The forgotten schools of Islamabad

July 04, 2022

Discussions about education often broadly categorize institutions in our local school education sector as public schools, private schools and madrassahs.In 1995, the government began a national...

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Discussions about education often broadly categorize institutions in our local school education sector as public schools, private schools (with the most expensive segment among them referred to as ‘elite schools’) and madrassahs.

In 1995, the government began a national project of supporting communities in establishing Basic Education Community Schools (BECS) to augment the limited capacity of the public and private schools (which were beginning to mushroom at that time) aimed at out-of-school-children (OOSC) aged 4-16 that lacked access to formal schools. The original idea was to gradually phase these schools out as the formal schooling system fills the supply side gap.

Almost three decades later, we see that is unlikely to ever happen. In 2021, the government devolved BECS schools across Pakistan to the respective provincial governments while the federal government remains in operational control of approximately 248 schools in the ICT.

Over the last year, I have visited over two dozen of these schools across the ICT. BECSs have very humble beginnings; many began operation out of a single room that could be spared in a house, others from a balcony space. Even today roughly 70 per cent of these schools are still operated by a single teacher from a single room used for multiple grade levels. About 17 per cent (30 schools) in the ICT have two teachers, only three per cent have three teachers, and six per cent have four, five or six teachers.

Most of these schools are run by women and the reason they exist, continue to function despite government’s negligence and have expanded over the years can be credited solely to the entrepreneurial spirit and initiative of these women. Some took out loans to add more classrooms and capacity.

One school I visited had expanded to four classrooms with a matching number of teachers after the BECS founder spent her own resources. Today the school gives a semblance of a low-fee school with separate classes by grade level and children dressed in uniforms.

Similarly, another school in the south of the city is what the BECS management team calls a community model school. It is comparable to a rural formal school. This school stood out for how well managed it was, its emphasis on etiquettes and personal hygiene, and how well children were able to answer questions about sums and multiplication, and were able to read and write reasonably well. It was also better organized in terms of following a curriculum, lesson preparation, and regular testing. According to the management team, this particular school’s children have historically outperformed peers from formal schools in grade-V exams. Since the school has been around for many years it is now being run and attended by the second generation and enjoys a high level of trust from the community it operates in.

However, while the description above may be heartening to read, it is an outlier case. Most BECSs do not have a bathroom, no drinking water access, no furniture, no electricity, no cooling in the summer and no heating in the winter. The worst of them can be reminiscent of an unhygienic chicken coop. Learning outcomes are often poor – children read and write at levels far below their peers in mainstream schools. Teachers claim that some of these children were weeded out from formal public schools which do not want to bear the consequences of lower average performance of their grade-V cohort.

A lot of BECS founders are women with varying qualification levels: 12 per cent teachers are matric, 25 per cent intermediate, 41 per cent BA and 22 per cent masters qualified. In addition, many hold professional teaching degrees such as a BEd or an Med. One founder I met is almost over qualified with a BEd/MEd now admitted to an MPhil programme at AIOU. She set up her single classroom school more than 15 years ago as her only source of income to sustain her two brothers and two sisters. She and her retired father told me very proudly how her nominal salary of Rs5,000 back then helped them put her siblings through school. With her voice breaking with emotion, she insisted she would continue to run this school even if public support dried up.

The teacher of another single-room school shared that she was not allowed to work outside her home and was allowed to start her BECS four years ago, with support and encouragement from family, when her husband lost his job. Running her BECS allowed her to work within her constraints.

Yet another woman is the primary caregiver at home. She gave up a job at a private school and preferred to start her own BECS, albeit at a lower salary, because it allowed her more flexibility to strike a home-work life balance.

BECSs receive only a fraction of the financial support from public sources as their mainstream public-school counterparts do. For example, BECS teachers used to receive a salary of Rs9,000 that was raised to Rs12,500 for 2021-22 – inclusive of monthly utilities. Instead of continuing this support, in June 2021 the government zeroed out public funds for BECSs in its PSDP – that is: the government decided not to extend the project. As of now, this situation has not changed in the 2022 budget proposal. BECS teachers were paid salaries until June 2022 through the non-development budget under the directorate of BECS while no funds have been allocated for any development activities, including provision of missing facilities, which these schools badly require.

Today, in addition to the 426 mainstream public schools under the Federal Directorate of Education (FDE), there are 248 BECSs serving areas where FDE remains unable to provide formal schools in the ever-expanding south, south-east, west, and north-west as well as slums dotting the city. Together the BECSs are serving approximately 8,000 children, while another 35,000-50,000 children in the ICT remain out of school. If the government pulls the little support, it was extending to BECSs that will put those 8,000 children out of school - children that the FDE’s mainstream schools will lack the capacity and be unwilling to admit due to its outdated admission policy.

The sphere of the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training’s (MoFEPT) responsibility with regard to school education now extends only to the ICT and federal areas. But the cherry on the cake is that ministers assigned the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training (MoFEPT) portfolio have been elected representatives from areas far away from Islamabad. Instead of nipping this much smaller and manageable problem, successive ministers have been more interested in launching national programmes and initiatives which (post-18th Amendment) clearly exceed their purview. Apparently, solving the school education problem for ICT is not ambitious enough, not a big enough success for them and does nothing for their far away constituents and, therefore, their reelection prospects. For this reason, it is my recommendation that at least the MoFEPT should be assigned to an MNA local to the twin-city area.

Officials at the MoFEPT argue that the government cannot provide funds for any kind of construction to these schools (as they are on private land) although there is enough money parked under various budget heads. This technicality from the same government department which until a few months earlier saw no “technical hurdles” riding roughshod over the HEC ordinance, not just once or twice but three times, at the whim of the chairman of a certain task force in the PM House.

All this is happening at a time when there is a glamorous 'Turnaround Pakistan' conference happening at the Islamabad Convention Center which even had a session on OOSC. All governments, past and present, have claimed to care about the cause of out-of-school children, and yet, there is no budget allocation to sustain, much less enhance, these schools. The PTI government spun and tried to sell the public a new collection of SNC textbooks as their silver bullet to end 'education apartheid' in the country. Meanwhile, the real apartheid that exists and allows, nay, requires the continued existence of BECSs was left untouched.

The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.

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