Education reform in Pakistan - Michael Barber - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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Imagine Pakistan in the mid-21st century. Currently, it has 180 million people; by then it will have 340 million and, unlike India and China, its population will still be rising. It will be a young country while the rest of the world ages.

In one future, the opportunity this offers will be seized. It is possible to imagine Pakistan as an economic powerhouse, helping to fuel sustainable, global economic growth. Of course, there is another future for Pakistan in which the size and youth of its population become a burden rather than an asset. This second future would be devastating for Pakistan and deeply problematic for the global community.

What will determine which of these futures will unfold for Pakistan? A number of factors will play a part, including regional and global geopolitics, but what has struck me forcibly in conversations I have had with Pakistani business, community and political leaders over the last year is that, with one voice, they say the single most important factor will be education.

At present, Pakistan doesn’t have a good education system. Indeed, we must admit that the current education system is very poor.

However as poor Pakistan’s education system may be now, it would be perfectly possible to successfully transform it over a generation. The fatalism that grips too many of Pakistan’s leaders when they consider the education system, needs to be swept away. Recent history provides a number of success stories around the world; stories of invigorated education systems where sustained reform has liberated and empowered millions of people and transformed economies.

Research my colleagues and I have done explores the experience of school systems that embarked on their reform journey from a variety of different starting points. For Pakistan, most relevant is the experience of those systems in our sample that have successfully moved from poor to at least fair performance. From our analysis, three lessons can be drawn.

First, when the quality of education is very low, sharply defined programmes are needed to support students in achieving basic standards of literacy and numeracy.

Second, reforms must be sustained over time, with standards only improving if a critical mass of intervention is applied across the system, and with consistency, rigour, and discipline.

And third, the reform process must itself be ignited, whether in the wake of a crisis, or after a high-profile report exposes how serious failures are, or when an energetic and visionary leader takes personal responsibility for delivering change.

The results from a determined programme of reforms are remarkable. Minas Gerais, Brazil’s third largest state, has half a million children in primary school. In 2006, an assessment found that fewer than half of eight year olds had reached the recommended standard for reading. The governor set a goal for improving this to 90 percent in just four years, with this target translated into school-level targets which were widely communicated to the public. Teachers were provided with lesson plans and workbooks for all their students, and offered sizeable bonuses if their school met its target. 73 percent of children met the reading standard in 2008 and 86 percent by 2010. In just four years, Minas Gerais achieved the best student outcomes of all Brazilian states.

Madhya Pradesh also took a regimented approach when the state’s chief minister launched its ‘Learn to Read’ programme in 2005 after it discovered that literacy standards in its schools were very low. It rolled out a standardised teaching model across its systems of 138,500 schools, while mandating that the 17 million students in those schools should spend two hours a day on literacy. Again, the results were impressive, with the proportion of 11 year-olds who could read a story increasing from 86 percent to 95 percent.

Ghana provides another example of a country that began its reform journey by attempting to drive standards up to a minimum level. It also made rapid strides in increasing access. In 2004/05, only 59 percent of children went to primary school, a similar level of enrolment to that seen in Pakistan today. By 2008/09, 89 percent children were in school, while almost all children had textbooks, student health had improved, and free meals were given to poorer students.

So we can say with certainty that rapid progress is possible, even in a dysfunctional education system like Pakistan’s. But what begins the process of reform?

Our research suggests that countries that have ignited reforms, and implemented them faithfully over time, rely on at least one of three events to get them started. A political or economic crisis may force a rethink, as governments scramble to carve a new path to a prosperous and secure future. A ground-breaking report can bring home the seriousness of a country’s educational challenges, shaking the status quo and leaving the government with ‘nowhere to hide’. Or an energetic and visionary leader can take upon him or herself the duty of driving reform. Of all these factors, leadership, whether political (president, prime minister, chief minister) or strategic (minister or secretary of education), is by far the most important.

Now is the time for leadership to overcome its fear of failure. The Pakistan Education Task Force has worked hard to create the energy needed for the March for Education campaign.

Leaders need to suspend disbelief, to have the courage to start. They need to take lessons from around the world and apply them systematically. They will work. In 2010, we saw the first steps in the right direction; in 2011 we will see real progress on the ground. People will begin to believe success is possible in Pakistan too.

The writer is co-chair of the Pakistan Education Task Force. Previously, he served British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government as his Chief Adviser for Delivery. Website:

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