Looks promising to me - Adiah Afraz - Sunday, March 06, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=34690&Cat=9

Our problem is that we can’t give credit where credit is due. For instance if I want to say that what Mian Shahbaz Sharif is doing for the cause of education looks promising to me, then I have to be prepared to take the brunt of holding these views by the pseudo intellectuals and intellectuals alike.

One is not supposed to praise the government, says the unsaid rule, and if one does indeed praise the government then the logical conclusion is that one is definitely on the government’s secret payroll.

So at the risk of being labeled the Punjab government’s lackey, I must reiterate that what Mian Shahbaz Sharif is doing for the cause of education, looks promising to me.

The launch of Danish schools in the remote areas of Southern Punjab is a case in point. Nicknamed Poor Man’s Aitchison these schools boast of the latest state of the art facilities and infrastructure that presents an estimated cost of a little above 20 million a year.

This includes free education, boarding, day-to-day educational expenses of the student body, availability of free text books, and technology-based learning in classrooms. The whole idea of initiating these schools revolves around taking in children from destitute families with no hope of ever getting an education, and putting them through a high quality academic programme that prepares them to compete with the students of any elitist English medium school in the country. This project is ambitious and aims to launch 30 schools within a span of three years.

And of course when there is talk of mega projects involving mega investments, especially in present day times of mega price hikes, then there is bound to be mega criticism of sorts as well.

The most pertinent question to ask about this project should be about the expenses it entails, and the problems it presents in terms of sustainability. Some feel that the same amount of money should have been spent on strengthening the existing public school structure in the province, others argue that selecting, training and retaining qualified teaching staff with special proficiency in technology-based teaching and a general willingness to adjust in the remote areas, might prove to be a difficult task. Another widely held view, again pertaining to the finances, points out how it would be difficult to maintain the expenses of these schools over the years to come, once the initial hype surrounding the schools dies down, funds dwindle, donors back out, and in short, real life begins.

One opinion that is voiced repeatedly and by a fair majority of commentators, is how it would be difficult to assimilate back in the society the students of these schools, once they pass out of the idyllic and isolated support system that feeds them, clothes them and educates them without wanting anything in return. How will these students adjust in the real world? How will they find their way through higher education, and how will they compete in the job market? Will there be enough jobs for them? Will they be able to find a place in their original social strata? How will they achieve social mobility once they are on their own without the support of their protected world?

All these points are valid, and when I think about them I recall the image of a 15-year-old selling rose buds in a crowded market place. The boy wears his school uniform, addresses customers as Sir or Madam, and sells his flowers using perfect English with references to his homework schedule and work ethic. “I have an education”, says the memory of that boy to me “but I don’t quite know how to sell it,” it laments.

Yet all these concerns can be addressed either theoretically or rhetorically. And the reality is that the project has already been initiated, buildings constructed and schools inaugurated. So let’s wait for the system to take root and for a few academic years to run their course, before we take to the criticism route.

The question that we really need to ask ourselves at this point is whether the whole idea at least seems like a beginning in some sort of a direction.

True that Danish schools can potentially give immense political mileage to the Chief Minister, true that the inauguration ceremonies make for great publicity and some newsworthy photo ops for him, true that in recent weeks they have given the Chief Minister plenty of raw material for public speaking. But is it also true that this public speaking is not empty public speaking alone? That the schools are beautiful, the cause noble, and if successful, the project has potential for expansion and replication.

What gives me hope for the success of this particular initiative is the success of some of the Chief Minister’s strategies already visible in the public schools of Lahore.

His recent surprise visit to a school location in the suburbs of Lahore, and the consequent dismissal of a high official on charges of negligence in providing a school building to students have led to an overhaul in the system of evaluation and monitoring at the district level.

The new EDO has started sending mobile monitoring teams out in the field with the purpose of on the spot trouble shooting of issues. The focus is also on spending unused school funds for the betterment of the schools before the new term begins in April.

Last week, I was surprised to enter a middle school, termed as ‘the most difficult school’ by most colleagues, and to see it in a state of complete transformation. The school gate that was almost always without a gatekeeper was manned by a staff of two, the empty room on the first floor that was perpetually occupied by private residents, had been vacated to make space for a much needed library, the central corridor wall which was mostly used for hate campaigns against infidels and NGOs alike, had been painted with murals depicting twinkling stars and thirsty crows, the half partition between two classrooms that made it impossible for teachers to teach each class in privacy had been built up to the roof, the students who normally ran wild in the corridors or screamed nonstop in their respective classes were settled and considerably quiet, the teachers who most often congregated in the hall ways at all times during the day, were actually teaching in their classes, and the head teacher whom one could never find in the school building, was not only in her seat, but was engrossed in ledgers and records in consultation with the visiting monitoring official.

All this was in sharp contrast to the times when the monitoring official would simply have tea in the office and would write an all’s well report without as much as taking a peek at the school.

In a school that took years to earn itself the reputation of being the most difficult school, all these changes within a week point out to just one thing: that the state of public schools and its improvement are issues different from inauguration of high profile free schools in remote areas. If the existing funds in these schools are properly utilised, if real education is prioritised in the use of these funds, and if there is an atmosphere of cooperation by the government officials towards donors, philanthropists and NGOs working for the betterment of these schools, then both the systems can run parallel to each other and with success.

And at the risk of being considered a lackey of the Punjab government I must say that let’s wait and see about those Danish schools. Because what Mian Shahbaz Sharif is doing for the cause of education, looks promising to me.

The writer teaches writing at a university and works for an educational NGO.

The writer is an academic.

Email: adiahafraz@gmail.com

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