I was recently invited to a forum hosted by a ‘prominent’ political party (no obvious hints like ‘rapidly emerging’ or ‘well-established’) to participate in a debate on the future education policy of Pakistan.  My colleague and I were the token representatives of the private education sector at this gathering.  The meeting chairman, a distinguished gentleman with far more to his repertoire than just politics, opened with the following words: “We want one education system for all!”  Then, looking at me, he quickly added, “I know what you’re thinking… ‘one education system’ doesn’t mean that we’re going to pull down the private sector! – that’s what you private school guys all think –  no, no, we are very clear that we need to push up the public sector!”  Having made this political statement, he proceeded to lay out a range of proposals (albeit, to be fair, they were just proposals) that, if ratified, would mean precisely that this new ‘level playing field’ would be created by leveling the private schools.

Indeed, the suggestion that the very existence of private schools creates an uneven playing field, one in which children schooled in the public education system are deprived of equal opportunities, has become the narrative in certain sections of civil (and not-so-civil) society.  In simple words, this is what these people say:

1)    Public schools have failed.

2)    Private schools have succeeded.

3)    Therefore, children in government schools are deprived of quality education.

4)    Since the above is true, we are creating two classes of Pakistani citizens.

5)    This ‘class divide’ is the fault of private schools.  (Restated: If they too had failed, we would have one mediocre class of citizens.)

Okay, so I may have over-simplified the argument a bit, but basically that’s what it boils down to.  It’s what I hear from all my media friends (and foes – I just added one to the list yesterday) as well as politicians, bureaucrats, policymakers, and others.  But do you know where all these people – bar none – send their own children or grandchildren to school?  No prizes for guessing.  What these people are essentially saying is this: “all children must go to government schools (except ours, of course!)”

(Why are hypocrisy and double standards so deeply ingrained in our society?  I think that requires a blog post of its own so let’s forget it for now!)

Let’s look at some interesting numbers here:

1)    Approximately 45% of children in the Punjab alone attend private schools.  These are not all “elite” private schools, as the media has labeled schools like Beaconhouse.  The vast majority of these schools charge between Rs100 and Rs500 a month and function out of one or two rooms.  Yet parents prefer to send their children to these schools rather than free government schools.  Why?

2)    Contrary to popular perception, government teachers are paid quite well! Their salaries are not much lower than those of newly appointed teachers at Beaconhouse – and about THREE times higher than the salaries of teachers at low-cost private schools (according to the ‘Education Emergency 2011’ report).

3)    If low-cost private schools can succeed with a much lower ‘per-student’ budget, then why can’t public schools?

Perhaps the best answer to the above questions can be found in a different context:  Beaconhouse has now been around for almost 37 years.  What would have happened if we had changed our complete management and strategic direction 10 times during this period? Would Beaconhouse have been the successful organization that it is today?

Sadly, that is precisely what the government has done.  It is a fact that, between 1947 and 2012, we have had 10 different national education policies.  This means that our direction has changed 10 times because every new government has come in with a different vision, often arresting all previous initiatives – good and bad. (We won’t even talk of the fundamental change that the 18th amendment has brought.)

The net outcome of the above is that public schools have been poorly managed.  Meanwhile, the private sector has risen to the occasion and filled the void created by this series of disasters.

The scary question is, what if there HAD been no private sector schools?

The reality is that anything ‘good’ creates a perceived level of deprivation for those who do not have it.  The Internet has created the ‘digital divide’ because many in the third world do not have access to it; clean drinking water has probably created the ‘water divide’ because a large part of the world’s population does not have access to it; finally, one could even argue that the availability of food has created the ‘nutrition divide’ as we can see in parts of Africa and, sadly, closer to home.

So how do we tackle these great divides?  Do we drag down those with clean drinking water and education and therefore create a uniformly miserable population?  (Sure, that’s one way of creating ‘equal opportunities’…) Or do we actively and aggressively address the situation on the other side of the divide and try to understand WHY we don’t have food in parts of Africa or why our public education system has failed?

So, going back to my meeting earlier this week, here is how it ended.  After the distinguished gentleman had finished explaining how his party would ensure that all schools, public and private, would be forced to follow the same system of education, I all but said to him: I hope your party never comes into power.


Next time: Challenges for a Common National Curriculum

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