A report by Action Aid, titled Tax, Privatization and the Right to Education highlights the difficulties which the developing countries are facing in fulfilling their obligations to provide free and compulsory education. Several such countries, despite being a signatory to UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and also having national level legislation to provide free primary level schooling, struggle to meet the commitment.
The assessment is based on participatory research carried out in Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan, and Uganda. The report emphasises how even the poorest families in Pakistan end up paying direct and indirect fees which could be eliminated through a progressive fiscal policy. It can, in turn, help the poor access education. Furthermore, due to a lack of satisfaction with public school, often times parents are making hard choices and sending children to relatively expensive private schools.
While schools in public sector suffer because of less than desired quality of schooling, private sector expands to fill in this gap. Private schools lack proper regulation with discretion to increase fee at will, ultimately contributing to rising inequalities and stigmatisation of children coming from public school stream.
In some regions of Pakistan, under-funding of public schools may partially explain the above-mentioned challenges. However, for most part of the country a lack of proper monitoring and evaluation system and inability of public sector to learn from its own past assessments would explain the large number of out-of-school children. This view was also expressed by public sector education officials in a recent meeting organised by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) to see how monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning methods could be innovated and embedded at the local level education offices.
The report by Action Aid further argues that a violation of the right to education becomes difficult to explain in Pakistan when past and current governments continue to give away tax incentives to the rich, ultimately losing revenues which could improve public education systems and ensure provision of free and quality education. The authors present a framework whereby it is necessary to improve the financing of education services by public sector through an increase in the size, the share, the sensitivity and the scrutiny of the education budget to reach the goal of inclusive education for all.
To put such a framework in practice is easier said than done due to the entrenched vested interests seen in both public and private sector education spaces. For example, evidence from some developing countries suggests a trade-off between access and quality improvements in education, which the authors argue could also result in high student-teacher ratios, and in turn communities are expected to support the schooling facilities on self-help basis. On various occasions, civil society organisations (CSOs) are seen filling this gap which again is not a sustainable model given its reliance on charity and donor contributions. Any decline in such contributions results in disruption in provision of education services in the medium to longer run.
Another area highlighted by the report explains the existence of various types of indirect fee seen even in public schools. These could fall under classifications such as examination fees, development levy, text book packages, school reports, parent-teacher association fees, sports fee, meal charges, excursion expense, teacher motivation fee, and uniform fees. Most of these fee types are cited as compulsory and there are cases where children unable to pay these are sent back home, even in public schools. This clear violation of their right to education is often not reported by parents.
A comparison with Ghana, Kenya and Uganda reveals that Pakistan spends less than all three countries on education as a percentage of its national income. This lack of sensitivity is accentuated by vast differences in budget allocations seen across various tiers of education with pre-primary and primary education receiving much less resources than tertiary sector. The lack of gender-responsive budgeting is also evident. This can also be validated through recent statistics which reveals gender disparity in out-of-school children at primary level. Almost 47 per cent boys and 58 per cent girls in Sindh, and 39 per cent boys and 41 per cent girls in Punjab are out-of-school.
Going forward, the authors of Action Aid report highlight 6 major recommendations for Pakistan. First, there should be an effective regulation to keep a check on direct and indirect fee charged by public or private schools in the country. Second, systems which monitor and ensure improvements in quality of public schools need to be strengthened so that overtime parents don’t opt for a private schooling option and make hard financial choices. Third, dedicate and protect public budget allocations for recruiting, training and retaining qualified teachers; providing innovative learning materials and improving school infrastructure including classrooms, toilets, playgrounds and boundary walls. Evidence proves that investing more in local female teachers bears quick gains. Fourth, while the country has made progress in publishing decent data on public schools, a lot more efforts are required to ensure transparency by reporting accurate data on private schools including information regarding school owners, profits, fee structure, and areas of operation.
Fifth, the report identifies an important role for CSOs and think tanks. It is suggested that this sector should increase efforts to raise citizen awareness to hold governments accountable. Among other things, this also implies that citizens should demand that there should be sufficient budget for public sector education and particularly for girls’ schools. The policy research think tanks could use social accountability methods to promote participatory monitoring of public schools and strengthening regulation for private schools.
Finally, given the constrained resources available with the developing countries, it is expected that the donor community will increase its funding and technical support to help reform education. It can also help promote social accountability in education, promoting innovative ways that bring down the cost of delivery of education in both public and private space, and build capacity of education sector regulators.
The writer is an economist and author of ‘Pakistan’s Agenda for Economic Reforms’ published by the Oxford University Press. Twitter: @vaqarahmed