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Are we undoing education reforms in Punjab?

Daily Times(PK) logo Daily Times(PK) 20/02/2019 Daily Times(PK) (via HT Media Ltd.)
© Provided by Daily Times(PK) (via HT Media Ltd.)

Pakistan, Feb. 20 -- Punjab's education minister recently announced an extensive education sector reforms package - The New Deal 2023. While the overall package covers a number of well-needed interventions, there is one area that needs some serious reconsideration - the proposed teachers' rationalization policy to address shortage of teachers in certain high-enrollment schools. The policy would effectively mean doing away with the requirement of having a minimum of 4 teachers in every school and taking away teachers from low-enrollment schools and placing them at high-enrollment schools. While the overall student teacher ratio in Punjab, which currently stands at 30, might not change, the availability of teachers in schools with more students will definitely improve through this measure. But the same policy is also likely to have some serious adverse consequences for the schools with low enrollments. In order to better understand this issue, we need to dig a bit deeper, realize that student-teacher ratio alone can be a misleading indicator and finally choose between the ultimate trade-off between having a dedicated teacher for every class versus better teacher accessibility.

A primary school has six classes (including Katchi class) and for a good education system to deliver on learning, each classroom ideally needs at least one teacher. For those of us, who have been schooled at private sector educational institutes, this is an obvious fact but not for those who have been part of public sector schooling especially in rural areas. One teacher for every class in fact has been a rarity and luxury of sorts. For more than 65 years, Punjab's primary schools have functioned with bare minimum of two rooms and two teachers. The phenomenon, known as multi-grade teaching, has been prevalent in at least 68 percent of the primary schools in Punjab.

Multigrade teaching itself is not necessarily bad and may even have some advantages. In fact it is also prevalent in other developing countries, where it is used for better learning experience of the students. But it can only work with suitable customized techniques and curricula and appropriate training of teachers in multi-grade teaching skills. But it can also have seriously adverse implications on students' learning outcomes, if adopted without these necessary conditions.

In Punjab, as well as in the whole of the country, multi-grade teaching has been adopted more as a compromised policy choice due to lack of teachers and has been adopted with techniques developed and teachers trained for single-grade teaching. This has been a key factor, along a range of other impediments, contributing toward poor learning outcomes in students.

Only one in three children in Pakistan can read a sentence when they finish class three. Even at class five level, the ASER Report (2016) suggested that in Punjab 35 percent children cannot read a simple story written in Urdu, 40 percent cannot do 2-digit division and 43 percent cannot read a simple sentence in English. However, class five is still too late. If children do not master literacy by that age, later they fail to follow complex conceptual topics and over time either drop out or stay in the system with an extremely weak educational attainment. That in turn limits their life chances and impacts their entire life, not allowing them often to have a decent job and break the cycle of poverty.

This however changed in 2014-15, when the Government of Punjab approved the policy of having a minimum of four teachers in every primary school and inclusion of 100,000 fresh teachers, mostly university graduates, on merit. This measure alone had a major impact on raising the learning level of students, as manifested in monthly tests conducted by the Education Department and validated by third-party tests.

This policy is now at risk and would be tantamount to undoing the reforms undertaken in the past. With the new policy, a single class of 100 students, for instance, is more likely to get two teachers than let's just say two different classes of 30 students each, who might end up with a single teacher. Why would the government do that? There can be two possible reasons. Firstly, the choice to address high student-teacher ratio in selected schools through management intervention seems like an easy political gain. The decision-makers often do not realize the cost for this, in terms of increase in the number of multi-grade schools, which are likely to result in deteriorated learning outcomes in the absence of any associated training in multi-grade teaching. But secondly and more importantly these decisions are often encouraged by mid-level bureaucracy that has to gain from massive transfers and postings of teachers, through rent-seeking and extortion, as a result of such policies.

Political governments are often accused to reverse previous governments' reforms and move forward on a new trajectory. But somehow Punjab's education sector has been an exception. Since 2002, successive governments have steadily moved ahead on an undisrupted journey, supported by development partners in the province that is boasted to have the largest public sector school system in the world with 54,000 schools. The results are improved monitoring capacity of schools, affirmative action for girls, subsidies in the area of books distribution, and merit-based teacher recruitment, enabling the primary school's participation rate to reach above 93 percent.

But immense challenges still remain, as over 10 million children in Punjab are out of school as per Alif Ailaan estimates (2016) with large regional and gender disparities in access to education. More importantly learning levels are still poor, which are confirmed each year by the annual status of education reports. The need of the hour is to keep the reform momentum going, consolidate earlier gains and focus exclusively on improving student learning outcomes. We have to understand that next generation reforms need further focus on classrooms not less and that is what we need to understand very clearly when designing new sets of reforms on learning.

Javed Ahmed Malik was the lead adviser for Punjab Education Sector Programme (2009-16) and led the design and delivery of BP450M programme in the province.

Hasaan Khawar is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research.

Published by HT Digital Content Services with permission from Daily Times.

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