How many are too many?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

HOW many schools do we need to educate our children? According to the senior minister for education, Sindh, the province needs no more schools. In fact he has announced that 1,100 schools would be closed down as they are “non-viable and unfeasible”.

Given the state of the education sector, this has unsurprisingly invited scathing criticism. In fact, I have learnt from reliable sources that the minister has informed foreign donors (the World Bank, the European Union and USAID) that the school census for 2009-10 conducted by the Sindh Education Management Information System (Semis) found 5,500 schools closed which are now being reopened on an ad hoc basis after ascertaining their location to ensure that no other school exists in the vicinity.

The education department believes that of these only 550 would meet the criteria to be deemed feasible. That in effect means that most of these earmarked schools will be closed and not revived. Since many areas in Sindh have no schools at all, a halt to further expansion of the school system is not sound policy.

A grim picture emerges. According to the figures by Semis, of the 6.2 million children aged five to nine years in the province only 2.7 million are enrolled in government schools. An estimated 1.6 million attend private schools. Nearly 1.9 million are out of school. The dismal quality of education is another cause of worry.

According to Semis which has been conducting a count of public-sector schools in Sindh for several years, the province has 49,000 primary schools of which 10,000 are without shelter and 24,000 are one- or two-roomed structures. With few exceptions, they have only one teacher. If the teacher cannot attend and no replacement is found, the school stops functioning.

This is a colossal challenge which the Sindh government has to address. Explaining the strategy adopted, Azhar Adil Dahar, the deputy programme manager at the education department`s Reform Support Unit, says as a first step he is trying to rationalise the functioning and location of the primary schools. Three districts have been selected to try the clustering of schools by merging their administrations.

Under this experiment, schools will not be closed down but share teaching resources. Thus a teacher may be posted in any school in a cluster where required. This should, at least on paper, ensure that no school stops functioning because the teacher is not present.

The second strategy is to address the dropout issue by creating a rational ratio between the secondary and primary schools. Currently, Sindh has 1,800 secondary schools with an enrolment of 850,000 students. Figures for the private sector are not available.

The lack of capacity explains why the dropout rate is so high. There are not enough secondary schools for children to attend once they complete Grade 5. So they stay at home. Worse, they forget what they have learnt and often lapse into illiteracy. Hence the government plans to open new secondary schools to fill this gap. The number will be decided after the primary sector has been set in order.

Again, what we have is a perfect plan on paper. Will it actually work?

To start with, Semis has to get its data right. For the census it depends on local functionaries — district officers and assistant district officers (ADO) — who in turn ask the heads of every institution to provide the information required. It was only last year that the government discovered that the censuses were riddled with inaccuracies because the questionnaires were in English and many of the headmasters who filled them out did not understand the language.

Now the forms have been translated into Urdu and Sindhi and a workshop held to train the enumerators. For the last census, five per cent samples were used for internal verification by ADOs. Next year, a consultant is to be hired for third-party verification.

The main issue that we do not hear much about at the moment is whether the existing number and location of schools that the education department says it will manage are enough for the number of children in Sindh, who must be educated. The complete statistical picture is not available.

Semis does not have the mandate to enumerate the private educational institutions. Many of the private schools funded by the World Bank have attracted enrolment from already existing private schools charging a fee. This means enrolment is not growing; it is shifting from one school to another. goth

Assuming that the province will have 45,000 primary schools (that includes the 100-plus Sindh Education Foundation schools and excludes the 5,000 closed schools the education department feels will not be opened) one can ask if this number is sufficient to ensure that not a single in Sindh goes un-served.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are areas with children but no schools. If it is ensured that there are enough institutions in appropriate locations to give every child access to a school, a policy of closing unviable schools will check financial misappropriation and streamline the system.

Closely linked to the viability issue is the distribution of teachers. There are far too many teachers concentrated in coveted areas like Karachi, Larkana, Naushero Feroze, etc. There are other places where teachers do not want to be posted. How the education department plans to get around this problem is not very clear although it is aware of the tactics teachers employ to evade unsavoury postings.

Positions are sublet to unqualified people or the teacher shows up in school only when a supervisor`s visit has been scheduled. It is difficult to say how the training programme is faring. This speaks of the flaws in the monitoring and supervision mechanism.

Senior officials in the education department do not make frequent and unannounced field trips. They obtain information from their subordinates who are not always reliable. With corruption so rife at all levels one is sceptical of the effective implementation of policies.