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Opinion News
July 22,2018

Mend the gap

Dr Naazir Mahmood

One seldom comes across a research on Sindh’s education that is impressive. However, a recent research study sponsored by the Sindh Basic Education Program (SBEP) is a good addition to the existing body of knowledge. This study explores public-private partnership for better service-delivery in Sindh. But before discussing the research itself, let’s have a look at some of the fundamental issues education is facing in Sindh. Though there are many dimensions of a good education system such as curriculum, teaching methodology and assessment, governance or management of public-sector schools has been identified as one of the primary issues that affects school performance.

The Sindh Education and Literacy Department (SELD) led by a dynamic provincial secretary for education, Alia Shahid, is contributing substantially to the improvement of education in Sindh. Though the indicators for education are not very impressive, some noticeable changes have lately taken place. Interestingly, while the SELD is led by Alia Shahid, another hard working and vibrant woman, Naheed Durrani, is heading the Sindh Education Foundation (SEF) as its managing director. It appears that when women start leading educational entities, performance shows an upward tick in most cases.

One of the initiatives taken by the previous Sindh government was an attempt to outsource the operation and management of selected government schools to private-sector education management organisations (EMOs). Though the EMO initiative is still in its early phases of implementation, the research study under discussion has tried to explore and understand the process of change-management. The initiative to carry out this research was undertaken by the Sindh Capacity Development Project (SCDP) which is a component under the SBEP. The research study helps us grasp the intricacies of service-delivery in Sindh’s government schools. Internationally, policymaking is an evidence-based process. But in Pakistan, this is hardly so. This is why some good research needs to be appreciated and promoted. Coming to the study itself, this research specifically focuses on EMO as a model, and how it was conceptualised. In addition, the study also deals with the evolution of this idea with the potential of replicating it. As we know, many innovations in education fail because they lack the potential for scalability, meaning that they cannot be reproduced at a larger scale. This study also talks about the EMO’s implementation processes including their successes and challenges.

Very intelligently, researchers Dr M Babur, Roshni Kumari and Noman Siddiqui do not talk about failures, instead, they prefer to discuss challenges. This approach is useful as many studies in education mostly highlight what have been regarded as failures rather than reshaping the focus to challenges which can be overcome. Many research studies, especially in Pakistan, lack a proper theoretical framework and mostly present the data without placing it in perspective. This is because many NGO professionals pose as researchers without having an understanding of the essentials of a good research.

Here, the researchers were careful to select an appropriate tool, the Cultural Historical Activity Theory, that helped them in their analysis. Another feature of the study is that it is mostly qualitative. It does not present a plethora of statistics and, instead, discusses issues of quality. If you look for educational research on the internet, you will find thousands of study papers that are replete with charts and graphs and have everything reduced to numbers. If you are more interested in quality than quantity in education, this piece of research will be useful.

One of the major findings of this research is that EMO schools have been able to attract enrolment but the limited capacity of these schools is a cause of concern. One reason for the relative success of the EMO model is that its state-of-the-art physical facilities have contributed positively to the overall learning environment. We know that the overall spending per child is much higher in government schools than in private schools. The latter spend much less per child but still attract more enrolment because physical facilities such as functional toilets and classrooms are better.

Parents are reluctant to send their children to government schools because of the negative image that is built in their minds. In most cases, this image is correct. Hence, even if a particular government school performs better, parents remain sceptical. The SBEP study found that the EMO schools offer a better teaching-learning environment in a democratic and participatory manner, thanks to the positive attitude of the teachers that the EMO hires, in addition to the regular ones. As a result, some public-sector teachers also strive to perform better. This study has also found some positive indicators and a favourable evidence for replication. In contrast with some government schools, EMO schools are not only operational but also deliver academic content with regular student-teacher interaction. This factor is important in that many government schools – and even colleges – are not operational. What to talk about rural areas when even in major urban centres like Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur most government colleges are operational only in the sense that teachers come, mark the attendance and either go back home or just while away their time with samosas and tea.

Contrary to common perception, the study finds that a political will to change things does exist at the higher level. We know that the poor state of education in Pakistan, especially in Sindh, has been attributed to lack of political will. This perception has not been out of place. We have seen multiple governments in Sindh paying lip service to education, but then in the second PPP government, at least, some changes did take place, particularly after Murad Ali Shah became the chief minister.

Though the study does not go into details of the origin of this political will, it does appreciate the legislation done by the PPP government as it led to a legal framework being laid for public-private partnership. The research also highlights that from the government of Sindh’s perspective of a long-term vision, there is a need for strategic guidelines about the future of the EMO schools at the conclusion of their concession period of 10 years. This long-term vision is vital because scaling up will require sustained access to resources and a large number of EMOs, which can take up the task at the provincial level. SELD needs capacity-building not only at the provincial level but also at district levels. However, a caution raised by this study is also worth considering. The research anticipates that whenever the question of scaling up intervention beyond SBEP schools will arise, the effort might trigger fear and strengthen the suspicion of teachers’ unions regarding the future of government teachers. An interesting aspect of EMOs is that they bind public-sector management and staff with that of the private-sector – both have different cultures and work ethos.

Public-sector human resources are more powerful in that they have secure jobs and support from teachers’ associations and unions which protect their interests. The study also makes use of ideas from international scholars of education such as Fullan whose concept of ‘Change Knowledge Drivers’ has been used by many educational practitioners.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad. Email: mnazir1964yahoo.co.uk


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