Why isn't the standard of education in Pakistan's private schools regulated?
A free school run by Yorkshire’s biggest academy chain, Dawes Lane Academy, has been closed down, simply because it failed to secure a suitable permanent premise. The school was opened last year on a temporary property after getting necessary permission from the Department for Education.
Does that, in anyway, ring a bell?
Private educational institutions today have become a billion rupee industry in Pakistan. A phenomenal growth in private sector schools between 2000 to 2014 has been recorded – an increase of 69 per cent, as compared to a mere eight per cent in public sector schools.
This should not come as a surprise since not much is required to open a private school in Pakistan. Institutions offering primary and middle school education do not require affiliation with a board, which means anyone can get a school registered without being accountable for suitable permanent premises, qualified faculty, a library, and other necessary facilities.
Schools offering secondary education for ninth and 10th grade – if they ever choose to get affiliated with the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (BISE) – would be required to present premise ownership documents or a rent agreement ( they do not require permanent properties), approved building map, proof of a functioning lab, a list of library books, teachers’ appointment letters along with copies of academic degrees.
Once affiliated, respective boards do not invest much into the monitoring of these affiliated schools, usually a board official pays a ceremonial visit once a year to see if the affiliated schools have maintained the minimum requirements.
Private sector schools charge fees between Rs10, 000 to Rs30, 000 per month. Yet, most of them are not housed in purpose-built permanent premises and instead prefer rented buildings (in fact houses) to start with. This, besides other factors, creates immense trouble for the residents of the locality. For instance, Islamabad is bursting with private schools in its residential areas with no dedicated parking facilities resulting in long traffic jams and inconvenience to the residents. Thus private schools’ profits are uncompensated social costs of the residents of the locality upon whose expense these schools are able to avoid providing parking facilities to their clients.
The issue of quality is further ignored due to the lack of effective regulation by the government. There exists a terrible market failure in the form of information asymmetry, households usually do not have enough information to decide amongst schools on the basis of quality education. The only, and one of the most over-used, indicators for parents to distinguish among schools is through the range of fees. Consequently, private schools find an incentive in investing on publicity campaigns.
Expensive private school chains catering to the elite generally do not face challenges regarding the quality of education, so much is covered by their pomp and show, and the psychological impression they are able to cast over the minds of the families. The issue of quality is raised more frequently for low-cost private schools which are prevalent in both rural and urban areas. However, despite everything, there exist genuine complaints over the board regarding purpose-built buildings, low student-teacher ratios and exploitation of teachers.
It is, however, astounding that these high-cost private schools have not been able to achieve a remarkable distinction in terms of performance when compared with public sector schools. According to the comparative performance analysis based on the ‘regular testing of grade five and grade eight students, conducted by the Punjab Examination Commission (PEC) in Punjab and National Educational Assessment System (NEAS) nationally’, there exist marginal differences between the performance of students from public and private schools.
Recently, the media has highlighted how an unregulated food business has been making enormous profits at the expense of consumers’ health. There is a serious possibility that the education sector may have been equally exploitative since the education sector is allowed to operate in the absence of an effective state-enforced regime of rules and regulations. This has resulted in some very grave market failures such as absence of informed consumption of educational services, equity and quality failures, and social costs.
The regulation of private sector education providers is necessary to ensure minimum level of quality education and bridging the information gap so parents get value for their spending. Above all, this regulation is required to ensure that children have balanced education and training essential for their intellectual, physical and spiritual growth.
It is not that no regulatory framework or legal instruments exist to regulate private schools in Pakistan. Regulatory framework exists for every province. Noteworthy among them are:
1. Islamabad Capital Territory Educational Institutions (Regulation and Promotion) Ordinance XXII of 2006.
2. Punjab Private Educational Institutions Promotion and Regulation Ordinance 1984.
3. Sindh Educational Institutions Regulation and Control Ordinance, 2001 and Amended Act 2003, effective from August 2004.
4. The NWFP Registration and Functions of Private Educational Institutions (Amendment) Ordinance, 2002.
The problem is, as in the case of food businesses, these ordinances have not been actively implemented.
Education is one of 17 ministries devolved to provinces through the 18th Constitutional Amendment. There is a dire need for the provincial governments to assert their presence in the education sector, especially with reference to regulation of private schools. There already exists provincial monitoring and evaluation cells. The only thing needed is to breathe life into them and affirm government commitment similar to that of Punjab Food Authority.
Today, it’s not just about ensuring access to education for everyone, it is instead about ensuring access to affordable quality education for all and sundry for which it is imperative to introduce a mechanism of active inspection and monitoring through formulating and enforcing standards pertaining to purpose- built buildings, qualification, training and salaries of teachers, availability of a library, a functioning lab, and a playground for a balanced growth of children.
It is equally important to introduce a grading system for schools based on the aforementioned standards. The recent operations by the Punjab Food Authority have proved that given political will, commitment and bureaucratic dedication, it is not difficult at all to ensure that our children, our true national assets, have access to affordable quality education.
You can do it Pakistan, and you must, for a healthy and prosperous tomorrow.
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