The national flag sways proudly with the direction of the wind, perched atop Federal Model School for Boys in Mal village, near the Bahria Enclave. From afar, it looks like school is in session during the afternoon. And yet, a closer inspection reveals that the school is starkly deserted: there is not a student in sight.
There are no tell-tale signs outside but, clearly, this is a ghost school.
“Our teachers told us that the school was being closed down because of an insufficient number of students,” says a second grader, Ali*. “I miss it.”
Clearly, even the scenic Islamabad is no exception to the phenomenon of ghost schools. Like thousands of others in the country, this school is not functioning and yet, four teachers continue to draw salaries. With the gates now firmly closed for education, the building is being used by the housing society.
What’s in a ghost school?
The top court recently intervened on the basis of media reports and ordered district judges to conduct a survey to identify the ghost schools, a murky task unto itself.
While stating its limits for intervention, the Supreme Court observed during the hearing of suo motu case that a ghost school can be defined an infrastructure built for school purposes which now houses animals in courtyards and classrooms. These schools today are residences, stables or offices of private or official departments, including those of the police and Rangers. Teachers continue to draw salaries, while the buildings remain occupied by those other than students.
A country-wide epidemic
In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa alone, there are 28,510 schools, out of which over 3,000 have been destroyed or damaged because of militancy, military operations and floods, since 2001.
“We left our homes in a hurry when the security forces launched an operation against the militants,” says Issa*, a resident of Behrain, a small town in Swat. “My 10-year-old son was distraught at having to leave the house without his books and schoolbag.”
A teacher reveals that although she has been drawing the salary of a primary school teacher for a decade, she does not even know the location of the school she is supposedly employed by.
In a similar vein, Sindh, historically known for its peaceful and tolerant culture, has been badly affected by ghost schools. Many locals blame the waderas, who want to curb human development in their districts, in a bid to keep their influence intact.
When asked about this menace, residents of Jacobabad do not say much. Instead, they furtively show pictures of a man severely beaten up by the local wadera when he helped a judicial team identify a ghost school in the area.
A top office bearer of the Sindh Rural Development Society revealed that in the rural district of Matiari alone, over 60,000 children are not going to school.
In Balochistan, the situation is worse, in many ways. Official records indicate that this province birthed the phenomenon. Although only 36 out of the total 12,388 schools have been identified as ghost schools by the provincial education department, experts claim this figure is grossly misleading, especially when considering the law and order situation.
Punjab is also plagued. Out of 58,000 schools, over 266 are occupied for purposes other than education.
According to the secretary of Punjab’s education department, the deplorable situation can largely be blamed on the lack of planning. He says there are 460, not 266, ghost schools, but rather than addressing the issue, authorities keep shifting the onus of responsibility onto the shoulders of others.
According to collaborative report published by the UN and the Pakistani government last year, nearly half of all primary schoolchildren and nearly three quarters of young girls are not enrolled in schools. Currently, Pakistan’s spending on education is less than 2.5 % of GDP -- only nine countries in the world spend less than that on education. Further still,
Addressing the issue
In line with the promises for an overhaul of the education system, a mammoth task before the newly-elected government is to make the thousands of ghost schools functional.
But the manifestos of major political parties—Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf— have failed to address the issue altogether.
Aurya Maqbool Jan, a high-level education officer in Punjab, believes that in many cases, funds were allocated for construction of schools without proper assessment. Now, a comprehensive census is required to determine the exact scenario.
Imran Masood, the former education minister in Punjab, agrees with Jan. These experts claim that government schools are easy targets for encroachers – the lack of ownership makes them vulnerable and up-for-grabs by those involved with illegal activities, or influentials of the area.
“The functioning of the closed and destroyed schools will be a top priority of the newly elected provincial government,” says Sirajul Haq, the designated-finance minister in new K-P government.
Others, too, are optimistic. Fazalullah Pecheho, a secretary of the education department of Sindh, says that efforts are underway to retrieve such schools.
“277 schools have been retrieved this year and they are now functional,” he claims. “More will be done soon.”
*Names have been changed to protect identity
Published in The Express Tribune, May 30th, 2013.