Only way to reform education - Mosharraf Zaidi - Monday, March 14, 2011

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Have you ever heard anyone make an argument against education in Pakistan? Of course not. Everyone agrees education is absolutely central to the future of Pakistan. This is part of the problem of education in Pakistan. It is so easy to sweepingly endorse the need for education that it becomes nearly impossible to articulate the exact, sharp contours of what is needed to actually make education in Pakistan a reality, as a widely, equitably and meaningfully shared experience. In being all things to everyone, education in Pakistan is fast becoming nothing, to anyone.

The only way to transform the amorphous idea of improving education in Pakistan, from a slogan to a practical reality, is through politics. Mapping, navigating and negotiating politics is the singular definitive challenge in improving education outcomes in Pakistan.

In a detailed study of the election manifestoes of the five largest parties for the 2008 elections (PPP, PML-N, PML-Q, MQM and ANP), the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) finds that while all the parties make overarching commitments to universal education, they are desperately inadequate on details. Most tellingly, not a single one of the political parties talks about governance and administrative issues within the education sector – no discussion of teacher absenteeism, no discussion of training and capacity, no discussion of the need for solid data on education, and no discussion on the system’s accountability to the taxpayer and the parent.

This is the beating heart of the education problem – an unaccountable Pakistani state that pumps insufficient funds into a completely ineffective system of education.

Discussions about the role of the Pakistani state in the education sector often hinge around two kinds of analyses of Pakistan. The first is the historical view, in which nationalisation of the education sector directly led to teaching becoming the single-largest source of public-sector employment in the country.

The second is the appropriate role of non-state or private-sector actors. Since 1980, when less than one per cent of all education was being provided by the private sector, there has been a seminal shift in the delivery of education. Today, more than 33 per cent of all education is provided by the private sector. The debate about whether the private sector offers an answer to Pakistan’s education problems is no debate at all. It is already providing a substantial portion of the answer.

The concurrence of teachers becoming the overwhelmingly largest proportion of government employees and the dramatic growth of the provision of education outside government is no accident. It is a direct product of “the anti-education state.”

The anti-education state is the natural orientation of Pakistan. The Pakistani elite, both military and political, depend on the distribution of patronage to sustain, deepen and build power. To do this, they need a reservoir of patronage to begin with. This reservoir is the Pakistani state.

On any given day in Pakistan, one out of four government school teachers do not show up for work. Given the manner in which teachers are hired, and the purpose that their hiring into government serves for the Pakistani elite, however, it is clear that teacher absenteeism is not an education-sector problem. Teacher absenteeism is an accountability problem. Teachers are overwhelmingly hired as a function of politics. Why would the very politicians that got the teachers their jobs ever have an incentive to hold those teachers to account? They would not.

A change in tactics is badly needed.

In a democracy, sustainable change is the kind that is brought about through organic political processes that are based on a cumulative popular will, and the convergence of the narrow elite interests that translate into politics.

A cumulative popular will for good education outcomes already exists in Pakistan. This is evident from the massive growth of private and non-state education, and the survey results from across time and geographic horizons, that all confirm a huge demand for education. By re-framing the urgency for education reform around issues that matter to the political discourse in Pakistan-such as national security, national self-confidence, international support and economic & financial imperatives-cumulative popular will can be asserted more effectively.

To truly have a lasting impact however, the agenda for education reform, must not only change its tactics, but also be pursued within the framework of a theory of change. What is a theory of change?

A theory of change is an organised way of approaching large-scale change. We need to know where we’re going, and how we will measure the landmarks on that journey.

It is high time for the Pakistani political and military elite to come together and announce that journey. Pakistan recently achieved historic constitutional change through political consensus. A similar effort is needed to develop and implement a theory of change for education. Across all political parties, a new consensus, a long-term commitment and a clear path for how it will be pursued can be achieved through a reinvigorated Pakistan Education Task Force comprised of politicians.

Debates about the role of the federation in education can be sorted out by the Council of Common Interests. Regardless of the modalities, education is of burning national urgency. No matter what path is chosen, the provinces will drive the process forward. They must not be left do so without federal support, or without the participation of the private sector. A national crisis needs a national response. The March for Education campaign is clearly illustrating the education emergency in Pakistan. Can the Pakistani political and military elite put aside their petty differences for the sake of the nearly sixty million children between the ages of five and 16? The answer to that question will determine whether Pakistan can overcome this national emergency.

The writer is a strategist and adviser to governments and international organisations. Website: www.educationemergency.

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