WEBDESK: Only after perturbed parents came out on the streets of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad to protest against exorbitant fees charged by private schools did the government take notice.
Punjab and Sindh education ministers held meetings with school owners to ask for withdrawal of undue fee hikes. The Prime Minister set up a committee to chalk out rules and procedures for regulating private schools affairs, and co-ordinate the same with the provinces.
The committee is also to take a look at the Private Educational Institutions Regulatory Authority (PEIRA), which is concerned only with the Islamabad Capital Territory. Until the public outcry, private school owners have been free to raise fees and charge extra money on one pretext or another.
Education even in affluent Western societies is a state responsibility. Unfortunately, however, successive governments in this country abdicated their constitutional responsibility to provide free, compulsory education to all children up to 16 years of age.
No wonder Pakistan has the lowest literacy rate in the whole of South Asia, and has missed, by a wide margin, the hundred percent literacy target that it was to meet under the UN Millennium Development Goals. To make a bad situation worse, over the years, the standard of education in the public sector schools has been on a constant decline. Much of the measly two percent of the budget earmarked for education is misspent.
Ghost schools exist only on paper, many of the ones on the ground lack basic facilities like drinking water, electricity, latrines and boundary walls, which encourage both student and teacher absenteeism. The teachers are often hired on the basis of favouritism rather than merit.
Consequently, public sector schools have become synonymous with poor education and parents wary of sending children to them; even the domestic aides commonly known as maasis prefer to send their children to private schools despite very low income levels.
That has led to a mushroom growth of private schools. Barring a few elite schools systems, most of the private schools catering to less fortunate sections of society fleece parents, hire unqualified teachers paying them nominal salaries, and offer poor quality education. That is not only unfair to struggling families but also bad for the progress of this society.
It won’t do only to address the fee issue. The government must use all available resources and options to improve the standard of education and expand the range of its reach. For that it can benefit from successful examples in other countries, such as a public-private partnership scheme under which educational institutions are run by private parties with the government maintaining control on core issues like curriculums and teacher qualifications.
The fee burden is shared by the government by matching the amount paid by pupils. Nonetheless, the key responsibility for overall betterment belongs to the government alone. A helpful measure would be letting local governments run schools under the watchful eyes of school boards manned by members of local communities. Grass roots’ representatives would be best placed to eliminate the problem of ghost schools and missing facilities in the existing ones.