Education fairy tales for adults

July 2009: It seems that depending on emotions and being irrational, even in serious debate, is not just the domain of mullahs and movie stars, but rather the overwhelming national impulse. And when it comes to education, well-educated Pakistanis with good intentions tend to be as emotional and unreasonable as they come -- underscoring how deep this national impulse runs.
Arguing that non-state actors can address the challenges of educating the Pakistani youth is like arguing that sticks and stones are effective weapons in the face of nuclear war. The idea of non-state actors as the saviours of education in Pakistan is a fairy tale, and reasonable adults need to snap out of it.
According to the Pakistan Education Statistics handbook, most recently available for 2006-2007, the total number of students enrolled in all types of educational institutions -- beginning from age three, and including students at the university (all the way to the PhD) level is less than 37 million. Between ages five and 19, only 27.9 million are enrolled in schools.
Since there are nearly 70 million kids in that age group out there, Pakistan has 42 million kids between the ages of five and 19 that are not in any kind of school, representing 60 per cent of all kids in that age group. That is the total burden on the system -- private, philanthropic, NGO, madressah, government. All the efforts combined therefore currently address only 40 per cent of Pakistan's needs.
Non-state activities, or philanthropic, NGO and for-profit activities that seek to educate little children are wonderful, especially when they work well. These non-state actors can do a lot of good. At the micro-level they really do change people's lives and at the macro-level they can demonstrate how to do things right.
However, non-state actors simply cannot do what is required to educate Pakistan. The scale and scope of the education challenge can only be addressed by the state. It doesn't matter how good reading Three Cups of Tea makes us feel, or how good donating money to our favourite philanthropic school makes us feel, or how good sending our children to private schools makes us feel. The education debate cannot be about how good we feel. If we are to spare only one area in Pakistan of our overwhelming capacity to be emotional and irrational, it has to be education.
The largest and most effective non-state actors do not even begin to scratch the surface of what is needed to accommodate the 42 million Pakistani kids that are out of school. And by adopting the unproven and ineffective mantra of non-state solutions, we're not only getting it wrong, we're allowing the guilty party -- the state -- to get away scot-free.
If the overriding principle is that every child between five and 19 should be in school, then the problem can be defined rather simply: the demand for education in terms of number of kids that need to be in school far outstrips the supply, no matter who is actually delivering it -- government school, madressah, NGO or business.
Of the almost 28 million kids that are in school, nearly 19 million, or two-thirds, attend government schools. That means that all the non-state providers put together (anything other than the public sector, including madressahs, by the way) cater to only 9.1 million kids. That is 33 per cent of all kids that are already in school. Of course, we're more interested in the total population, i.e. every kid between five and 19 being in school. Of the total burden of 70 million kids, non-state educational institutions are serving only 13 per cent of all kids. Thirteen per cent is not a passing grade, not even in fairy tales.
Of course, establishing the need to retain public services in the education sector -- without which 87 per cent of all kids would be left out of school -- is not the end of the discussion; it is just the beginning. The real challenge is to make sure that public service in education is indeed a service, rather than a disservice. That's where the education debate gets interesting, and where it encounters resistance from the government and the feudal and military establishments.
The total public sector expenditure for education across all tiers of government for the 2006-2007 budget year was just under Rs132 billion. Forgetting for a moment that this is a miniscule 2.2 per cent of GDP, the real untold and unspoken horror of education in Pakistan is exactly how the Rs132 billion is spent.
Of the recurring expenditures in education, more than 95 per cent goes toward teachers' salaries. While the mythology of hot and emotional public discourse (rather than cold and rational) often laments how poorly government teachers are treated, the facts tell an entirely different story.
Government teachers are far better compensated than non-state teachers. There are some egregious examples of poor pay for private school teachers all over the country, but to demonstrate the point, we must take the best examples within the non-state space. Among the best examples of how to do things right is The Citizens Foundation (TCF). As I reported last week, TCF has done an exemplary job in establishing over 600 schools with over 80,000 students. It has more than 4,100 wonderful and committed female teachers. The average compensation for a TCF teacher is about Rs10,000.
Average government teacher salaries are dramatically higher. Researchers at the Institute for Social and Policy Sciences in Islamabad have calculated average primary school teachers' salaries at Rs12,000, average middle school teachers' salaries at Rs15,000 and average high school teachers' salaries at Rs19,000.
Many government teachers aren't just laughing all the way to the bank, they are laughing all month long at taxpayer expense, from the comfort of their homes. Too many of them don't even have to show up at work to collect their salaries. And because there is no accountability in government schools -- for showing up, for teaching, for performance of any kind -- a government education is not just ineffective, it is really, really expensive.
The Learning Achievements in Education in the Punjab (LEAPS) study (led by brilliant Harvard economist Asim Ijaz Khwaja and Tahir Andrabi of Pomona College) clearly identifies the problem of teacher incentives as a key to unlocking the public-private education disconnect. With a lower per capita expenditure, private sector education consistently produces better results. In fact, the LEAPS study finds that "every additional percent correct on exams costs three times more to achieve in government schools than in private schools".
This doesn't mean the answer is to privatise education. We've already established that the quantum of demand is so heavy that non-state actors cannot possibly address it. The solution to the education challenge, therefore, lies in fixing government schools and the place to start is teachers' incentives. That task begins with the delinking public school teachers from the Basic Pay Scale framework -- a cancerous construct that has destroyed institutional and personal accountability in the Pakistani government.
Those who believe that non-state solutions can address the problems of more than 60 per cent of Pakistani children are welcome to continue to believe in their fairy tales but the price tag for such fairy tales is the more than Rs132 billion that the government spends annually on a public sector system that is broken. And beyond the money, the real price tag is the question mark over the future of the 42 million Pakistani children that aren't even enrolled in school. Like all good fairy tales, belief in NGO and private schools as the solution in the education sector must be about making believers feel good. Does it feel good?.

By Mosharraf Zaidi - The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. He can be reached through his website (The News)