Wednesday July 06, 2022

Dealing with disparities

December 12, 2018

Pakistan has the second largest number of out-of-school children in the world. Despite efforts to finance the country’s education sector, little improvement has been witnessed.

Approximately 22 million children are out of school and no significant improvement in enrolment has been seen in the last five years. To address this complexity, investments made by international financial institutions such as the World Bank were aimed at bringing horizontal and vertical change by establishing education foundations, such as the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) and the Sindh Education Foundation (SEF).

The World Bank is one of the largest external funders of education in developing countries. In Punjab’s case, the World Bank has invested around $1.7 billion over the last 10 years in the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) to bring children back to school and offer education with the core vision of “better quality education through the private sector to low income households”.

The PEF claims that it currently sponsors 8,700 private schools, which cater to 2.4 million students through its four programmes. However, a recent study by Oxfam shows that there is little growth in enrolment, equity, quality and access to education even though a significant amount of investment has been made. Investment in the PEF by the World Bank show various lacunas at the levels of policy, implementation, compliance, equity and access to quality education, raising questions about the sustainability of the programme.

Some of the areas which require immediate attention include the governance of the PEF, which operates as an independent governing body. The School Education Department (SED) has a massive setup at the provincial level to train teachers and monitor schools while the PEF operates outside this structure. Similarly, PEF-sponsored schools aren’t accessible to students from low-income backgrounds since tough admission tests for these schools aren’t designed for children with little or no exposure to early education. Due to an incentive-based approach, which isn’t sustainable, children from poor or low-income families transfer from public schools to nearby PEF-sponsored, low-fee private schools. This leads to low retention and enrolment rates at public schools.

Oxfam’s study reveals that the quality of education in PEF-sponsored schools is low, with most teachers receiving low salaries – sometimes even below the minimum wage. In addition, little investment is made in training teachers. PEF-sponsored schools are also exacerbating gender disparities, with few girls enrolling in co-ed schools.

The study also finds that the public education system is relatively more responsive than the PEF programme. School councils at public-sector schools ensure a degree of social accountability while no such mechanism has been established for PEF-sponsored schools even though public funds are being spent on the programme.

There is a need to bring improvements in the PEF programme to ensure inclusiveness, accountability, accessibility and the quality of education. Some of the steps that may be taken include merging the PEF with the SED to ensure accountability and minimise overlaps in mandates. This would also ensure a uniform framework to measure learning achievements at the district level.

Accessibility can also be improved by creating more realistic admission tests, which allow students with limited exposure to early education to enrol. It is also evident that PEF schools aren’t paying attention to gender disparities. To address this issue, a gender unit may be established that provides technical assistance to the PEF to improve gender responsiveness within planning and budgeting.

World Bank investments must nurture human development and provide quality education. However, it has been observed that tests at these schools encourage students to rote-learn. Moreover, allocations need to be enhanced on teacher training to improve the quality of teaching. It is essential to incorporate the voice of citizens to bring more accountability and transparency in financing PEF-supported schools. This will promote social accountability and help school administrations gain the trust of citizens and offer better services.

The writer leads the Financing for Gender Justice project at Oxfam in Pakistan.