Now the Barber touch

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THINGS are moving on the education front in Pakistan. But not at the grass-roots level. A policy has been put in place at the national level.

A joint task force on education to be headed by noted British educationist Michael Barber has been announced. And no marks for guessing that foreign funding will be flowing in for investment in this sector.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband informed the media after meeting President Asif Ali Zardari and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in London that the discourse on education was “extensive” and “passionate”.

It is gratifying that at least people in high quarters are getting passionate about education, a subject conventionally regarded as too mundane to even discuss. Why this sudden spurt of interest? It was Mr Qureshi who said it all “If we have to deal with the menace of terrorism we will have to change the mindset. And the best way to change the mindset is to invest in people and the education sector is the best way to do it.”

It seems it has now dawned on those fighting the war on terror and their foreign patrons that this will be a futile war if the fountainhead of militancy is not addressed. This is believed to be the madressahs that have been preaching jihad and instilling an obscurantist mindset in society. Enrolment in these institutions has grown as neglect of public-sector education combined with poverty has driven children out of school. Hence the urgency to reform and upgrade our school system to make it attractive ostensibly to wean away children from the madressahs.

Strangely, no one talks about the obscurantism the public-school system itself disseminates. In fact the National Education Policy 2009 (NEP) was delayed by several weeks to enable its authors to insert a whole new chapter on Islamic education. This injection of a massive dose of ideology — a legacy of President Ziaul Haq`s Islamisation era — may not go down well with the task force as it has not with the liberal-minded section of Pakistani society.

Another truth that Mr Miliband must have discovered to his chagrin is that Pakistan is good at drawing up policies but weak in implementing them. Hence the task force to oversee the implementation challenge said to be an area of Michael Barber`s expertise. As a senior adviser on education to Tony Blair (1997-2005) Sir Michael won recognition for his role in reforming Britain`s school system. As head of the task force he will also monitor the use of funds provided by the UK, the US and other donors.

There are some constraints though. The temperament and working of Pakistan`s bureaucracy can hardly be compared to Britain`s. In an interview Sir Michael once said, “A lot of government programmes start off with a good idea, but as they go through the bureaucracy and out into the system, compromises are made, and by the time it gets to the actual frontline, it is so watered down that it doesn`t work. Then the frontline tells you the idea was bad when, actually, there was nothing wrong with the idea, just the implementation. You need … to design mechanisms to make sure that the programme is faithfully implemented.”

Since it is not very clear how the task force will operate in Pakistan, one can only identify the gigantic challenge it will face to design the mechanism for implementation which is missing. Also absent is the personal motivation of the people involved in the reform process. Will Michael Barber be able to use the same mission-driven strategy that brought him success in England? It is not simply what he achieves while he is heading the task force.

Also central to his success will be the legacy he leaves behind on his departure. If he fails in sufficiently motivating our educational bureaucracy and school administrators to carry on the work that he starts, his performance may not win him the same laurels as they did in the UK. In other words, his main task will be to develop the political will that is the need of the hour. It is a shame that someone from outside has to do that. But that is the depths to which we have sunk.

Experience shows that foreign-funded projects which envisage intervention from highly skilled professionals from abroad make an extremely good start. But they dissolve into oblivion as soon as the donors withdraw after the contracted period.

Take the case of NEAS (National Education Assessment System) that was launched in Pakistan as a five-year project in 2003 with the help of the World Bank and the DFID (Britain`s aid-giving agency). NEAS had an excellent purpose. It tested samples of students in mathematics, science, social studies and language to provide information to policymakers for effective intervention where needed, to educationists for developing curriculum, textbooks and other learning material and to the education departments for monitoring schools and their performance.

Four nationwide tests were held and comprehensive reports prepared which yielded a wealth of information on the educational `achievements` of the students in the public-school system. Private schools could not be brought into the net of NEAS testing. The results find mention in the NEP, though one cannot be certain that its authors were really guided by the findings of NEAS.

Now what has been NEAS` fate? Its sponsors have gone home and the education minister`s promise of “making NEAS a permanent part of the ministry of education” has been forgotten. Even its link has been removed from the website of the ministry of education and no assessment test was conducted this year.

Why this dismal outcome of a project that had a good start? It reflects on the lack of political commitment to education that is so manifest in this country. If the task force can rectify this failing, it will be its greatest achievement.