The fate of 150,000 students hangs in balance and over 2000 teachers risk losing jobs as 900 schools in Sindh are on the verge of closure.
In the year 2009, the Sindh Education Foundation, a public-private organisation which helped the government educate its huge mass of out-of-school children introduced a programme which encouraged entrepreneurs to open schools in far-flung areas in return of a per child subsidy.
Under the Integrated Education Learning Programme 1300 schools were established in 23 districts of Sindh including the under developed Sanghar, Thatta and Larkana. Many of these localities had no public school available.
A jewel in the crown of this programme was a boat school established for the fishing community at Manchar Lake. Each morning a boat would pick students from the shore and who would be taught inside the boat which brimmed with students for five hours during the day.
Five years later over a 100 entrepreneurs have been handed out a letter asking them to close down their schools — that too in the middle of the school year. A notification released in July asked all entrepreneurs to close down schools due to ‘unsatisfactory conditions’.
Schools which have been closed down received their pending dues, and then a letter asking them to close operations.
Entrepreneurs smell a rat. In March, when the school year ended, entrepreneurs received a letter appreciating their performance. School owners were asked to buy books for the new session, repair school building and hire teachers who had at least completed their matriculation.
As school closed for summer vacations, several hundred schools have been asked to discontinue imparting education. At the same time, they claim, the SEF is advertising bids for new schools in leading newspapers of the country.
Change of leadership
Since its inception in 1992, the semi-private body was run by the vibrant educationist Dr Anita Ghulam Ali. After her death last year a new managing director Naheed Durrani was appointed in May.
Durrani, daughter of Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, has served as education secretary and planning and development secretary before. She is considered a powerful bureaucrat.
Entrepreneurs claim that it is her presence which has forced out a notification to close schools.
A signboard outside a school located in a slum of Karachi reads, “Integrated Education Learning Programme (IELP) — all expenses will be borne by the Sindh Education Foundation (SEF)”. Inside, students sit engrossed in their battered books. Five years back, these five to 12-year-olds were carpet weavers. With time, they learnt to bathe, comb and love books.
With the new notification issued for closure of these schools these children will be out on the streets again. What entrepreneurs fear most is the trust they will lose in the community. “When we started off four years back we went house to house explaining to this community how important education is. If we pack off and leave abruptly where will these children go?” asks one entrepreneur.
Many are angry at the SEF for asking them to close operations when only a month before they had shared a new vision with them for the coming school year. In June, a new vision policy for the schools was handed out to entrepreneurs asking to pay teachers the minimum wages, buy computers and build boundary walls.
“It costs to run a school. You have to get it painted, fix the benches and arrange drinking water. Officials of the SEF keep monitoring the schools. They ask us to have the school painted, get the blackboards fixed etc.” said a school owner in Naushero Feroze who has been asked to close all four of his schools. “Now they are asking us to leave.”
Another entrepreneur in Mirpurkhas has been asked to shut down seven schools. “You cannot close down a programme which has been running smoothly on a month’s notice. That too when the school year has already started,” he said. “Our schools are imparting education in areas which the government had ignored for decades.”
Teachers fear that they will be left without a job. “We have worked with these children for months. How can you shut down an entire school without a prior warning, so abruptly. We have families to feed,” said a teacher talking on phone from a school based in Karachi.
Entrepreneurs feel that though they have kept their promise of providing quality education, the government failed to address their grievances time and again. The quarterly funds they receive are delayed on a regular basis. Sometimes they receive pending funds of February in September.
Many claim that this is the sole reason why the number of schools has dropped from 1300 to only 900 in five years.
Deputy Managing Director SEF, Aziz Kabani said the closed schools were not financially viable. “We work on a per child subsidy and to run a school one needs at least 150 students,” he said.
“To the school owners we gave them two options; they had to either increase enrollment or consolidate a number of schools together in one building,” he said.
However, entrepreneurs maintain that distance is one of the main reasons why students drop out of school. A primary school needs to be at a walkable distance, they argue.
Kabani adds that the students who will be thrown out of school after this move are SEF’s responsibility. “We will take care of them. We have given ads in newspapers asking entrepreneurs to open bigger schools in these localities,” he said.
Naheed Durrani said that schools were not closed down because they were too small in size. “It is not about a big school or a small school; it is about the quality of education,” she said. “School owners who have been handed out notices have filled their pockets with the funds and not spent it on education.”
Durrani reverberates the promise. “We have placed advertisements for new schools and something will be done shortly.”
But plans are still in the pipeline, and before a new school comes, thousands of students may have already missed a school year.
Sindh has the second largest chunk of out of school children among all provinces in the country. Even terrorism-hit Khyber Pakhtunkhwa performs better when it comes to education.
This article was published with the title Out of school in the June 26, 2015 issue of The News on Sunday.