Government and private schools compared: elitist versus plebian

By Zubeida Mustafa

Why don’t parents boycott private schools? This question was posed to me by a senior bureaucrat in the government’s education department. He was speaking in the context of the countless complaints parents, educationists and students voice against private educational institutions.

Any parent would tell him that private schools are the lesser of the two evils: the other being the schools managed by the government.

When parents have a choice between the two, the private institutions are invariably their first priority. It is understandable. Inefficiency, corruption and lack of resources have taken their toll in the schools in the public sector. Their standard of education and academic environment have deteriorated to an appalling extent over the years.

Their buildings and furniture, if they have any, are in a derelict state. Library, laboratory, sports and extra-curricular facilities are negligible or non-existent. Classrooms are overcrowded. The textbooks are uninspiring and dull. The time devoted to studies is grossly inadequate.

If a few government schools have managed to excel, they are invariably the exception than the rule. They are mostly nationalised institutions struggling to preserve the old traditions. For if the matriculation results are a yard stick the government schools have definitely been on the decline.

According to statistics compiled by the Karachi Board of Secondary Education (BSE), in the period 1951-72 of the 70 position holders 40 were from government schools. In 1973-86 only seven of the 47 in the merit list were from government schools. Fifteen were from nationalised institutions and the remaining from private schools.

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of our school-going children are enrolled in government institutions because their parents do not enjoy the privilege of exercising a choice. They cannot afford the relatively high fees the private schools charge for the better fare they offer. Government schools take no tuition fee when a private institution might collect anything from Rs. 50 to Rs. 600 per month, depending on whether it is one of the small schools in Landhi or the bigger ones catering to the needs of the affluent classes.

Even though all private schools do not meet the expectations of parents, they are very much in demand. By and large, their classes are smaller, they teach from textbooks that are not the substandard prescribed stuff and they offer a modicum of facilities for sports, libraries, laboratories, computers and extracurricular activities.

The relative quality of education has emerged as the major factor in determining parents’ choice. But other issues have also fuelled the demand for private schools in the last few years. A significant one is that of the medium of instruction. The government’s decision to drop the option, students had of using English as a medium has had a tremendous impact on the people’s attitude towards their children’s schooling.

A large number of middle class parents want their children to be proficient in English. It is the international language of communication and they feel that knowledge of this language would be an added asset.

Moreover, given the social, economic and professional bias in favour of English in the country, it is regarded as a plus point in a highly competitive society where prized jobs are few.

Unfortunately the switchover to Urdu has come to mean a corresponding devaluation of English, although it need not have been so.

In order to circumvent the provision for the mandatory adoption of Urdu or a recognised regional language as the medium, numerous schools have mushroomed offering to coach pupils for the O-Levels from the London Board.

Some of the older ones affiliated with the Cambridge Board are now under greater pressure for admissions. Many parents who were previously content to see their children matriculate from the Karachi Board, albeit with English as a medium of instruction, are now shifting them to what is euphemistically called the Cambridge system.

How strongly many parents feel on this issue is not generally realised. English is equated with quality. It is significant that English medium schools — essentially private institutions — have produced better academic results. According to some data released by the BSE, since 1974 of the 654 merit scholarships offered by the Board, 409 went to students from English medium schools, in 1986 43 out of 53 being from this category.

The government’s own approach to the medium issue and the so-called Cambridge schools has been ambivalent. It has prevaricated on the decision to switchover to Urdu, and has now announced that Mathematics and the physical sciences could be taught in English. This lack of clarity and direction has created uncertainty and upset the students and parents.

As for the “Cambridge” schools, they are ostensibly not given official encouragement. But their students manage to gain admission in colleges. To improve their long-term prospects, such institutions are now tailoring their courses in response to local requirements. Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies are to be introduced this year in the O-Level classes.

The factor which has proved to be decisive in the final analysis is the government’s own failure to provide schools for all children. With an allocation of about 2.5 per cent of GNP for education (UNESCO recommends four per cent), the Pakistan government has betrayed its utter lack of commitment to this sector. In the absence of adequate resources for this aspect of human and social development, education has suffered quantitatively as well as qualitatively.

Strangely enough, the government has admitted its failure and invited the private sector in a big way to fill the growing vacuum. The Sixth Five-Year Plan specifically spoke of encouraging private entrepreneurs to participate in the development of education. They were expected to invest Rs. 1000 million in five years.

This aberrant approach has also been reflected in the pattern of establishment of new schools. Since 1979, 159 private secondary schools have been recognised by the BSE in Karachi when only 70 government schools have received recognition in the same period.

The number of unregistered and unrecognised schools — mostly the “Cambridge” schools — is anybody’s guess. Worse still, this sharing of responsibility by the private sector has not led the government to divert its resources towards improving the academic performance of its own institutions.

In a sellers’ market the private schools have had a free hand to operate as they deem fit without any checks. The government has chosen not to act as a “policeman” — to quote a senior official — because it does not want to discourage the private sector. There is a law which requires all schools to be registered with the Directorate but no action has ever been taken against an unregistered institution. The authorities have had to turn a blind eye to all kinds of malpractices because, as they concede, they have no better alternative to offer. Now a new law is on the anvil but how effective it will be remains to be seen.

Technically all registered schools fall under the jurisdiction of the Directorate. But many in the Education Department and all private school managements feel that any move to institute stringent checks and controls would be counterproductive.

It would only arm the Directorate with bureaucratic powers to harass private school managements and thus obstruct their functioning. Rules and regulations would become impediments to progress while the Directorate and Board would acquire a leverage to make unreasonable demands from schools in matters of admissions and promotions.

In this paradoxical situation are private schools to be left to their own devices? The main grievance of parents against school managements is that a number of them are charging fabulous fees and not giving the commensurate services in return. Those in the Establishment are also critical of private schools on this count. They insist that the input of parents and private tutors is proportionately higher in private institutions than in government ones. “Look at the volumes of homework they give. Tuitions supplement classroom teaching. And yet the private schools take all the credit for the students’ achievements,” they remark.

Defending their fees structure, private school managements point to the higher salaries they pay to their staff (Rs. 1500 to Rs. 4000 per month for a beginner in the prestigious institutions as against Rs. 1000 to a government primary school teacher.

Smaller classes also affect the economics of education. High rentals on school buildings absorb 15- 25 per cent of their total income. “We have to pay for every facility we provide our students at market rates. So the fees we charge are high. Government schools don’t have to pay rents or taxes. We, on the contrary, are lucky if we can even get one of KDA’s amenity plots reserved for us,” a private school operator observed.

Finally, most managements feel that the returns should be financially attractive. This is a critical factor. The plain truth is that education has come to be regarded as a safe sector for investment. Black money and oil money is known to have found its way into the school business. One of the well-known institutions is believed to be registered as a private limited company. The growing vacuum and the explicit encouragement given by the government to the private sector has resulted in the rank commercialisation of education.

With education being treated as a commodity to be sold to those who can afford it, market forces have come to determine the economic value of what is essentially a service which is the birthright of all. Since it is difficult to quantify the input of schools in the education process in monetary terms, they can virtually get away with anything.

Gone are the days when philanthropic bodies, public trusts, denominational institutions and other non-profit agencies used to open schools as a public service. It was their commitment to education which motivated them to enter this field. With no profit-making motives, such institutions could concentrate on quality while keeping their fees within reasonable limits. Their entire approach to education was markedly idealistic.

Given these conditions of unparalleled freedom in which private educational institutions operate, the need is to introduce the concept of accountability in the school system. This should be an in-built process so that school managements should be answerable not only for fee hikes but also the standard and methods of teaching, and their day-to-day handling of children in whose interest the schools are supposed to be working.

It is here that the parents have a role to play. Were they to be ever vigilant, make rightful demands on school managements and resist their high-handedness, there is no reason why parents cannot protect their children’s interests.

Of course parents cannot make much headway on an individual basis. When a mother protests singly, her child is in danger of being victimised for no fault of his. But collectively parents can act as a pressure group, as was convincingly proved in the case of the school which had to withdraw its demand for extortive contributions to the building fund when the parents took a stand. This clearly demonstrates the pressing need for Parents Teachers Associations (PTAs) in every school — not the parents-teachers meetings all private schools arrange on an individual basis but permanent organisations in which parents, teachers and the management participate.

Private schools do not encourage PTAs since they do not want their freedom to be unnecessarily curtailed by others. But some enterprising parents can surely take the initiative in this regard. The fact is that parents are also indifferent. Many of them do not find time to keep track of their child’s progress, their only concern being his/her grades and the fees. Unless parents assert themselves in all matters affecting their child, schools will continue to exercise their authority in an arbitrary manner.

It is also time that all private schools were required to set up boards of governors. Only a few of them have such boards and they do not exercise effective checks in every case. These bodies should include some parents as well as some public figures to oversee the working and financial management of each school. The boards of governors and the PTAs should together provide the social controls which private schools need so badly and which the government has been unable to provide. The establishment of these bodies must be made mandatory by law for private and government schools alike. These would, however, at best be ad hoc measures to regulate a situation that has basic and far-reaching implications for the social development of the country.

As long as the policy of giving undue emphasis to the private sector in education continues and the government fails to upgrade its own schools, the disparity between the two sets of institutions will become wider. Even now there are virtually two streams in education. There is the elitist class which sends its children to private schools and there are the masses whose children attend government institutions. The first category is better educated, has a fairly good knowledge of English and is qualified to seize all the prestigious jobs available in the government, industries, armed forces and the professions. The children of the masses who are in government school constitute the illiterate educated. The situation will worsen if there is no change in policy.

Source: Dawn, 15 July 1988