School adopters in a dilemma

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE adopt-a-school project launched by the Sindh Education Foundation (SEF) under its dynamic managing director, Prof Anita Ghulam Ali, in 1997 faces a dilemma.

Having peaked in 2004 when 251 schools enjoyed the benefits of sponsorship, the scheme now has only 150 institutions in its fold. Having shown that a public-private partnership in education can work, the adopt-a-school system has opened the way for others to follow suit.

There are a number of adoption schemes now in vogue at multiple tiers. For instance, there are schools that are adopted by private individuals and still have their links with the SEF. There are other schools that have been adopted with encouragement from the Sindh education department that has created partnerships to ease its own financial burden — the private sector enters the scheme to pay for the adopted school’s physical infrastructure.

Others have found adopters through the courtesy of the local government or even the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy. Now the FPCCI has also entered the scene and has promised to improve the physical infrastructure of 50 schools, though they seemed reluctant to use the word “adopt” for their project. This is at the behest of the city government of Karachi.

Ms Ghulam Ali is happy that there is much public interest in the school adoption idea that has caught on and is providing some benefits to the education sector.

But what is worrying — and she agrees with my concern — is that the underlying goal of the adopt-a-school scheme has not always been kept in view. When Ms Ghulam Ali had conceptualised the project, she had expected private citizens who adopted a government school to not only provide financial resources to improve its physical infrastructure but also to play a role in the supervision and monitoring of its management and functioning.

Some of the sponsors had been so motivated that they would make it a point to visit their adopted school regularly to keep an eye on its working. If they felt that the staff strength was not adequate they even paid the salary of a teacher. Others arranged for training workshops for the teachers to improve their performance. True, there was friction — the schools with lax and corrupt managements resented this intrusion and tried to resist it. But in those days, the schools came under the jurisdiction of the Sindh education department, and in spite of all its failings, the department did not ignore the sponsors if they brought wrong practices of teachers and principals to the notice of the authorities.

With devolution and the restructuring of the local bodies system, the organisation and management of the schools has been transformed and not necessarily for the better. Today, the education department’s job is restricted to that of policymaking. The supervision and inspection roles have been transferred to the executive district officer, education, (EDO) who has usually been co-opted from the education department but works under the city government. Previously, the education department would post its own officer in every district to supervise the schools.

This has caused the working of educational institutions to be undermined. According to Ms Ghulam Ali, the education sector is totally politicised now with the EDO reporting to a number of officials. In effect, he is caught in a tug of war between the education secretariat of the government of Sindh, the nazims of the town governments, the district coordination officer (previously the district commissioner) and the DPO who is a police officer. One can visualise the impact of this struggle for power and influence on the adopter who is supposed to be supervising the schools and improving their quality. As a result, the adopters are now spending mostly on bricks and mortar.

Previously, the SEF had developed a system of accountability in the schools’ management by strengthening the school management committees (SMC) that are mandatory under the law. But with the politicisation inherent in devolution, the SMCs found their functioning hampered and in due course these committees were rendered ineffective. The interference by the nazims became intolerable and the community — represented by the parents — that was supposed to be the backbone of the SMC system lost interest and drifted away.

As a result, the adopters have also begun to pull out. Until last year, when Mr Naimatullah Khan was the city nazim of Karachi and was responsive to the SEF’s calls — at least verbally — Ms Ghulam Ali tried desperately hard to stem the slide. She would convey the adopters’ complaints to the nazim in no uncertain language, but to no avail. Her letters were hard hitting and one of them even stated “the condition in schools is deteriorating by the day and the quality of education is reaching irretrievable depths.”

The city district government of Karachi under the MQM has ignored the SEF’s position on the adopted schools. The latest sponsor to pull out is Azra Karrar, the executive trustee of Helping Hands Trust. Her husband, Haider Karrar, the son of Prof Karrar Husain, had adopted the Government Boys’ Secondary School, Nazimabad #2, in 2001. The trust raised Rs 15,00,000 in donations and spent it on cleaning the premises and building a boundary wall. More importantly, a computer lab was set up and the school library was renovated and equipped. A librarian and a computer instructor were employed. The students were given a medical check-up and 118 teachers were sent to training workshops. A full time education adviser was appointed to oversee the working of the school.

The school had begun to revive and enrolment was going up. All the effort and money have gone waste because Azra Karrar feels that “due to the non-cooperation of the directly related stakeholders, no substantial work” could be done in the school for a year. She decided to pull out when her pleas evoked no response. If things continue as at present, more adopters will withdraw.

This would be a deadly blow to education in Sindh. The fact is that financial constraints are no longer the first problem of the education sector at the macro level. With funds flowing in so generously — the country’s education budget jumped up to Rs 163 billion in 2005-06 — one can hardly complain that the education department’s hands are tied due to lack of financial resources. It is management and supervision that is lacking. Having fallen victim to widespread corruption at all levels, the education authorities have failed to ensure efficiency and conscientiousness in the working of the school system. Accountability is minimal. The SEF-sponsored adopters were at least providing this to a certain level.

The only light at the end of the tunnel is the SEF’s research project to “re-envision the adopt-a-school system”. Since July, the foundation has been investigating the working of public-private partnerships in education in our environment. According to the director of the Foundation, Mashhood Rizvi, his team is studying “the various forms of adoption and what would be the best way forward”. The FPCC&I is also trying to devise a workable approach with the city district government. Whether a feasible approach will be found we will have to wait and see. But this is clear that in the ultimate analysis the government will have to take responsibility for the successful working of the education sector.