The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led coalition government was in place in the Punjab province for almost one month when the Government Boys Primary School in Beeni Sulehriyaan village of Sabzpeer Markaz area, Pasrur tehsil (Sialkot district), was closed down. Munir Ahmad Dhudhi, a resident of the village, told Cutting Edge that it was the only school for primary education in the village.
The main reason, given by the Education Department for the closure, was “a lot of reduction in the number of students enrolled in the school”. However, what the department did not share was the reason for students leaving the school with each passing year and each passing month. Dhudhi says that the number of students gradually decreased over the years due to non-availability of basic facilities in the school including toilets, potable water, furniture, electricity and classrooms.
Regrettably, the Education Department found it more convenient to close down the school, rather than providing the basic facilities in the school and persuading students not to go to private schools, or the government schools in other villages. The issue was reported in Dawn newspaper in the second week of September last year, but no action was taken by the education authorities, or by the provincial school education minister, Dr. Murad Raas, who recently claimed revolutionising the sector and making Punjab a role model in the field of education.
The latest ground situation of the school is that some unidentified people have taken away the wooden doors and windows of the classrooms. Some influential people of the village are using the building as their cattle pen and storeroom for their fodder.
And the latest situation on the other side is that Punjab Minister for Schools Education Dr. Murad Raas unveiled a five-year programme, titled The New Deal 2023 on December 8, last year “to transform school education in the province with a focus on learning, access and equity and governance”.
One wonders if it is a “New Deal”: Closing down schools and not providing basic needs there!
Those concerned have come across this “New Deal” hundreds of times in the province during the past years. They say hundreds of schools like Beeni Sulehriyaan have either been closed down or “privatised” during these years. However, the new political dispensation should be given time to prove what “The New Deal” offers in the coming months and years.
According to UNICEF statistics on Pakistan, there are over 9.2 million children under the age of 16 years out of school in Punjab only, and 5.03 million of them are girls. Rubina Nadeem, an education specialist at UNICEF Pakistan, told Cutting Edge that Pakistan stands second in the world ranking of out-of-school children with only Nigeria ahead of it, while Punjab is on the top among the provinces in this regard.
She says that the population-wise largest province of the country is facing multiple challenges relating to access to education including gender, location, geographical access, ethnicity, poverty status and disability and the students retention in early years of schooling.
A comprehensive report, titled 2013-2018 Five Years of Education Reform: Punjab Wins, Losses and Challenges for the Future 2018-2023, launched last year by the Alif Ailaan initiative “put a special emphasis on higher enrolment and retention, improved learning outcomes and quality of education, and a better managed, monitored and administered education sector.”
The report said that regardless of the increased budgetary allocations for education, the provincial government failed to utilise the funds fully. The education authorities were unable to substantially increase enrolment in middle and high schools as only 0.5 million students were enrolled in middle and 0.2 million students were enrolled in high schools.
Ms. Rubina says that the issue of untrained teaching staff and vacant teaching posts at public institutions, particularly at the primary and secondary levels, is a major issue of concern for all. Independent research institutes note that the province still remains far behind in terms of providing necessary teaching staff across the province. According to the Academy of Educational Planning and Management (AEPMA) “around 15% of the total schools in Punjab have only one teacher, teaching multiple grades at public schools.”
The Alif Ailaan report stated that a significant number of schools in Punjab lack adequate facilities and infrastructure to improve the teaching environment. For instance “9% of primary schools do not have a blackboard, 24% do not have textbooks available for the children and 46% do not have desks for the students.”
The province also continues to see a decline in the area of learning outcomes. “Overall, the biggest challenge is that of quality education. Learning outcomes remain weak across the country,” argues Mosharraf Zaidi of Alif Ailaan. According to the report, “While [Punjab’s] focus rightly continues on access, gender parity and retention, education quality represents the biggest long-term weakness in the system.” The report notes that “low-quality education drags the entire education system down and this represents a growing problem.” Mr. Zaidi says that the provincial government needs to eliminate the culture and curriculum that focuses primarily on “rote learning”.
However, Provincial Education Minister Dr. Murad Raas says the incumbent government is fully aware of the challenges facing the most important sector currently. Talking to Cutting Edge after the launch of The New Deal 2023 plan at the Directorate General of Public Relations offices in Lahore, he said that the department was going to introduce short-, mid- and long-term strategies to reform the public sector schools.
He said that more than 70% students leave schools after completing primary education and did not enter middle school. “We are working towards starting afternoon classes in 20 districts in March 2019, to provide access to children to middle and high level classes,” he disclosed. The minister said that the department would launch the Integrated Management Information System (IMIS) to foster data-driven decision-making and devising data-based performance management systems. Its PC-1 is ready now, he added. The IMIS would connect 450,000 teachers with the department, who would get promotions by pressing a button.
To a question about the role of the private sector, Mr. Raas said that no substandard schools would be allowed to operate in the province at all, and warned the unregistered private schools to get themselves registered with the department immediately.
The minister said that Urdu and English would be taught as a subject in primary schools. Compulsory sports would be introduced in all government schools, and the programme to provide bicycles to students in 20 districts would be extended later on besides construction of girls-friendly toilets.
The minister said that a health programme is being launched in 1,700 selected schools and weak school structures are being restored in flood-affected areas of the province.
Dr. Raas said that drafts of Punjab Educational Professionals Standards Council Bill 2018, Punjab Private Education Reform Bill 2018 and Punjab School Truancy and Compulsory Admission Bill 2018 had been prepared with the objective to regulate the school system and improve matters pertaining to schooling. Work was also being done on a performance management framework for education managers at tehsil, district and provincial levels, he added.
The previous government took pride in the establishment of Daanish schools and the quality of education being provided there. Former education minister Punjab said on multiple occasions that the underprivileged class in the province had been receiving quality education at Daanish schools which he termed “Aitchison for the poor”.
However, the incumbent minister believes that the Daanish School System is not a viable project as Rs. 18,000 per month was being spent on one child, while millions of other students had no access to basic facilities in public schools.
The New Deal 2023 details, the minister shared with Edge Cutting were quite lengthy. However, what practical shape the plan takes and how much the education sector is improved due to the new plan will be visible to all concerned only in the years to come. At the moment we can only pray for its success.