Education, Development, and Change
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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Learning from History

Learning from History
Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Dawn 6 December, 2010
EDUCATION is considered a powerful tool for development, freedom and social justice. It is supposed to reduce social injustices and economic disparities in any society.
In Pakistan, however, we find that socio-economic disparity is not only perpetuated but actually increased by stratification in educational institutions. With a popular demand for fluency in spoken English, the affluent families of the country opted for elite English-medium schools. Most of these were so expensive that lower-middle and working-class parents could not even think of sending their children there. This despite the fact that two decades ago, the educational divide was not as sharp as it is today.
Besides the private-public divide a number of other stratifications can be seen to have been created by the state. One of these is constituted by the cadet colleges. Then in the 1960s, the notion of comprehensive schools, which was quite popular in the UK, caught the attention of policymakers in Pakistan. During the Ayub era the state announced the establishment of many such schools, the idea being to offer a diverse and holistic education.
Later, as an attempt to reform school education, pilot schools were established as centres of excellence. These schools were well-equipped in terms of physical resources and were expected to act as role models for mainstream schools. Besides comprehensive and pilot schools, we inherited from the colonial era the stream of mode schools.
All these initiatives were undertaken with great enthusiasm, commitment and financial investment. They showed exemplary performance in the beginning but with the passage of time came down to the level of ordinary schools as far as the quality of education disseminated was concerned.
It is important to examine the reasons behind the fate of such expensive initiatives. The primary reason is that none of these initiatives were home-grown. They were ideas that came through foreign consultants, with foreign funding and did not appreciate local needs.
The second reason was the lack of consistency of political will. The initial excitement at the top level soon died down and schools were left to their own devices in terms of resources. Then, there was the lack of governance. Interference on part of the bureaucracy did not help. Schools, too, failed to evolve according to changing times and for various reasons did not turn into learning organisations.
There was also an increasing tendency to compromise on merit in terms of the admission of students and the hiring of faculty members. To compound matters further, there was a lack of competitive salary structures in comparison to private schools. The list of reasons could be even longer. The ultimate outcome, however, was that these so-called public schools worked only on paper; in reality, with the passage of time, they became very ordinary.
Revisiting the issue is necessary since we are going to have yet another such initiative in Punjab. The chief minister of the province, known to be a man of action, has announced the establishment of a new chain of schools called the Danish schools. The professed intention is to provide quality education to the children of the disadvantaged.
There are, however, some points to ponder. Will this constitute an effective step to improve education or prove to be yet another stratification? It depends on the vision, management, educational leadership, monitoring and accountability of the project. Some suggestions can be made, however, with a view to improving the chances of success.
These schools are being given huge areas for buildings and grounds. This would necessitate great resources for maintenance and security. Curiously, though, the proposed number of students for each school is 110. Keeping in view the large space available, the student strength should be increased.
This takes us to the related point of categories for students` eligibility. The existing categories are narrow and need to be revisited in order to embrace a larger proportion of disadvantaged groups. Then, a hostel is being considered mandatory. This condition also needs further thought since in a number of disadvantaged families, the children take active part in domestic chores and help their parents in their free time.
Besides physical infrastructure, more attention should be paid to academic excellence. There is a need to have nationally renowned educationists in the core group of school authority besides politicians and bureaucrats. The school chain needs to follow the national curriculum. The admission of students and the hiring of faculty should be strictly on the basis of merit.
Another reason behind the failure of previous initiatives was their inability to sustain quality. There is a need for academic audits of these schools on a regular basis. This audit should be conducted by a non-governmental academic committee comprising the country`s renowned educationists.
One of the major reasons behind the failure of previous educational reform initiatives was the extra interference of the state through the bureaucracy. That mistake must not be repeated with the Danish schools. Instead of being controlled by district coordination officers, the schools should be managed by the educational leadership. Such pedagogic leadership can turn them into learning organisations which can ultimately create the intended ripple effect in public-sector schools.
The writer is a professor & director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics, and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

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