Adoption is an option

Adoption is an option

The participants of the national conference on education, held immediately after independence in November 1947, thought of Pakistan as a modern, enlightened, and democratic Islamic state. They regarded free and compulsory education essential for the security and wellbeing of Pakistan.

They resolved to introduce free and compulsory primary education for a period of 5 years to be gradually raised to 8 years. However, they also realised that the government would be unable to finance this undertaking. They recommended to the government to levy a special education tax to raise the finances needed to finance education expansion.

Needless to say, this recommendation to fund education through special taxes was not accepted, and the public spending on education remained considerably short of the desired levels. Four years later in the second national conference called in to take stock of the state of education in 1951, the then federal minister for education, Fazlur Rahman, reiterated the financial impediments in the way of universalisation of education. He re-emphasised the need for an education tax. But he also called for collaboration and help from private individuals and organisations. Perhaps, he had already realised that a recommendation to raise funds for education through taxation was not a viable option.

Private sector must come forward to provide "free land, buildings and equipment." What if the private sector did respond to his call? If the private sector did not make the much-needed contribution, said Rahman, "the execution of the programmes of free, compulsory primary education which would have been and are being adopted by the provinces will be retarded." Boy, was he right?

Read what Rahman said in 1951, and you will not fail to notice its relevance in the context of today’s Pakistan. The requirements for free and compulsory education embodied in Article 25 A, which was inserted in Pakistan’s constitution after its 18th Amendment, are hardly different from the calls for the same made earlier. Making free and compulsory education a statutory obligation has not resulted in any fundamental change in the state of education.

Expanding public private partnerships that uphold the ideal of education as a public good is a far better policy option than supporting the expansion of for-profit private schools.

Many think that once the provinces were able to make appropriate laws, that they will be able to take concrete steps to provide free and compulsory education in accordance with the spirit of Article 25 A. Sindh has already taken the lead in passing the right to free and compulsory education bill. Accordingly the government of Sindh is bound to provide free and compulsory education within a period of two years. As such, we should expect the province to have improved its education service delivery over the past year.

However, the state of public education in Sindh continues to be dismal. With reportedly over 6000 ghost schools in the province, the legislation can hardly be said to have produced the intended effect. Also, as the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2013 finds, Sindh scored least in children attendance in the schools on the day of the visit. Sindh has neither been able to muster enough resources nor able to make the existing resources work to improve the schools. I have used Sindh’s example only to highlight the failure of the state to ensure free and compulsory education, even after 25 A and necessary legislation.

Let me now draw your attention again to the calls for private sector participation made by Rahman in 1951. His was not an invitation to set up private schools, whether low or high cost. Rather, as mentioned above, he asked the private sector to collaborate with the state in the provision of free and compulsory education. It wasn’t an invitation to make a profit but to make a voluntary contribution for the common good after making profits elsewhere. It was about giving back to the society. Such a public private partnership (PPP) was meant to ensure that education remained free at the point of service.

I do not have any information to suggest if any concrete steps were taken after the national education conference in 1951 to implement this suggestion. But none of the education policies developed after 1951 and until the end of the last century appear to have made a similar suggestion.

The references to private sector participation have mostly been about either nationalising the existing private school -- as in the case of the national education policy of 1972 -- or facilitating the growth of private sector schools as in the 1979 and 1992 education policy documents. It is only in the last decade and a half or so that the idea of PPP has come into its own through an emergent philanthropic streak among Pakistan’s business leaders.

PPPs assumed many forms in the last decade or so, but I am mainly concerned with the initiatives that involve the adoption of public schools by private sector organisations. What is so promising about these PPPs?

PPPs have the potential to bring the better elements of both public and private sectors. The participation of public sector ensures that education is delivered in accordance with the constitutional requirements, i.e. it is free at the point of service. The participation of private sector brings in precisely what was missing and coming in the way of quality. What were these missing elements? It might be that private organisations contribute more efficient management practices. But more importantly, it is the mere presence of an adopting organisation with high stakes in the success of the adopted school, which makes all the difference. It is much like the stakes that responsible adopting parents would have in the success of their adopted child.

Albert Hirschman, an American economist, has argued that private organisations respond to the threat of exit by their client by improving their services and public organisations improve in response to the voice. This makes sense as a private school can go out of business if it looses its clientele. Since a public school would have no such fear it would be more responsive to an influential voice for its improvement.

There is plenty of evidence in support of these suggestions. This simple theory immediately helps us see why our public schools so persistently resist the efforts aimed at their improvement. Since they largely cater to the education of children from extremely poor segments of our society, they cannot be expected to have any influential political voice to hold them to high standards of performance.

Any public school that has this element of voice also appears to be doing well, at least in the eyes of the parents and community. Such public schools, including the district and divisional public schools, the cantonment public schools, some public model schools, and highly subsidised cadet schools are examples of schools with voice. These schools are looked after well by the influential parents who have a stake in good education of their children.

It makes sense to assume that public schools will improve if people with voice and a stake in their performance are involved in their affairs. But we also know that people with voice do not, and cannot be expected to, have a stake in the run of the mill public schools. It is largely because their children are educated either in private schools or good public schools of the types mentioned above.

So the solution to the vexing problem of education reforms does not merely involve providing the schools with more facilities, training their teachers, and other such interventions. It must involve developing a mechanism to inject voice where there is none. I believe PPPs that involves the adoption of public schools by a private organisation provide, among other things, this missing element of voice.

There are several philanthropic and business entities in Pakistan, which are adopting schools. The scale of such school adoption is not too large. But the available anecdotal evidence shows nearly all adopted schools have shown signs of rejuvenation.

What Fazlur Rahman urged the Pakistanis to do is just as relevant today as it was in 1951. His suggestions were not about indirectly supporting the for profit private schools through vouchers. His suggestions preserved the free and compulsory nature of public education by keeping the public schools as sites of delivering education as a public good, but creating space for the private sector organisations to partner with the government.

We know this works. We do not yet know how to upscale such partnerships. Expanding public private partnerships that uphold the ideal of education as a public good is a far better policy option than supporting the expansion of for-profit private schools.

Adoption is an option