In education, it’s time to move forward

  • Both sides of the coin should be seen

Each time I write on this subject, I feel this would be my last. But a growing environment of rage and animosity and increasing inputs by others compel me to write one more time and try to make some sense of what’s going on.

Education by private schools in the country remains under constant criticism and fire. I see more and more news items, opinions and critiques on this topic. ‘Private schools in Pakistan are just money making factories..’, ‘Private school mafia ruined govt schools’, ‘Private schools play trick to get summer vacation fee’ are some of the headlines I see. The Chief Justice of Pakistan is considering taking suo motu action in this regard. With much honour and respect, I would like to present to him, as well as the nation, a broader perspective, before any decision seals this burning issue.

From primary to higher school, I studied in a private institution. My parents, a product of government schools, felt that at my time, private schools were doing much better. Throughout my college life and my work experience as a broadcast journalist, my friends and colleagues of my age, were all schooled in private institutions. Even at that time, it was a commonly accepted fact that government schools were fewer in number, with lesser facilities and poor standard. Sadly, they remained limited to the masses, the lower income households, which could only afford free education or that with minimum fees.

Today my children and those of all our family are studying in different private schools. Our generation, if not half, is one third a product of these private schools. The parents of the children, who undoubtedly are bearing the brunt of this raging discussion, are mostly private school educated. The lawyers pleading My Lord and fighting against the ‘injustices’ and ‘cunning acts’ of the privately owned institutions are graduates of the same. And today it is the very generation which is at the forefront of campaigning against them.

The issue which has turned into a seething war is the tuition fees charged by private schools. It is ‘exorbitant’, ‘outrageous’, ‘hiked’, as in the opinion of those against the institutions. It seems a major flaw was committed by our private schooling of not to include in their curriculum how the tuition fees charged is incorporated in the growth and sustenance of these schools.

Private schools are not funded by the government. They rely almost entirely on the revenue earned by tuition fees, with the exception of those who are receiving funds from some non governmental organisation or private resources dedicated to education

Private schools are not funded by the government. They rely almost entirely on the revenue earned by tuition fees, with the exception of those who are receiving funds from some non governmental organisation or private resources dedicated to education. Every private school pays ‘33 percent income tax, 17 percent General Sales Tax, three percent super tax, six percent Employees Old-Age Benefits Institution, six percent social security and heavy property commercialisation fees or commercial rents.’ This includes schools which are charging a monthly tuition fees of Rs3,000, Rs1,000 or even less.

We all decry the soaring prices of utilities and other resources in the country. Prices of petroleum products is increased quite frequently, provision of electricity and gas is unreliable which makes it necessary for households and commercial institutions to make arrangements for alternative resources. Drinking tap water is widely declared unfit for consumption. Rents of commercial property are already sky rocketing, with an uninterrupted annual increase of 10 percent every year. When we send our child to a school, that school exists only if it is able to bear all this cost.

Not our problem? Well, then definitely the facilities provided – the air conditioners, the heaters, the teachers and their continuous training process, the classrooms equipped with adequate furniture, the helping staff, the maintenance – are of our concern. The existence of science laboratories, computer labs, technology-enabled classrooms, sports fields, swimming pools, air-conditioning and/or other facilities is most of us believe, the least to be expected when a child is being sent to such an ‘expensive’ school. Do we find even a smattering of such facilities in a public school?

When we say that spending on education in Pakistan is limited, a mere 2.5 percent of the GDP, it refers to the funds allocated to public schools and higher education institutions – their infrastructure, their staff, research and innovation, curriculum and the amalgam of all these facilities freely provided to a child. When budget allocations are low, it means budget spending is even lesser. This might explain the few number of government schools, which are not as much in sight than the private ones, with not enough classrooms and furniture inside and the ones present dilapidated just like the building, present students and absent teachers.

If private schools are skinning us alive, why don’t we send our children to public schools? The most voracious campaigners against private institutions might also shudder at the thought of this. Visions of broken chairs, not functioning ceiling fans due to load shedding, a teacher yelling at over 20 students crammed in a classroom and an outdated curriculum may emerge and the reaction might be, no way!

If the standard of the public schools is not up to the mark, if the state has failed to provide the constitutional right to its children resulting in more than 20 million in the country not going to school, if their numbers have not grown, who is to blame – the state or private schools?

Today, private schools educate more than 50 percent of school-going children in Pakistan, and nearly 60 percent only in Punjab. As of 2015, there were an estimated 170,000 private schools all over Pakistan, of which nearly 100,000 were in the Punjab, 30,000 in Sind, 25,000 in KPK, 5,000 in Baluchistan, 2,500 in Islamabad and over 9,000 in Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and others parts of Pakistan.

An estimated 1.5 million teachers work at private schools, the majority of whom are women. It is pertinent to mention that private schools are the largest employers of professional women in the private sector in Pakistan and pay them competitive salaries. This cadre of women needs to work to supplement their household income and will not work for low salaries; most will choose to stay home or enter other professions. Most private schools also offer free or subsidized education to the children of teachers.

Have the private schools forced us to send our children there? If the tuition fees of the school in which my child goes is not affordable, I have a choice to send him to another private institution which may be charging lesser fee in exchange of undoubtedly lesser quality. But what choice and comparison can I make in state run schools?

Private schools do require monitoring and using a moderate approach, but cannot be manhandled simply due to the fact that they belong to the private enterprise. A winning combination of improved public schools and quality conscious private schools could shift the wayward future of education in Pakistan towards progress. Many non governmental organisations are active in the field and could contribute to both sectors, creating a trio. All eyes and hopes are now pinned on the apex court, which is seen as the reliever to all problems and is surely expected to make a wise and mutually acceptable decision in this matter.

The generation before us, especially at the time of creation of Pakistan, was mostly educated at state-run schools. At a time when it would have been taken for granted that the quality of such schools may suffer due to teething problems, the generation grew up to highly educated and qualified scholars, scientists, statesmen, journalists, artists and politicians. The generation after, influenced slowly by a growing role of private sector, did reasonably well too. If issues in the education sector persist the way they are even after seven decades of independence, what future generation can we expect and what role do we foresee them playing? If such is the state of affairs in education in the country – an ugly tussle between the state and the private sector – do we expect an ability in the next generation to be able to express prolifically on any issue, in both Urdu and English?

If we are unable to give a satisfactory answer and fear a doom, it means the time has come to act and move forward!