By Zubeida Mustafa
IN January 2005, I had commented in these columns, “The adopt-a-school programme (ASP) launched by the Sindh Education Foundation (SEF) in 1997 is in danger of falling prey to maladministration, misuse, corruption and apathy of the city government.”
Today, the predator may have changed. Although the ASP is still alive, the threat to its existence comes from the Sindh education department. SEF which launched the project under its enterprising managing director, Prof Anita Ghulam Ali, persists in soldiering on.
We were reminded of that at a seminar last week. So far SEF has facilitated the adoption of 300 schools but at present only 135 schools are operating under this scheme. Since the adoption takes place for a specified period it is understandable that the number keeps changing. For the programme to thrive the new entrants should outnumber the dropouts which doesn’t seem to be happening.
According to SEF, today 31,398 children and 1,373 teachers (244 privately hired) come under the purview of this programme. Currently, 51 adopters are active in the field, some of them veterans in the field, such as Moinuddin Haider, a former governor of Sindh, who has remained faithful to the four schools he and his late wife adopted 12 years ago.
At the seminar attended by committed adopters and their school headmistresses/administrators, the strength and weaknesses of ASP emerged clearly. Most of those who become stakeholders in this school improvement endeavour are people who want to help educate the children of marginalised families. They are well-meaning but are not people of unlimited means. They cannot, in any case, match the government in terms of powers and resources.
Hence they are not substitutes for the government — as pointed out by some participants — whose responsibility it is to provide free and compulsory education to all children five to 16 years of age under the newly introduced Article 25A of the constitution. However, it was also clear that bureaucratic hurdles discourage the adopters and strangely these hurdles come from the Sindh education department itself.
The shenanigans of the bureaucracy in Tughlaq House act as a deterrent, and adopters have to be really determined to persist in their mission. Hats off to adopters who continue to struggle on valiantly against heavy odds such as politically motivated appointments in the education department, poor training of staff, unmotivated teachers, absence of accountability and the decrepit physical infrastructure of schools.
These obstacles have been there from the start mainly because of the dual control over the adopted institutions. Some adopters have succeeded in persuading the staff to cooperate or have marginalised the incompetent and corrupt by recruiting and paying their own teachers. All do not possess the resources and the social/political clout to follow this strategy. Some are fortunate. They are required to deal with an honest and motivated executive district officer who views them as their ally.
Adopters or would-be adopters confirm this. Naween Mangi, who has established the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust in Khairo Dero, has been trying very hard to take the government school in her village under her wing. Since April 2011, this enterprise has been on the cards and she still has been unable to obtain the signature of the education secretary that has been made mandatory under the new arrangement.
This is a tricky situation and one wonders how this sensible and promising scheme can be saved from a certain death. So indifferent is the parent department that the senior minister who holds charge of the education portfolio failed to show up at the seminar.
His department has refused to give SEF a free hand in this matter. Small wonder the number of adopted schools has fallen. Red tape discourages adopters.
There is the risk that the adopters will be forced to leave out of sheer frustration. At the seminar, there was talk of better strategising and also the need to set up an adopters’ forum to enable adopters to act collectively. There was also talk of adopters being given some legal rights and powers. This would give the adopters more bargaining power vis-à-vis the education authorities.
The ASP as it was conceived would have been most feasible. No one would want the private sector to take control of public-sector education without any checks and balances as is happening in the elite private schools. Hence it made sense that SEF should act as a monitor to ensure that the stipulated guidelines were not violated. By taking ownership of the programme only to drag its feet the Sindh education department will simply scuttle the scheme.
However, one may argue as Mashood Rizvi, who worked with SEF before he joined the British Council, did at the seminar that a handful of adopters cannot change the education scene. The answer lies in the reform of the 44,000 public-sector schools in Sindh. The problem is that the government does not appear to be interested in doing anything of the kind.
Then what is to become of the children of the marginalised? The private sector as it operates today offers no solution. The entrepreneurs who have resources have won a free hand for themselves and their schools are beyond the reach of the common man. As for the poor, the handful of NGO-run or community institutions are no answer.
Rizvi spoke of the need for social activism for quality education for all. This is a slow-moving process and until then if there are adopters willing to help selflessly it would be irresponsible to drive them away because of the education department’s foot-dragging.