Despite having the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world, the financing and governance of education in Pakistan has seen little improvement.
Approximately 22 million children are out of school, yet no significant improvement in enrolment has been seen in the last five years. To address this complexity, investments made by international financial institutions such as the World Bank were aimed at bringing horizontal and vertical change by establishing education foundations such as the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) and Sindh Education Foundation (SEF).
It is pertinent to mention that the World Bank is one of the largest external funders of education in developing countries. In Punjab, the World Bank has invested around $1.7 billion in the last 10 years in the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) to bring children back to school and offer education with the core vision of “better quality education through the private sector to low-income households”.
The PEF claims that it currently sponsors 8,700 private schools, which cater to 2.4 million students through its four programmes. However, a recent study by Oxfam shows that despite this investment, there is little growth in enrolment, equity, quality and access to education. Investment in the Punjab Education Foundations (PEF) by the World Bank show various lacunas at the levels of policy, implementation, compliance, equity and access to quality education, consequently raising questions about the sustainability of the programme.
Some of the areas which require immediate attention include the governance of the PEF, which operates as an independent governing body. The School Education Department (SED) has a massive setup at the provincial level for teacher training and the monitoring and evaluation of schools, while the PEF operates outside this structure. Similarly, PEF schools are not accessible to students from low-income backgrounds as the tough admission tests in these schools are not designed for children with little or no exposure to early education. Due to an incentive-based approach which is not sustainable, children from poor or low-income families transfer from public schools to nearby PEF sponsored low-fee private schools. This leads to low retention and enrolment rates in public schools.
Oxfam’s study notes that the quality of education in PEF-sponsored schools is low, with most teachers in these receiving low salaries, sometimes even below the minimum wage. Additionally, little investment is made in training teachers. PEF-sponsored schools are also exacerbating gender disparities with few girls enrolling in their co-ed schools. The study also finds that the public education system is relatively more responsive than the PEF programme in Punjab. School councils in public-sector schools ensure a degree of social accountability, while no such mechanism has been established for PEF-sponsored schools despite public funds having been spent on the programme.
There is a need to urgently bring improvements in the PEF programme to ensure inclusiveness, accountability, accessibility and quality of education. Some of the steps which may be taken include merging the PEF with SED to ensure accountability and minimise overlaps in mandates. This would also ensure a more uniform framework for measuring learning achievements at the district level.
Accessibility may also be improved by creating more realistic admissions tests, which also allow students with limited exposure to early education to enrol. To address the gender disparity, a gender unit may be established which provides technical assistance to the PEF to improve gender responsiveness within planning and budgeting
Wold Bank investments must nurture human development and provide quality education. However, it has been observed that tests in these schools are promoting rote learning. Secondly, allocations need to be enhanced on teacher training to ensure to improve quality of teaching. It is essential to incorporate citizens’ voices to bring more accountability and transparency in financing PEF-supported schools. This would promote social accountability and help school administrations gain the trust of citizens and offer better educational services.
The writer leads the Financing for Gender Justice Project at Oxfam in Pakistan.