EducationNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 03

Post-pandemic crisis equally terrible for parents, school owners

When the novel coronavirus broke out in the country in March this year, two sections of society on the education scene seemed most worried: parents, and the owners/administrators as well as teachers of private schools. And now, when the federal and provincial governments have announced reopening of campuses in three phases, the most worried persons of society are again the same factions; parents and low-fee private school owners. Both have their peculiar reasons.

Shabbir Ahmad*, a resident of the Tajpura locality of Lahore, is a typical example of parents, upset by the closure of schools in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and now an announcement of the reopening of schools. A father of four, Shabbir was rendered jobless by the pandemic. His employer, the branch manager of a big private life insurance company, plainly told him by telephone after one month of the virus outbreak that he should not expect any wages or financial help from the company until the crisis was over. Being a chronic asthmatic, it was really hard for him to find a job involving physical labour. Almost all economic activities had come to a halt abruptly. At the end of only the first month of lockdown, the family knew beyond any doubt that they would have to face starvation if something unusual was not done immediately.

At the stage, his eldest son, a tenth grader, came forward to rescue the family. With the permission of Shabbir Ahmad, he started working as a filling station attendant at a nearby petrol pump. The boy was a mediocre student, but Shabbir Ahmad had great expectations of him, being his only son among his four children. He had never thought of sending him to such a workplace, as the family was spending a humble but respectable life in his limited income. However, the fear of starvation and his special health condition forced him to agree to the suggestion that the teenager should work and bring some money home every month. He had planned he would stop the boy from work and send him to school as soon as the situation normalises and educational institutions reopen.

However, the end of lockdown and an announcement of the reopening of schools have proved to be even more challenging for him. His son has refused to quit his job at the petrol pump and rejoin his school, a private low-fee school in the locality. He says he would continue his studies as a private candidate, along with the filling station job. But Shabbir Ahmad feels deep inside him, he would not be able to persuade his son to quit the job and resume his classes as a regular student, and his dream of making his son a “bara adami” (an officer) after the completion of a good professional degree would never come true now. God knows how many Shabbir Ahmads are facing the same dilemma in the country these days.

However, Murhsad Owais Alam’s predicament is even more terrible. He is, rather was, the owner-cum-principal of a private school in Allama Iqbal Town of Lahore. Himself a master’s degree holder in education, he had launched his Shining Star “English medium” school about nine years ago. “Because of my hard work and appointment of only qualified and trained teachers, my school was making steady progress,” Mr Alam tells Cutting Edge. “I never compromised on the quality of teachers as well as the education they imparted to students, hence a slow progress to launch the secondary section,” he claims. “I was able to launch the middle classes, from 6 to 8, after about seven years of the start of my school,” he says.

“Despite functioning in a rented building, very high utility bills, and charging a nominal fee from students, I always paid good salaries to my teachers and managed the school system effectively,” adds Murhsad Alam. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit the country hard when his school was about to start new classes and the admissions process was under way.

“The blow was so severe that it took away everything of my school, along with 10 years of my hard work,” the principal said, who is in his early 50s. The government had directed private schools not to fire any teacher or employee. But, on the other hand, parents refused to pay any fee, either due to non-completion of the admission process or because of government announcements that schools might not open for the whole year due to the magnitude of the pandemic. “After paying one-month salary to teachers and staff, and paying the building rent for two months, I exhausted all my savings,” he said. The owner evicted him from the building and rented it to a stockist of an international brand beverage company. Now, while the education department has allowed reopening of schools and resumption of classes with the observance of SOPs (standard operating procedures), the principal seems in a quandary where to start his school and how?

Dr M Ilyas Wali, the president of Punjab Private Schools Association (PPSA), is saddened by the ordeal of Mr Alam. But, he says, it’s not a single case of the kind. “All private low-fee private schools, which were functioning in rented buildings, have met the same fate,” he tells Cutting Edge by telephone.

As the private schools’ operational cost is dependent on revenue generated through school tuition fee with no financial support available from the government, all private schools had to suffer badly due to the pandemic. Since the lockdown, the government enforced a 20pc discount in private schools fee, while many parents flatly refused to pay the fee at all, owners of a large number of private schools were pushed to deep crisis, adds Dr Wali. On an average, only 25-30pc of the fee is being recovered, leading to extreme situations for school owners and managements, he adds.

The PPSA president believes that at least 7-8pc of all low-fee private schools have been closed down in the Punjab province due to the pandemic, and their owners would have to start their setups from the beginning. He rues the impression among the general public as well as the institutions that private schools were making big money and they were fleecing parents.

Dr Wali says a large majority of private schools are low-fee schools, which are, in fact, helping the state to materialise the “education for all” dream under Article 25 A of the Constitution of Pakistan. According to the PPSA definition, those charging less than Rs1500 monthly fee are low-cost or low-fee schools.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), private schooling in Pakistan has significant presence, around 40pc, according to the number of schools and student enrolment, both in urban and rural areas. The low-cost affordable private schools are catering to the middle class and poor families, who are not satisfied with the education provided in public sector schools.

ASER as well as various other studies show that in public schools almost 50pc of grade 5 students cannot read or write basic sentences in the English or Urdu of the grade 2 level. However, students of private schools performed better during the surveys by the educationists.

According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the education system of Pakistan is composed of almost 197,000 public schools and over 120,000 private schools. The public sector provides access to about 28.68 million students to complete their education while the remaining 21.60 million students are catered by the private sector of education.

The president of the Punjab Private Schools Association, with 73,000 membership counts across the province, regrets that the government was not ready to help the crucial sector in the crisis. Press reports that Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood announced in the National Assembly last month that a financial package was under consideration for low-fee schools did not impress Mr Wali at all. The minister had announced that schools could also benefit from the loan scheme, introduced by the State Bank of Pakistan, under which loans at 3-5pc mark-up were being offered to the businesses affected by the pandemic. The PPSA president says no such loans are being offered to low-fee schools. And if the facility is offered to the sinking schools, it will be a real service to the education sector, school owners as well as parents, whose children are getting quality education at a nominal fee.