is that private school teachers also have lower academic qualifications and are half as likely to receive training than teachers employed in government schools. However, despite this, the students at these schools are on average two grades ahead of their government school peers.

Why is it then private school teachers deliver better? At the core, private school teachers feel more accountable to parents. Parents can pull their fee-paying children out of school if they believe that their children aren’t learning the key skills. This makes teachers and private school administrators more efficient at delivering quality education. This isn’t the case in government schools who are answerable to usually an education department located often miles away.

This means that public school teachers in Pakistan are rarely fired – even if they aren’t delivering in classrooms. How teachers are hired and promoted is also crucial. Public school teachers regularly report that politics play a strong role in these decisions, at times hinting towards outright political patronage.

Ultimately, Pakistan needs to combine any spending increases with critical reforms that develop accountability between teachers and parents. It needs to look into the curriculum it is teaching in classrooms, and develop an intensive monitoring system that makes sure that teachers are showing up for work and delivering quality education. For too long, our leaders have been focusing on expanding the size of the country’s education budget and falsely marketing it as showing the government’s growing commitment to quality education.

For change to happen the quality of the conversation around Pakistan’s education crisis needs to improve. The people need to demand better teachers who are accountable to the communities they teach in, while donors need to rethink about their fixation with unrealistic funding targets and instead support reforms which make schools more efficient.

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