Role of private schools

By Zubeida  Musstafa

THE education policy announced in March devotes one whole chapter to the private sector. Nevertheless, it fails to clarify some basic issues relating to the privately managed schools and institutions of higher learning. The ambivalence which has marked the education sector persists.

More importantly, the policy reflects a love-hate relationship between the government and the private sector. The authorities grudgingly concede that the private sector is  indispensable.

On the one hand, it is acknowledged that private entrepreneurs have done well in providing quality education to high income groups in the urban areas. On the other, in the same breath, the policy document denounces the private sector for lacking in “the dynamism to act as a cooperative partner in policy formulation.” There is a long litany of complaints against private managements in education. In a nutshell, the main criticism is:

  • They charge high fees and therefore they are inaccessible to the poor
  • The private sector is setting up ‘English medium schools only
  • Private schools are playing a marginal role in the universalizing primary education which is the main goal of the government at the moment
  • Some private institutions use course books which are unsatisfactory and ‘repugnant to the ideology of Pakistan.’

After adopting a sweeping and negative stand vis-à-vis the role of the private sector in education, the authors of the policy proceed to emphasize their aspirations about the ideal non-government educationists. There is mention of “the revival of privatization” as a strategy for the expansion of school education and the need to strengthen the delivery of education services through greater NGO and private sector involvement – the favourite term being “partnership” between the government and the private sector.

Even if the relationship between the government and the private sector in education had been clarified in the policy, one would have given in credit for doing something productive and fruitful. This has not been done because the government has failed to assess the role of the private sector objectively.

According to the policy document there are 30,000 private educational institutions in Pakistan with nearly three million students enrolled in them. This amounts to nearly 15 percent of the total strength of students in the country. The funds the private sector is expected to spend in 1998 – 2003 will be over 25 per cent of the total expenditure on education. (The ratio might actually be higher if the government slashes its own budget as it is wont to do in the social sectors.)

In view of this fact, it is unfair to minimize the role of the private sector in education. Not only is the private sector providing better education as has been admitted in the policy document. It is also playing an active role in setting the directions for providing those services which were primarily the responsibility of the government. For instance, the Teachers Resource Centre, SPELT and the Book Group are making valuable contributions in their own ways to the cause of education by giving in-service training to teachers, producing good quality books and designing curricula. True, their reach is limited but they can be replicated because they can serve as a model.

Again, private educationists in the experts committee on education had come forward to offer their advice in formulating the education policy. They had presented a concept paper which the bureaucrats did not deem fit even to consider. It is strange that the government should now turn round and accuse the private sector of failing to act as a cooperative partner in policy formulation.

The fact is that the government has failed to understand the role of the private sector in the field of education. It has fallen victim to some common myths about the private sector which nobody really bothers to expose. By conveniently seeking shelter behind the misconceptions, it is easy for the policymakers to take a swipe at all private educational institutions with one stick.

It must be emphasized here that most private schools are not elitist high-fee institutions as the policy makes them out to be. True, even the ones in the slum areas are now charging a monthly fee of Rs.150 or so which is higher than the paltry Rs.10 that a child has to pay in a government school. But in these areas, the private schools are the mainstay of the education infrastructure. The government’s presence is so minimal in some low-income areas like Orangi Town that had it not been for the modest privately-owned schools, these localities would have remained the backwater of illiteracy. Thus in Orangi (with a literacy rate of 70 per cent), out of the 585 schools operating in the Township, 509 ( 89 per cent) are privately owned. Nearly 67.5 per cent of the school-going children are enrolled in the private institutions. Even the elitist institutions cannot be lumped into one category. Many of them were set up by missionaries or are denominational schools which have been in the field for over a hundred years. Their fees run at the most into three digits when others are charging several thousands and collecting them quarterly. A distinction has to be made between them too.

Another misconception sought to be created is that the private institutions are vying with each other to transgress all rules and do not like to be bound by the discipline enforced by the government. If one were to look into the complaints which crop up from time to time, one would discover the reasons which led to the “misbehavior” of the erring private schools in the first place.

Very often a school is penalized harshly because of its refusal to give admission to a candidate recommended by some high dignitary or political party member ( as it believed to have happened in the case of the Mama Parsi and the Foundation Public Schools in Karachi). Of course, this reason is not openly stated. But it is intriguing that the education policy should seek to introduce the “government’s admission policy” in all private schools. This is apart from the provision that these schools must admit at least ten per cent students free of charge from low income groups. In other instances, it is a plain and simple case of harassment because a petty functionary in the department of education is interested in pecuniary satisfaction.

If schools are going in for textbooks published by foreign publishers and do not teach from the Textbook Board publications, one can hardly blame them. One has to look at the inadequacy of the curricula laid down by the Education Ministry and the substandard stuff in use in our schools to understand why private schools have to look elsewhere for teaching material. Besides, the non-Textbook Board textbooks are excellent in every way. The only weaknesses they suffer from are their high cost and the lack of the so-called ideological thrust which is there in abundance in the Textbook Board publications making it impossible to differentiate from the Urdu, Islamiyat and Social Studies books.

What is surprising is that the authors of the education policy have made no serious attempt at all to analyze the factors which have led to the malaise of commercialization in the private sector which is so rampant in some areas. That is the major charge which can be leveled against some private school and university managed-institutions is that they make education  inaccessible to many people while creating a stratified society. It should also have been considered necessary to investigate the phenomenon which has failed to throw up a network of private institutions which could have universalized elementary education.

An honest appraisal of these factors would have enabled the policymakers to determine clearly the role and size the private sector is to be assigned in education. The policy should have spelt out the following:

  1. The size of the private sector which is planned. In other words it must be clarified as to what ratio of students are to be absorbed by the private sector. This should not be very big – at least at the school level – because the government must shoulder its responsibility of providing education to the children. This has not been specifically stated in the policy. It is the private sector which has been entrusted with this duty.
  2. The mechanism of regulating the private sector should be clearly laid down. The present system has obviously failed. Many schools do not even get themselves registered with the registering authority and escape all regulations. Others defy the rules. If the authorities had analyzed the factors which have led to this situation, they could have proposed a feasible arrangement and sought the cooperation of the private sector. One of the reasons for avoiding registration is that harassment  affects their working and economics. It would make better sense to lay down broad guidelines for their functioning and fee structure and then let them operate with the minimum of interferenTo lower school fees and prevent commercialization, the government must provide grants-in-aid, free land, and other subsidies to institutions which at present are required to pay for utilities at commercial rates.
  3. A thrust should be created towards setting up educational trusts all over the country to run schools on a no-profit no-loss basis.
  4. Devices such as the twinning of schools, adopting a school programme and entrusting government school managements to private education groups to ensure better administration and motivation should also be tried.
  5. It is plain that is the government which must take the initiative in universalizing elementary education. A better idea would be for the government to take the first step by setting up schools which could then be expanded with the help of the private sector and community participation. The industrialists who are required to set up school under the education policy should instead be asked to join in such schemes. It is impossible to force the private sector to take the initiative and play the primary role which the government wants to assign to it. If the government were to spell out its own responsibility in the matter and it were to take the initiative, it could actively enlist the private sector to join hands and help in educating the children of Pakistan.

Source: Dawn 11 May 1998