Education: beyond words

January 27,2018

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Experts have often gotten it wrong. For example, the advocacy group Alif Ailaan released a well-publicised report titled ‘25 million broken promises: The crisis of Pakistan’s out-of-school children’ a couple of years ago that claimed there were 25 million out-of-school children in Pakistan.

This figure was possibly incorrect by a long shot – something that was acknowledged within the report. The report quoted a number of sources that estimated the number of out-of-school children differently, resulting in a range that was between eight million and 25 million. It then stated that one of the reasons they opted for 25 million in the report was that it would cause the greatest alarm as it was the highest number.

This trend is important to reflect upon because, though well-intentioned, this sort of alarmist advocacy ensured that the focus of too much of the standard education debate in Pakistan continued to be on toilet blocks and boundary walls instead of what the 50 million children who were in school were or weren’t learning. We managed to help the Punjab government pivot towards learning because we were successful in ignoring some of the mainstream debates and simply focus on the right thing: the 50 million broken promises to children who chose to attend school as well as the 25 million who didn’t.

Following from the previous article in this series, the fourth reason that made the education reforms in Punjab a success was the use of autonomous and real-time data to monitor progress and make decisions. Private-sector companies use data to make decisions. So do governments and development institutions. Their approaches are very different though. A CEO uses whatever data is available and takes the best decision that he or she can immediately. Senior government officials can take months and years to process data, verify it, debate it and finally come to the conclusion that it is now obsolete and that new data needs to be collected.

It is no coincidence that education indicators in both Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa started to improve when autonomous data monitoring units that observed all schools monthly became functional. In Punjab, we helped the government use the data collected to drive much of the education reforms; identify schools with poor indicators and areas with low enrolment; specify where to place new teachers; and assess learning levels. The data didn’t need to be perfect. But it needed to be good enough and it needed to be used quickly.

The fifth reason for the project’s success was that we managed to sidestep a number of constraints. Start any reform effort in the public sector and someone will come up with several reasons why it won’t work. Corruption. Complexity. Capability. Capital. But the truth is, many of these bottlenecks can simply be ignored. What we learnt is that there is almost always a way forward.

Let’s take the education budget as an example. It is true that many other countries spend twice the amount that we do on education as a proportion of their GDP. But focusing on this alone creates a reason for inaction as it is also true is that only about half of the seven percent of the education budget in Pakistan that is not linked to salaries is ever spent. Instead of jumping on the bandwagon and asking for massive increases in budget, we helped the government design reforms around funds that were already committed and then tried to ensure that those funds were disbursed and spent. This helped in the rapid improvement of facilities that the first two years of the reforms process achieved.

The sixth factor for our success was that we not only managed to rely on government expertise, but also combined it with raw, young, untainted capabilities to drive change. When we started the Education Roadmap in Punjab, we had access to the entire education department. However, we quickly realised that while the department had experience in dealing with these matters, its capability, intent and behaviour varied too significantly to enable large-scale reforms. Our answer was to inject more youthful capabilities to help drive the transformation. Much of the reforms process was designed and implemented by a number of young graduates from our own universities who worked in conjunction with experts and government officials. What these young people lacked in experience, they made up for through their capability and desire. And that was enough to help sow the seeds of a different future for millions of children.

Finally, even more important than their capability was their resilience. Reforms are difficult to implement, becoming a journey that is constantly two steps forward, one step back. The most important thing was for someone to stick to it. In both Punjab and KP, the resilience of a senior leadership and the reform teams helped difficult reforms go through despite opposition.

Despite the efforts taken during six long years, what has happened in schools in Punjab and KP only marks the beginning. To put the progress into perspective, we have to understand the scale of the problems that we face. Pakistan has approximately 150,000 government schools and as many low-cost private schools. It also has around 50 million school-going students and more than a million teachers. The UK only has around 30,000 schools. Saudi Arabia has around 10,000 schools. A small country like the UAE has around 250 schools. And all of them have a lot more money to throw at the problem than we have. Changing systems that are as big and complex as ours, and which also suffer from low capability and financial constraints, is never going to be easy. And yet, we have made real progress in Punjab and KP.

There is so much more that could have been done and so much more to do. But by ignoring the progress that has been made, much of our public and social sector ecosystem misses an important point: that the success of these education reforms can teach us important lessons for other areas of development. The very fact that positive change can and has happened in Pakistan is a story worth celebrating, learning from and building upon.


The writer led the Roadmap Team that helped design and implementeducation reforms in Punjab from September 2011 to November 2017.



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