Remaking Public School Education in Pakistan

By Anjum Altaf and Samia Altaf

This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on October 18, 2010. It is being reproduced here with permission of the authors in order to provide a forum for feedback, comments, and discussion. Parallels with other countries in South Asia would be particularly welcome.

Pakistan’s public education system is sick and getting sicker. But what exactly is the malady? We employ this medical perspective to highlight the issues and to propose for consideration a radical yet feasible path to recovery.

The health care perspective comprises three essential steps: a description of the problem; a diagnosis of the cause; and a prescription of the remedy. In the case of public education in Pakistan there has been no diagnosis, only descriptions and prescriptions.No wonder the health of the system has continued to deteriorate despite the numerous policy prescriptions over the years.

The problem is that by now the disease is so advanced that there is no time to be spared for diagnosis. Without an emergency procedure and some kind of transplant, the patient would expire, i.e., the system would implode.

Consider the following. In the 5-to-19 years age group there are 70 million children, more than half of whom (42 million) are out of school. Over a half million children are added to this stock every year. Elementary arithmetic suggests that NGO-run schools cannot offer a solution. They cannot absorb even a fraction of the new yearly addition to the out-of-school population let alone address the stock of out-of-school children. Thus the scale of the problem is increasing rapidly, not decreasing.

Second, the children who do go to school, at least since the time of Zia ul Haq, are being indoctrinated rather than educated, one reason that intolerance in Pakistani society has grown so rapidly. Even highly trained professionals have suffered because acquiring skills and being educated are distinct phenomena.

Third, education has become an extremely politicized and fiercely contested domain in which all elements (employment, teaching, textbooks, examinations) now involve issues of ideological influence, political patronage, criminal involvement, and economic rent.

Finally, the problem has acquired a scale such that an across-the-board prescription to fix all public schools is rendered virtually infeasible. Neither financial nor human capital resources will prove sufficient and would be spread so thin as to be ineffective. Furthermore, there is little chance that unqualified teachers could be laid off or new ones familiar with modern content and pedagogy trained in sufficient numbers to make a difference in the short term.

Given the above, the traditional remedy of attempting to nurture a sick system back to health will fail. A transplant is needed that would allow starting over with the core of a fresh and healthy program. This core should have the ability to grow rapidly attracting healthy cells away from the diseased body of the old system thereby itself becoming the de facto system over time.

We propose establishing around 1000 magnet schools, between five and ten per district, in the first phase. These schools would enroll especially gifted and talented children, selected on the basis of tests that discount the advantages of social and economic status, in order to fast track nurturing the most promising human capital in the country. The schools, an investment in the future of the country, would be fully subsidized for all to eliminate the negative psychology of distinctions between children and to initiate a process of social integration. While it is important to provide the poor a channel for upward mobility, anything that is exclusively for the poor is stigmatized as second-rate in Pakistani society. The schools should be of such quality that all families would want to enroll their children in them.

Each magnet school would serve as the hub in its area for the provision of distance education to a number of public schools that might wish to affiliate with it voluntarily. This initiative would leverage both old and new technologies to improve education in the satellite schools. Leading firms would be invited to pilot new approaches with attractive licensing incentives and awards for particularly relevant innovations. Expatriate Pakistani entrepreneurs should find this opportunity of special interest.

A new examination board built around revised content and pedagogy would certify students graduating from the magnet schools with non-magnet schools having the option to affiliate voluntarily with the new board. Certification by this board would carry privileges that would generate pressure from below for other schools to switch to it thereby initiating a non-coercive and non-confrontational path to curricular and teaching reforms.

Competitive contracts would be employed for awarding the rights to set up the magnet schools grouping districts to ensure an optimal number of contracts. NGOs active in education and private school chains would be logical contenders bidding on subsidy required per student. Competition amongst winning bidders and prospects of further opportunities in subsequent phases would generate positive incentives for efficiency and good performance while comparative performance would also provide valuable data for benchmarking and monitoring the program.

A natural corollary would be upgrading a selected number of teacher training institutions to build capacity for staffing the magnet schools. In-service teachers would be eligible to sit for the certification examinations in order to create an incentive for voluntary improvement of skills to become part of a merit-based elite cadre of teachers.

A number of independent auditors would be associated with the program to monitor the initiative and provide public disclosure of progress at the magnet and satellite schools. These auditors would have access to information about school budgets, project timelines and interim milestones.

At this stage we are refraining from prescribing details of how exactly such an initiative might be implemented. We are interested in suggesting a radical but feasible new dynamic in public education to trigger an intensive debate amongst Pakistanis and friends of Pakistan outside the country. We believe that the essential features of this initiative and its transformative potential are such that it should appeal both to Pakistanis and to donors who are keen to invest in the future of the country. Collective deliberation should help to shape it into a package that would ensure ownership by all those interested in the future of public education in Pakistan.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:29h, 19 October Reply

    What incentive will gifted students have to want to get to these magnet schools? What reputation will the schools have at the time of establishment? Why would graduates from these schools be sought after ?

    How will the curriculum and teachers of these schools be protected from the political influences that have degraded the existing education system?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:07h, 19 October

      Vinod: If you consider the IIT model you should get the answer to all your questions. In one sense the proposal would work better than the IIT model simply because it would start at a much earlier age. Many of the IIT applicants are advantaged rather than talented because talent that is not nurtured at an early age atrophies. Those who are advantaged forge ahead. This rapidly shrinks the pool of candidates that can aspire to meet the entry requirements of an IIT-like institution. If talent is randomly distributed in the population, as one would expect, a magnet school system would pick up many more from the underprivileged and give them a chance of developing their talent.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:05h, 19 October Reply
  • Amjad Kalyar
    Posted at 16:50h, 23 February Reply

    I am a teacher at UK. I am working towards my post-graduate certifcate in education (PGCE) degree and going to be a Qualified teacher learning and skills.

    I want to work for the improvement of Pakistani education system and insist on the teacher training and professionalism in schools and colleges.

    I will appreciate if I can do any efforts for this cause.

  • abdul manan
    Posted at 20:39h, 28 July Reply

    i am a student of psychology and i amm very dishearted from this paralyzed system of pakistan.
    i want to work for it but i am not getting any medium to start with….
    everyone discouages plzzzz help me finding the right medium.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:11h, 30 July

      abdul manan: The system has rotted; you cannot work for it. You can work to change it. You can make a start by articulating what a healthy system of education ought to be like and then join a discussion with others who share the same interest.

  • Ilan
    Posted at 03:40h, 09 September Reply

    Were these programs funded by the magnet grants offered by US dept of education? Great initiatives.

  • Ilan
    Posted at 23:41h, 09 September Reply

    The US magnet schools were created to de-segregate schools in certain areas and bring in a diversity of students together.. They used . computer-based lottery system for admissions for the gifted. I hope new schools in the Pakistan follows these doctrines bringing different ethnic and religiously diverse students together..

  • Kijan
    Posted at 08:41h, 13 September Reply

    Regarding the subject of economic inequality in Pakistan, the dean had mentioned there is a strong resistance for elitist students to engage & encourage the impoverished rural in Pakistan but when we see other schools like Forman Christian college (zakat fund) & many other schools in Pakistan embody values of academic excellence / leaders and civic service to help the poor then we can see it is possible to influence the poor and still be a considered a well respected leader in the business community..,and a world class leader..
    I think LUMS has not bridged that gap in providing a hybrid model that can be sold to Pak elite students to do grassroots work and lead., There may be a social stigmas but we can see other schools in Pakistan excelling in it such as FCC college.. Also, the Indian community NRIs / immigrants in Silicon Valley have done a great job in giving back to rural India and creating nonprofits help lift the disadvantaged.
    Pakistan’s diversity isn’t that different from India’s diversity…

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:08h, 13 September

      Kijan: LUMS also has a program to support low-income students and now almost 7 to 10 percent students are admitted of full financial assistance. These are all very good initiatives and I mentioned that the non-profits like TCF were doing a commendable job by providing education for the marginalized. The point I wished to stress was that while this is very good for the individual beneficiaries, it cannot provide a solution to the macro problem because it cannot scale to that level. I went over the arithmetic to prove that. Over half million students are falling out of school each year. When you add all the admissions provided by the non-profits the number is in the thousands. Therefore the magnitude of the problem will continue to grow.

      The test of your argument (NRIs, graduates of FCC etc., giving back to rural areas) has to be measured against the outcome. If this was a viable proposition the number of disadvantaged should have decreased significantly in South Asia? HAS IT? Compare it with the reduction of poverty in China which has taken a different approach to the problem.

    • Ilan
      Posted at 21:39h, 13 September

      Dr. Altaf,
      Thanks for responding. Both nations are facing similar problems in educational reforms in rural areas. It appears both nations have harbored “career politicians” and that have impeded progress to the growth and development of the nations. Pak’s corruption index 2.5, India is 3.1 and both are low..

      There are some advantages to Indian education in that it promotes mathematics, sciences, technical skills just like Pakistan’s system but the reality is more jobs are being outsourced to India with greater Foreign investment than Pakistan, primarily because Pakistan has other problems. Poor governance in Pakistan and other systemic issues drive investment away. The NRIs in Silicon Valley did not scale reforms state by state but they have played roles as investors, incubators, and business people of India’s companies which will have long term incremental gains as a result of the high numbers of educated Indians & acceleration of the emerging middle class.
      The Indians abroad have assisted in mobilising the required capital for private investment in education but again its not enough to catch up to reduce the entire nation’s rural illiteracy problem but there are stakes in the ground.. America India Foundation has impacted 23 states in India educational reforms and defined programs and 23 million people in India..

      The educational approaches in both nations are to reward the high scoring testers (high credentials) vs. people with skills (execution). The skills approach is in the west vs. a knowledge approach in India & Pakistan. US has its own issues with public schools but higher education has big rewards and incentives are with the skills based approach and execution skills in problem solving, research and innovation etc.

      I see nothing but gains to teaching real skills vs. knowledge at various levels in Pakistan.
      “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”

      Hopefully, we can see some report backs with Magnet schools in Pakistan on your website.

      Thank you.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:50h, 14 September

      Ilan: I am not sure how one ‘harbors’ career politicians. Corruption in many other countries (e.g., China) is also quite high – I don’t think that is the critical variable.

      You have moved away to discussing reasons for more FDI going to India than to Pakistan and you are right that the lack of stability in Pakistan is one of the reasons for the difference. But this does not have all that much bearing on the system of education which has a common heritage. Elite institutions in both countries teach the same things and both neglect the underprivileged majorities. Both Indians and Pakistanis abroad have contributed to investments in education but as I mentioned these cannot scale to provide a solution.

      You are right there are gains to education however you define it. The real question is given that such gains are obvious why have the governments continued to neglect education for the majorities?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 23:20h, 14 September

      An op-ed on the state of higher education in India today from someone who knows. The state of school education is worse:

  • Kijan
    Posted at 14:13h, 13 September Reply

    Also, it was mentioned that elite LUMS students cannot communicate with Pak’s ethic rural communities due to language and social class barriers which is true but there are language translators in Pakistan that can be provided to help.. Seems like “out of sight out of mind issue”.
    In addition, the cost to do an education forum/talk in a village is low but the gain is high. Seems easy to say but how did Bangladesh and India improve economically in the last decade?? If LUMS students can travel across the world to the west to seek their dreams they can certainly travel down the street to a village once in a year… If Pakistan’s don’t help each other there won’t be much change..

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:18h, 13 September

      Kijan: Interacting through translators reinforces the relationship between the rulers and the ruled which is part of the problem.

      Improving economically is too broad a term for this discussion. If we are talking of poverty, we should look at the bottom 20 percent of the income-earners. Do what extent has their situation improved in India and Bangladesh? How does that compare with China?

      The travel of LUMS students is not restricted by physical mobility. There is profit, prestige, and pleasure in travelling outward but nothing to gain by traveling inwards. Places just 30 miles from Lahore are like a foreign country to many who regularly visit countries abroad.

    • Kijan
      Posted at 05:54h, 14 September

      I have not heard of “rulers and the ruled” concept with translators. It seems straightforward to translate into Punjabi or another local dialect other than English (business commerce language). The class gap is too wide in Pakistan. I don’t blame them for taking the exit strategy.

      In Bangladesh, the central government nationalized and assumed the administration of private and NGO-run primary schools. The nationalization benefited teachers with pay and benefits and it was a sign that Bangladesh was committed to improve the prospects of education. Enrollment rates increased but its still needs work to reach a more robust education sector. Because South Asia is so diverse there has to be an out of the box educational model that fits the diversity and social issues of that nation with emphasis on accessibility and quality.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 11:55h, 14 September

      Kijan: Imagine a ruling elite that is unfamiliar with the language of the ruled – How alienating can that be? Governing and communicating through translators is almost like being under colonial rule. Can you think of something similar in China or Korea or Vietnam?

      The class gap is equally wide, if not wider, in India but fewer are taking the exit strategy. In fact many are moving back to India from abroad. The bleak economy is partly fueling the exit from Pakistan.

      Nationalization was the cause of the steep decline in education in Pakistan. This included FC College which was ruined and has only begun to recover after being de-nationalized. This implies that such interventions have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. One cannot assume that nationalization would yield the same results everywhere. You are right, every place needs to craft a solution compatible with its contextual conditions.

  • Kijan
    Posted at 03:15h, 15 September Reply

    The biggest root cause of why South Asian nations neglect education for its majority is because the leaders of those nations have “very old minds in a new world”.

    China has succeeded because of it’s highly industrious values making billions of govt investments in human capital and infrastructure, FDI, R&D, education laws, etc.

    Nations need govt support of educational programs and investment programs to reach a more robust education sector.

    I understand the colonial application of the “rulers and the ruled” concept but the term appears old fashioned in its application to the youth in South Asia and generation X and Y, the Facebook generation is more concerned about opportunity, growth and the latest trends.

    Also, China despite all its corruption could probably resolve Pakistan’s issues with power, tax, investments and financing and its educational crisis issues/sector.

    Also, I mentioned because South Asia is so diverse there has to be an out of the box educational model that fits the diversity and social issues.

    The big question is what is being done at your end and others on the ground to resolve these issues with lack social mobility and access to education? Great theoretical essays but what is the execution or piloted plans to make it happen? I provided a suggested model of engagement.

  • Kijan
    Posted at 05:37h, 22 September Reply

    The answers to how on rebuild a broken state are offered by the new elected Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani who appears to be true visionary on capital mobilization, trade expansion, end to economic aid and educational reforms.. That would be interesting if he rebuilds faster than Pakistan does.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 00:52h, 23 September

      Kijan: Pakistan has been in the grip of uncaring rulers so it should not be hard to rebuild faster than Pakistan if the leadership in Afghanistan adopts that as its goal. That, however, remains to be seen. As far as intellect is concerned Ashraf Ghani is head and shoulders above anyone Pakistan has ever had.

  • Kijan
    Posted at 04:06h, 26 September Reply

    Agreed: World class leadership, intellect and education aren’t requirements to run Pakistan.

  • Kijan
    Posted at 18:21h, 26 September Reply

    Agree. Intellectuals are “needed” to run every developing nation including Pakistan but that perspective is only shared by the small % of other intellectuals or educated. Your perspectives or “requirements” are as an intellectual that’s why you believe its needed but that is very different than the millions of other Pakistanis. Everyone has a different set of requirements of the nation and it depends on the kind of Pakistani you speak to (very split society). Unfortunately, the non-intellectuals have won.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 21:08h, 26 September

      Kijan: My perspective on this is somewhat different.

      First, it is not intellectuals that are needed to run government and organizations but competent professionals selected on merit on the basis of their qualifications. Most Pakistanis would agree with that. The role of the intellectual in society is very different.

      Second, even ordinary Americans have a very anti-intellectual attitude which is why presidential candidates have to pretend to be beer-drinking pals of “Joe the plumber.” However, they are all comfortable with appointment processes that keep unqualified people out of important assignments. The established procedures are such that ‘non-intellectuals’ can’t do anything about them even if they wanted to.

  • Kijan
    Posted at 06:17h, 27 September Reply

    You may be focusing on word intellectual more so than concept. The concept of the “intellectual” is anyone who is professionally concerned with thought and who has put pen to paper to explore his or her thoughts to ideas and this can be in any level of service to “developed” or “developing” nations and even a college drop out can be intellectual and some have have changed the world with their ideas.

    Role of intellectuals in society is not different because their skills can be specialized in their fields just like a assembly worker but they have greater set of thoughts & ideas that can be transformational to society and some not for good of society. In Pakistan the definition of “competence” of qualifications varies.

    The candidates in the US have to be approachable and affable towards the middle class. That is always been there in leadership. it’s acceptable to engage socially with the middle class and it’s part of the political process and even over beer which is quite normal. All classes drink beer in the US and Europe.
    Ordinary Americans aren’t anti intellectual. They are just “ordinary” simple which does not make them anti intellectual. It just means they prefer inclusion & affability vs exclusion. Majority of Pakistan are excluded.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:02h, 07 October

      Kijan: I am unable to agree with most of your premises.

      It is very loose to describe an intellectual as “anyone who is professionally concerned with thought and who has put pen to paper to explore his or her thoughts.” To take just one example, all journalists are concerned with thought and all put pen to paper to express their thoughts but no one would claim that all journalists are intellectuals. You have to narrow down the definition to have a useful argument.

      The definition of competence is not one that varies from place to place. It is the adherence to the criterion of competence that varies.

      There is a long history of anti-intellectualism in the US. Richard Hofstadter’s book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life came out in 1963. ‘Eggheads’ is the derogatory American term for people who come across as intellectuals.

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