Ghulam Mujtaba Pansota wonders how come the Punjab government authorities or parents can object to functioning of private schools in the province. “Both of them have long ago surrendered their right to object to imparting of education by private schools and colleges,” claims Mr. Pansota, the principal of his own school system in tehsil Chishtian of district Bahawalnagar.
A Master’s in Media Studies from the Islamia University of Bahawalpur, Mr. Pansota has been running two branches of his high school, one each for boys and girls, in the suburbs of Chishtian city for the last 20 years. “The government has failed to set up a sufficient number of schools across the province to cater to the needs of all children under 18 years of age,” he says in a special talk with Cutting Edge. Only in the Punjab, 12.2 million school age children are out of school, he adds.
A majority of schools, established by the Punjab School Education Department, are not functioning properly. Many of them are without proper buildings, boundary walls, dinking water, functional toilets and even teachers and other staff. “How come then the authorities can object to functioning of private schools in any part of the province,” asks Pansota. Even those enrolled at government schools drop out sooner or later, a majority of them without completing their primary education, he claims.
Quoting some figures from Pakistan Education Statistics 2016-17, he says that 3,360,331 children were enrolled in class one in public sector schools in year 2007-08. However, it was shocking to know in 2016-17 that 70% of them had already dropped out, leaving behind 997,112 children.
The private school principal says why parents withdraw their children from government schools and admit them to “expensive” private schools if they had genuine objections to functioning of the schools. He says even in small villages, private schools have opened and they are running successfully. About his own school system, he says he has over 700 students in both branches, though two government high schools are working in one kilometre radius of his school campuses. That means parents have lost confidence in public sector schools due to shortage of teachers and missing facilities.
However, Punjab Education Minister Murad Raas rejected Pansota’s claims about missing facilities in schools. In a telephonic talk with Cutting Edge, he says according to the Report on Annual School Census 2017-18, more than 99% of 52,394 government schools in the Punjab province have functional toilets and drinking water facilities, while more than 98% schools have boundary walls, and more than 96% have electricity. He says that in relative terms, the government institutions have sufficient playgrounds where students engage in sports for physical fitness. On the other hand, most private institutions are congested and seriously lack playgrounds, he adds.
However, Mosharraf Zaidi, an educationist and development practitioner, seconds Ghulam Mujtaba Pansota’s claim about parents’ lack of trust in government schools. Quoting statistics of now defunct organisation Alif Ailaan, he tells Cutting Edge at a workshop that 69% parents wanted to send their children to private schools. They believe that private schools provide better facilities, better learning outcomes, and high quality English medium education in addition to better care for child welfare, he added.
The report says that the number of students enrolled in private schools increased from 26% in 2003 to 38% in 2014, and the number of children enrolled in private schools can be as high as 42% in 2019, according to an estimate. The statistics speak volumes about parents’ dwindling trust in government-run schools as well as lack of investment in public education on part of the government.
Mr. Zaidi says there is nothing new to the idea of education in the private sector. Many countries in the world, especially developing countries, public and private sectors go side by side in the provision of education, he says. There are only few developed countries, like Germany, where educational institutions exist only in the public sector, and in some other countries, like Finland, private schools are rare.
The educationist says that all countries, which do not allow the private sector to step into education, accord high priority to education. Their education systems are far better in terms of literacy rates; teachers’ salaries; infrastructure and classroom facilities, mainly due to sufficient financial resources available for education. And their educational systems and institutions are exemplary. Unlike ours, their educational institutions do not have to pass through financial crises. A considerable percentage of their annual budgets are apportioned for education, Mr. Zaidi says.
The educationist also has some data to share with Cutting Edge how the countries increased their budgetary allocations for education with the passage of time. In 1980, Pakistan spent 2.1% of its GDP (gross domestic product) on education, whereas China spent 2.2%. The difference was not much. But 15 years later, China was spending 4.1% on education compared with Pakistan’s 2.3%. New Zealand doubled its spending on education from 3.6% in 1985 to 7.2% in 2010. In Pakistan, the figure remained the same (2.4%) in the corresponding period. And, ironically, in 2019, the figure is still there i.e. 2.4%.
Quoting yet more figures from year 2015, Zaidi says among the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states, New Zealand, Chile, Brazil, and Mexico spend more than 15% of their annual expenditure on education. Costa Rica is at the top of all OECD member states and spends more than 30% of its annual expenditure on education. Pakistan stands somewhere around 10%, regrets the educationist. A UNDP Human Development report on expenditure on education as percentage of GDP, covering the period from 1980 to 2012, showed that Pakistan was ranked 146th out of 187 states. Countries ranking higher than Pakistan included Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India along with several Central Asian and many African states.
In the situation, one should not be surprised to know that over 22.84 million children in the country are still out of school, and parents no more trust government schools for education of their children. In year 2019, the private education sector has assumed the role of the proverbial camel in the Arab’s tent, because now it is serving just under half of Pakistani children (a whopping 42% of nation’s children), selling something to them that the government should offer for free.
Mosharraf Zaidi says that education is a constitutional right of every Pakistani child, but now it is being sold to them and parents are forced to pay for the fundamental right, the right to education. One of the main reasons why parents are forced to opt for private schools, Zaidi says, is the fact that the government did not increase its investment in building new schools, especially in the urban areas. As a result, the existing schools became overcrowded and quality of education provided in the schools suffered adversely.
The other reason, adds Mr. Zaidi, that pushes parents away from government schools is the ever deteriorating standard and abysmal quality of instruction provided at the schools in addition to very lenient enforcement of performance and efficiency rules. Most parents, who have resources and ambitions to get a quality education for their children, no longer consider government schools as an option. This is a deeply disturbing fact and it points to the abject failure on part of the government to invest in education and improve the existing structure and quality of education.
Government’s lack of political will and misplaced priorities provide the private sector with an opportunity to fill the space. So what is the way out? How can government sector schools sufficiently fulfil the nation’s educational needs? The educationist offers a solution in the form of famous one-liner by American motivational speaker Tony Robbins: “Raise your standards”. The government will have to raise standards at public sector schools to successfully compete with the ever-growing challenge of private educational enterprises.