Despite Pakistan’s efforts to universalise primary and secondary education, access to quality education still remains a challenge — especially for girls and children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds — with more than 22 million children still out of school. If you go by the numbers, this number of out of school children has remained almost stagnant in the last three to four years. While retention and transition to post-primary levels remain a challenge, the education system has also not been able to provide adequate learning spaces for all children.
It is also pertinent to note that the development budgets to create additional school spaces have been slashed recently for all the provinces. The ability of public education sector to meet the educational needs of the populace has been in question for quite some time now, especially for being compliant with the requirements of Article 25-A (free and compulsory education for all) and the Sustainable Development Goals (inclusive and equitable quality education for all).
While private sector is also a key actor in education provision, the fact that private schools are for-profit endeavours means that a huge portion of the population will remain unserved, given our socioeconomic divide. The potential role of the private sector in provision of public services, a public private partnership (PPP) modality, is considered an optimal alternative. There is quite a decent body of literature that demonstrates the value and impact of public private partnerships in education — from shouldering the state’s responsibility for educating all children to low per child costs to strict adherence to standards and all the way to improved learning outcomes in public-private schools compared with public schools.
Of course, there is the other side of the coin as well. The impact of PPPs in education has also been questioned by a few; although not much convincingly when it comes to the work being done by the publicly funded education foundations in Pakistan. The body of literature that critiques private provision of public services highlights that the PPP approach is not cost-efficient, fuels exclusion of the poorest, particularly girls, relies on untrained and less-paid teachers and results in low quality education in comparison with the public schools.
I have worked in the education sector for quite some time now and am familiar with various reforms undertaken in the sector for improving access and quality of education; low cost private schooling funded through education foundations being one of them.
To better contextualise my viewpoint, let me focus on the work being done by the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) and see if the above critique holds in this case or not. PEF caters for the educational needs of 18 percent of Punjab’s enrolment (excluding private schools’ enrolment; 11 percent after they are included), i.e., 2.7 million children while only receiving 5 percent of Punjab’s education budget. PEF’s per student cost comes to around Rs705; significantly lower than the Rs1,659 spending per student per month in case of public schools’ sector.
PEF model is cost-efficient, no doubt. For every 100 boys, 82 girls are enrolled in PEF schools. Although not perfect, there is low gender disparity in enrolment. This shows that the notion of exclusion of girls is not true. On exclusion of the poorest through the PEF’s approach, it is pertinent to mention that more than 75 percent of the PEF schools are established in rural and peri-urban areas, the complete New School Program of PEF is focused on establishing schools in underserved areas, and a considerable 34 percent of PEF students belong to families from lowest income quintile in the province; higher than public and private schools.
Regarding learning outcomes of students, the official data collected for six-monthly assessments and examination conducted by Punjab Examination Commission show that the students of PEF schools are consistently performing better than their counterparts in public schools. Yes, the teachers are paid less in comparison with the public-school counterparts and there is a need to establish a threshold in this regard. However, this is more likely to result in increasing the per student subsidy provided to the PEF schools.
Another notion that teachers in PEF schools are untrained is unwarranted. PEF has a dedicated continuous professional development unit which takes cares of developing core competencies of the PEF teachers. The foundation provides gratis training support to teachers and head teachers under its teacher development programme and school leadership development programme. PEF has also made it mandatory for the teachers of schools failing the QATs to undergo its specialised training programme.
The non-fee expenditure borne by parents of students enrolled in PEF schools are in the range of Rs1,225 to Rs1,440 per month, as per the evidence quoted in one of the recent reports on the subject. While some of the reported expenditure categories do not hold for all children and are based on very select evidence, let us assume for a moment that these are true reflections of the on-ground situation. A review of the available counterfactuals will help in seeing if these are on the higher side. A recent report by UNICEF and I-SAPS reports the same spending range in case of public schools as well; Rs1,312 per month, to be exact. This is not to undermine the fact that these costs should be cut down for low-earning parents; however, let us not blame it as an inefficiency on part of PEF schools only.
Summarising the above, the standout results of the PEF and its associated PPP model negate the unwarranted critique on it. It can be safely said that the PEF model is cost-effective, takes care of the marginalised, consistently provides quality education and can be relied upon for shouldering the burden of the state in providing access to quality education.
For anybody who is convinced of the benefits of education and is genuinely interested in provision of education for all children, no matter what disparities they face, it should not matter what vehicle is used to do so. It is important to be open minded about the involvement of the public sector, private sector and the public private sector in this noble endeavour, as each of these have their own sets of advantages over the others. These three pillars have to collectively bear the load of providing access to quality education for our children.
It goes without saying that the success (universal primary and secondary education) would depend upon appropriate balance between the active participation of the three sectors and it is important that we acknowledge their roles; the sooner the best.