Punjab has been working on education reforms the longest of any province, but their progress over the past decade demonstrates that a tougher top-down management of the education bureaucracy does not necessarily translate into meaningful results for students in classrooms.
According to a recent appraisal document by the World Bank, which has been financing reforms since 2003: “Despite over a decade of focused support to large scale education programs and what some have termed ‘cutting edge’ reforms, education outcomes, including enrollment rates and learning outcomes, in … Punjab are only marginally better than those in the rest of the country. Gains made over the last decade have stagnated, despite increased sector financing by the [government of] Punjab and support to the sector by the World Bank and other Development Partners (DPs).”
Enrollment has stagnated at 70 per cent in Punjab with federal government statistics indicating zero growth in the net enrollment of 6 to 10 year olds between 2010/11 and 2014/15. (DFID data collected by Nielsen shows an increase of six percent in enrollment since 2011.) Punjab’s critical challenge now is to improve the quality of learning, which will hopefully encourage parents to put their kids in school. But this is where gaps in the system are showing up.
According to several senior donor officials, Shahbaz Sharif’s heavy-handed push to achieve numeric targets is backfiring. They called the targets unrealistic and lacking a cohesive, long-term vision.
“Sharif has a ‘heads will roll’ approach. The idea is that if you put people under enough pressure, they will deliver,” said a senior official and educationist working onthePunjab reforms,who asked not to be identified. “A district education official under that much pressure is bound to invent some numbers.” District officials in charge of the lowest and highest performers have to answer to Sharif directly.
“Ridiculous pressure is put on district officials to show progress every month,” says Faisal Bari, an economist who has done research work on education, “But things don’t change every month.” Yet, some of Punjab’s numbers do change every month. The number of third graders who could complete basic functions in Urdu, English, and math increased by an average of four per cent between October and November 2015, according to monthly tests that government monitors administer to students on iPads.
Punjab’s data also shows that two of the three lowest performing districts in Punjab in April and May 2015 – Rajanpur and Rawalpindi – became the highest performers in math within four months. It is likely that such rapid increases reflect errors in data collection or weak methods such repeating questions so that the children become familiar with the answers.
“While Punjab is ahead of Sindh and KP in terms of education reforms, there are still concerns on the validity of data used for policy analysis. There is a high incentive to fake progress due to quarterly review led directly by the chief minister,” says Ali Inam, a consultant on Punjab’s reforms.
“KP’s numbers are more realistic, so in a few years they may get ahead because they actually figured out how to solve problems.”
Sharif’s management style is inspired by a philosophy that has been touted as a solution for Pakistan’s social sector problems: “deliverology,” a term coined by Sir Michael Barber, former DFID Special Representative for Education to Pakistan. Sharif’s approach consists of aggressive data collection, reward, and punishment based on performance.
“Shahbaz Sharif is operating almost solely on a deliverology model, which is ‘I will humiliate, yell, beat, ridicule, or fire you if you don’t perform’,” says another education specialist working on the reforms. “The system reacts like headless chickens, doing whatever it takes to placate him. But he doesn’t understand the nuances, and no one can stand up to him.” One international donor official called the Punjab reform programme a “regime of fear.”
Independent experts such as Faisal Bari and Mosharraf Zaidi described the education bureaucracy, even the education secretary, as disempowered, especially next to the smooth McKinsey and Adam Smith International teams that are paid by donors to work with provincial leaders.
But the specialist also points out that Sharif isn’t putting the right people in place to begin with: “If Shahbaz Sharif actually really cared about making a difference he would appoint the same caliber of people in charge of education and health as he puts in charge of finance and planning & development.”