Innovate to educate - Shahid Kardar - Saturday, March 19, 2011

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When I was asked by the government of Punjab to take over as chairman of a restructured Punjab Education Foundation in 2005, with the country’s education system in such dire straits, it was hard to conceive of how a foundation like PEF could make a contribution.

Today nearly 850,000 children are going to schools financed and overseen by PEF. That is more than the entire enrolment of the primary and lower-secondary system of the small country of Switzerland. PEF’s costs are remarkably low: only Rs350 per student.

There are two concurrent challenges that policymakers face in trying to solve the education riddle.

The first is simply that the demand for education is high. The incontrovertible evidence of this demand is in the growth of private-sector schools in Pakistan. In some areas private schools are inexpensive, where average monthly fees, back then, were as low as Rs100. The dramatic rise in low-cost private schools is a massive indictment by Pakistani parents of the public-sector system for delivery of schooling.

Why are Pakistani parents rejecting the public-sector school system? This is a supply problem, the second challenge to the education sector. Simply put, more and more parents are choosing private-sector schools because of the problem of an unaccountable public-sector delivery system. Thousands of teachers at government schools just don’t show up to work. Worst yet, the ones that do aren’t held to any standards of quality of teaching. This accountability problem is a supply-side problem. The solution does not lie in simply raising the salaries of service providers-the teachers.

When I became PEF’s chairman in 2005, in which position I stayed until 2008, we set a clear goal. We wanted to see whether we could meet parents’ demand for education without their having to compromise on the quality of its supply. In other words, we wanted to separate the government’s responsibility for financing education from its involvement in the provision of education services by establishing and running effective schools. The success of the PEF model proves that this is possible. The question is how it became possible.

I strongly believe that the PEF model works because it is based on accountability. It is this accountability underwrites PEF, and enables its people, its systems and its leadership to deliver.

To ensure accountability we had to be unwavering. We decided that the board of directors would be totally independent from political interference and from PEF’s management. Its members have complete autonomy. Political leaders have no influence over how the foundation works. Management is undertaken by professionals hired for their ability to deliver results.

The real victory, however, was at the operational level. We tried to ingrain accountability in PEF through a set of incentives and disincentives. First, we made sure there was a minimum baseline for learning outcomes. We asked eligible schools to demonstrate quality, by requiring two-thirds of all students to score at least 40 per cent marks in a special Quality Assurance Test (QAT) in maths, English and science. Second, we incentivised teachers by offering a Rs10,000 bonus to the five best teachers in a district. The means of determining who is best is simple: the performance of students in QAT and continued financial support to the school was contingent upon the performance of students in the exam. Finally, we incentivised the management by offering a Rs50,000 bonus to the best school in the area, again based on students’ achievement in QAT.

Being able to base a system on numbers, rather than relationships, patronage or edicts of the powerful, was possible only because we had good, robust systems, and sound leadership. PEF has documented processes for every aspects of its operation, and these are continually refined and improved. Our data is sacrosanct: without it the project is unsustainable, and we set great store by its purity. Collection of data is scrupulously impartial. Accounts are audited twice over by the auditor general of Pakistan and also by private and independent auditors. During our assessments of schools, teachers do not know which class will be evaluated, and marking of Quality Assessment Tests is carried out not by PEF staff or our inspectors but by professors of Government College and Punjab University.

The systems we have are strong and robust, not only because of their inherent strength but also because they are perceived positively. Since we know our data are honestly gathered, we are happy to make it public, thereby increasing public confidence in everything we do. Our annual report is placed before the provincial legislature, our rankings of schools are displayed on district notice boards, and PEF now has a regularly-updated interactive website for stakeholders and the community, including an online complaints facility.

The leadership we had right at the top was crucial. The inescapable reality is that good managers or executives in the public sector have zero potential for success unless they have the confidence of leadership, including a real autonomy in what they do, and how they do it. The chief minister at the time, Chaudhry Parwaiz Elahi, gave me a free hand to achieve results. Not once was I asked to do anything other than deliver the outcomes that PEF was committed to. One incident is particularly telling. During the launching phase in a district that was politically important for him, I had feared the chief minister may ask me to provide some extra schools. What the chief minister did shocked me. He sought me out and said: “Whatever you do, don’t give this district any special treatment. I don’t want anything to impinge on your reputation.” That kind of freedom and autonomy tends to be unheard-of in the public sector, and not every manager is blessed with it. I was lucky that such support was available not only at the political level but also at the administrative and bureaucratic level. The chief secretary of Punjab at the time, Salman Siddique, and the chairman of the Planning and Development Board, Suleman Ghani, were also incredibly supportive, and their support was instrumental. I never had to deal with interference, nepotism or patronage at PEF – a curse that derails so many other executives in the public sector. This leadership and its enabling role in allowing the PEF to function as purely an instrument of service delivery, rather than patronage, was fundamental to the success of the efforts.

As PEF continues to build on its successes, perhaps the most important lesson is the simplest of all. Pakistan is not incapable of change, and government financing does not necessarily mean government delivery. Innovation and flexibility can help achieve amazing things. That’s the most important lesson I’d want the March for Education campaign to convey. That we can do it.

The writer is the governor of the State Bank of Pakistan. A detailed paper by him on innovation for education reform will be available at

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