Devolution and national education

January 16, 2022

The 18th Amendment to the constitution of Pakistan was passed in 2010 and among the changes it introduced was the devolution of many powers and responsibilities from the center to the provinces.The...

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The 18th Amendment to the constitution of Pakistan was passed in 2010 and among the changes it introduced was the devolution of many powers and responsibilities from the center to the provinces.

The roles of 15 federal ministries were delegated to provincial departments. In many cases, it left nothing for the federal ministries to do and they were abolished altogether. Among the ministries whose powers were partially delegated was the Ministry of Education. The devolution of powers was widely welcomed by provinces, but as Peter Parker’s (Spiderman) Uncle Ben said, ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Twelve years later it is clear that some provinces were more ready than others to take on that responsibility.

Not all matters of education were devolved equally. The 18th Amendment draws a distinction between devolution of school and higher education. Part II (12) of the Federal Legislative List in the Fourth Schedule of the constitution still lists: “Standards in institutions for higher education and research, scientific and technical institutions” as federal matters. Keeping higher education in the Federal Legislative List allows provincial HECs to run development programmes and projects according to their own needs and priorities, while leaving the job of setting national higher education standards to the HEC at the federal level.

School education, however, was devolved to provinces more fully – and twelve years after the 18th Amendment, we should take stock of how much the federating units have lived up to the responsibilities conferred on them. Some consequences of devolution were on public display during the public debate on the development and rollout of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) over the last three years. The SNC was developed by the National Curriculum Committee (NCC) in Islamabad. Although constitutionally not obligated, Punjab adopted it immediately, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Balochistan committed to adopt it with a year’s delay while Sindh (the only province ruled by an opposition party) declined. Post-18th Amendment, the center can only coax unwilling provinces into signing on to national projects like the SNC, but it cannot twist their arm.

In terms of access, devolution has accomplished little to make public schools more accessible, make a dent in the number of out-of-school children (OOSC) or make the literacy rate budge. The percentage of OOSC (children not attending a school or madrassah) has been stagnant at around 32 percent for the last decade.

In terms of developing their own curricula and textbooks, provinces continue to look to the center, Sindh being the only notable exception. For a few years during 2008-2013, the ANP government in KP developed textbooks in five local languages. However, despite the overwhelming consensus of academic research that learning in early grades is best conducted in children’s mother tongues, the subsequent provincial government rolled back this initiative.

The bottom-line is: provinces have long demanded autonomy in running school education and the 18th Amendment granted it to them, but their twelve-year track record since then has been anything but stellar.

What to do? Should we proclaim an ‘education emergency’, as some would have us do, and go on a massive spending spree with little planning? That is what happens in emergencies. A proclamation of emergency by the president under Article 232 gives the federal government the power to make laws for provinces – effectively a rollback of the 18th Amendment’s devolution, which will be fought tooth and nail by provinces. I cannot see any committee or task force sitting in faraway Islamabad accomplishing much of anything if provinces stonewall them, no matter how talented its members may be. While I welcome attention and a sense of urgency to matters of education by the government, hurriedly declaring an emergency is the wrong approach.

There is a better approach that respects constitutional mandates in which the centre still leads, not by pressure but by example. The Inter-Provincial Education Ministers Conference (IPEMC) has proven its effectiveness during Covid closures and has spawned a similar forum for provincial education secretaries. This mechanism for cooperation could serve as a model of coordination in other devolved areas of governance. Incentives by which federal governments nudge federating units to adopt policy priorities may include additional funds for meeting certain Key Performance Indicator (KPI) targets, offering matching grants targeting shared development priorities or national recognition.

A successful example of this lead-by-example approach was the e-marking system first introduced by the Federal Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (FBISE) in Islamabad. The system reduces grading bias and inconsistencies and proved so successful that provinces are now adopting it as well. No arm twisting was needed because nothing succeeds like success.

The issue of OOSC, further exacerbated during Covid-forced closures, and the lack of remedial learning programmes for children that have fallen behind is a nationwide problem. Albeit delayed, this is now being recognised and prioritised at the federal level. It will commence with a household survey for which planning is in the works at this moment. A Request for Proposals for remedial programmes in formal and non-formal schools has already been issued. This programme will restructure and overhaul the non-formal school stream to ensure that OOSC are catered for. The MoFEPT will push out process details and communicate milestones as the remedial learning program and OOSC initiatives proceed. Civil society is invited to remain engaged to keep the government accountable and on track.

Before the federal government can issue any prescriptions to provinces, it must establish the success and sustainability of its solutions by demonstration. If it cannot address these problems at the level of the ICT, there is no sense in advocating the same or similar measure on larger provincial or nationwide scales. On the other hand, if its approach proves successful (like the e-marking programme) provinces will tailor and adopt them willingly. The MoFEPT needs to get its own house (ICT) in order before it fixes the rest of the country.

It is time to slow down, get out of fire-fighting mode and take time to do things right by piloting programmes and selecting the path forward based on evidence, while disregarding calls to proclaim an emergency to pump money into untested blanket programmes lacking all nuance.

On the flip side, the 18th Amendment has reduced the scope of responsibilities of the federal government which affords it the opportunity to focus efforts and resources on the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). The Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training (MoFEPT) should take advantage of this situation and establish the ICT as a centre of innovation in public school education in Pakistan where it develops new programmes and solutions rooted in sound, evidence-based research.

The ICT has the benefit of having a literacy rate higher than any other province, which gives it more ready access to an educated workforce to conduct research projects and interventions. It comprises urban, suburban, rural and slum areas, somewhat like a mini-Pakistan. Interventions that prove successful and (just as importantly) unsuccessful ought to be disseminated in the form of reports, white papers and scholarly publications giving provinces the option to adopt or avoid them.

As a centre of innovation in education, the MoFEPT should establish a fellowship programme to host officials from relevant provincial departments for periods of one to two years; they should be invited to either participate in projects or conduct their own studies in the ICT and, more importantly, learn sound research methods along the way. At the conclusion of their deputation these fellows should return to their home departments with expertise filtered through their experience of the ground realities in their provinces. Such a mechanism would circulate talent, good ideas and practices between provinces and the ICT.

This is a slow, incremental, and careful approach but one that can produce sustainable solutions. It is in stark contrast to the approach that champions throwing money and fancy gadgets at the problem without having an inkling of long-standing basic problems that keep students out of schools and learning poor. The acquisition of fancy gadgets (without a robust instructional model behind it) is much further down that list.

I too would love to see Pakistan, the maker of cheap socks, bedsheets, and towels, eventually become known for its expertise in technologies, but spending without thinking will not get us there. Self-anointed saviours of school education with little to no formal background in or knowledge of the realities of the school education sector are advised to do their homework first.

The writer (she/her) is the technical adviser to the MoFEPT. Views are her own.

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