If you grew up in Pakistan in the 90s, you may have heard your parents share tales of the ‘glorious’ years when all children attended government schools and graduated with a ‘high quality’ education. Our parents would fondly recount a nostalgic era, where the level of education in government schools was comparable to the elite private schools of the country. Unsurprisingly, most of these claims were based on anecdotes and a few inspiring success stories. It was a time when neither the national governments nor the international organizations had data-collection and reporting on their priority list. And so today, whilst individual accounts and success stories still matter, they play a limited, largely supplemental, role in a world that is increasingly reliant on empirical evidence.
One such project that promotes a data-collection and reporting system in Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, is the Punjab Education Sector Reform Project II (PESRPII), implemented by the provincial government in partnership with Department for International Development (DFID) and the World Bank. Recently, the World Bank in Washington D.C. organized a Brown Bag Lunch to discuss two initiatives under this project. The first one was the ‘School and District-based Report Card System’ in which the school and district performance report cards (that include key indicators such as student enrollment, student attendance, academic achievement and teacher attendance) are collected and disseminated to all stakeholders. The same information has now also been made available to the larger public through the Project Monitoring and Implementation Unit’s (PMIU) website. The second major initiative is the ICT-based School Council Mobilization project that strengthens school council performance through an ICT-based capacity development program and utilizes telecommunications technology (including text-messaging service, robocalls, and call centers) for greater public engagement.
While both these approaches are innovative, data-driven and focused on enhancing public engagement, there still remain unanswered questions such as:
How well can education system decentralization reforms work in a centralized government system?
One of the key aspects of the PERSP II is the devolution of administrative and financial powers to schools and school clusters. Under this system, school councils (similar to Parent-Teacher Associations) have been mobilized to increase public (parental) involvement and increase accountability. Significant monetary reforms have also been introduced, which involve an overall increase in the non-salary budget and the decentralization of all financial decision-making to each individual school (with guidance and broad oversight by the local school councils). While these are steps in the right direction, one still needs to evaluate how these decentralization reforms have fared in what has been a traditionally-centralized government system?
Punjab, like other provinces of Pakistan (barring Balochistan), has delayed the holding of local government elections since 2010. The power to make any significant amends is still highly concentrated in the center as there is a significant reluctance on part of the provincial governments to devolve their respective powers. There is unwillingness, on the part of the provinces, to divert resources and authority to the grass-root (district) level. For a decentralized education system to function effectively, a strong local government system is a necessity.
Is open data leading to greater accountability and action?
A key objective of the ‘School and District-based Report Card System’ from PERSP II, and other such data reporting projects, is to create a system of greater accountability and transparency among schools and districts (which could ultimately lead to corrective actions through citizen-led advocacy and pressure). However there haven’t been many instances of local residents exerting pressure on their governments despite the open data policy introduced by the government. There are factors outside the education system such as socio-cultural considerations, political preferences and low levels of education within most households that considerably limit the impact that can be achieved through effective public-feedback. While making data accessible has provided an opportunity to a weak but growing civil society to campaign for education rights in Pakistan, the public at large has not been an active participant in these efforts.
There is no doubt that many positive steps have been taken under the PERSP II in Punjab. Over the past few years, ‘educational development’ has taken center-stage in the province - as was reflected in the provincial budget released last month which saw a significant rise in funding allocated to education. In order to meet the ultimate challenge of providing a high quality education (in a country with the world’s second largest out-of-school population), it is imperative that Pakistan continues to update its existing programs through injecting scalable and sustainable innovations without ignoring the extraneous factors that impact its education system.
Hina Baloch is an Intern at the Center for Education Innovations.
Photo Credit: Progressive Research Institute of Socio-Economics