Plight of adopted schools

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

Recently, the government of Sindh’s education and literacy department (presumably re-named in recognition of the appalling rate of our illiteracy) inserted half page ads in the newspapers on two occasions to proclaim its commitment to the spread of learning.

One appeared on May 1 and read, “Education brings honour to the country. Labour earns glory for the nation.” The second was inserted on Eid-i-Milad-un-Nabi reminding people that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) had repeatedly advised the ummah to acquire knowledge from wherever possible.

The advertisements carried an announcement saying primary education was free and compulsory in the province, textbooks would not cost anything and girls would be provided a scholarship of a thousand rupees a year.

It all sounds so utopian. Then one wonders why school enrolment in Pakistan remains so low and dropout rates so high. In fact, statistics quoted recently by reliable sources indicate that the enrolment in government schools is actually falling. To understand this phenomenon one must visit a government school and know what is happening to public sector education.

The physical infrastructure of many government schools is so dilapidated that it is not surprising that few parents want to send their children there. Schools without boundary walls become dens for drug addicts and other unsavoury characters.

Schools without toilets, schools without drinking water and schools without furniture – are the poor not entitled to a modicum of dignity, are their children not entitled to these basic amenities? As for the human resources, that is, the teachers who make or break a school, their expertise and skills are generally so poor and their commitment and motivation so low that they only produce a negative impact on education.

To counter these trends the Sindh Education Foundation, under the stewardship of its managing director, Prof Anita Ghulam Ali, launched the adopt-a-school programme in 1993.

On paper it sounded perfect. Sponsors were invited to take up a school and help improve its working by investing in its infrastructure and mobilizing the teachers. The scheme started with a bang.

Many enthusiastic volunteers came forward and gave time and money. Now there are 251 schools which have been adopted. I know of a set of retired teachers who adopted a school in Clifton.

They take turns to be present in the school every day. They raise funds and have had the building painted. They arrange for donations to pay the salary of the additional staff which they feel is needed. Moinuddin Haider, a former governor of Sindh, has adopted five schools.

Yet this scheme which has so much potential in it is facing problems of all kinds. I got an idea of the problems the sponsors face when I received from Prof Ghulam Ali a copy of the letter she had written to the nazim of Karachi, complaining about the indifferent attitude of the headmasters/headmistresses of schools.

According to her, “the condition in schools is deteriorating by the day and the quality of education is reaching irretrievable depths.” With Anita Ghulam Ali’s letter was attached a communication from an adopter listing her observations.

They mostly highlighted the laid back attitude of the teachers, who arrive late, leave early and are very often on leave. In one school the children were taught for only 44 days in the whole academic year. Another complaint pertained to their lack of knowledge and interest.

In her letter Prof Ghulam Ali suggested that the carrot and stick method be employed to make the school teachers work better. But that by itself will not be enough as I discovered when I visited a school in Nazimabad which Haider Karrar (the son of Prof Karrar Husain) had adopted three years ago under the aegis of Helping Hand, a trust he founded. After his death in March his widow, Azra, continues to look after it.

Haider Karrar raised Rs 15,00,000 in donations and spent it on the adopted school – namely the Government Boys Secondary School, Nazimabad 1 (morning shift).

With five schools on this campus (two secondary schools, one primary school and two lower secondary schools), the benefits of the adopter’s efforts accrued in varying degrees to all of them, The money was spent on cleaning and painting the premises, building a boundary wall, setting up a computer lab (with a teacher), renovating and equipping the school library (with a librarian), arranging a medical check-up of the students, sending 118 teachers to training workshops and appointing a full-time education adviser.

Normally this should have led to a turnaround. It has in some ways. The enrolment in the secondary school which had been steadily falling from year to year has stopped and the headmaster hopes to have a strength of 1,025 students on the rolls – there were 925 last year.

The computer lab and teacher have done the trick as word has spread round that this school offers computer studies at no substantial extra cost with computers which actually work and a teacher who actually teaches.

Now the adopters feel that the optimum benefit is not being derived from their contributions. The presence of five schools on this particular campus has hampered progress. The schools are grossly underutilized.

In fact, one of them has not had a single student on its roll for the last three years. But three teachers come regularly and leave after a while. According to what I was told, there are barely 200 pupils in the other three schools. Between them they have 43 teachers.

Apart from the waste of resources, the presence of these redundant schools entails, the secondary school which has been somewhat revived can function for only four hours since the classrooms have to be vacated for the afternoon shift – which has a dwindling number of children.

There is a lot of duplication and space is taken up for separate staff rooms, libraries and head teachers’ offices for every shift. The massive grounds are lying unused because the sports teacher wants his classes during school hours which are already too short.

The other sections cannot benefit from the computer lab which was set up for the morning shift. Now the adopters are trying to persuade the headmaster to share it with the afternoon shift.

The sensible solution would be to rationalize the working of these schools all of which should be merged into one primary school and one secondary section. But there are too many vested interests resisting a change in the status quo. Three head teachers would lose their jobs here while many teachers would have to be transferred.

The education department has so far failed to address the issue, as it has failed to tackle the complaints against the teachers by several adopters. All this is symptomatic of the authorities’ apathy.

One may blame the provincial education department for the mess but after the devolution scheme came into effect last year the nazims of various areas also share responsibility.

The problem is not so much of funding as it is of organization and management, motivating the teachers and monitoring their work. The lax approach of the authorities encourages indiscipline among the teachers.

Many adopters complain that if they try to enforce the rules, the teachers actually defy them and question their jurisdiction. But when there is even a slight improvement in the condition of a school – in terms of teaching, discipline and physical environment – the enrolment starts picking up.

It is therefore important that the teachers be made accountable to the adopters so that discipline can be enforced. This is possible only if those adopting a school are given more powers in the management of a school.

There is a precedent in this context. The Book Group has been given these powers under a notification from the Sindh government transferring temporary management of three schools in the province to the group, which has secured the management of one school in Rahimyar Khan as well.

This has enabled the group to tighten discipline and introduce better pedagogy and textbooks. With the government’s dependence on the private sectors growing for the improvement of the public sector school system, there is need to allow a greater say to those who are actually working for the uplift of a school.