This is the tale of two schools that teach poor children in Hyderabad, Pakistan, the second largest city in the Sindh province. Although the schools are located in different parts of the city, each is located in a similar neighborhood and must grapple with many of the same problems. Yet the schools themselves—and the excitement (or lack there of) around education—are wildly different.
Each school deals with an impoverished student body, and in both neighborhoods poverty presents itself in similar ways: the smell of open sewers and pools of stagnant water, the ill-fitting and poor clothing, and too many children with little expression, large brooding eyes, and a palpable hunger—for both food and for learning. Clearly when we give these children a terrible learning environment pervasive with an attitude from above of “Who cares?” we are shortchanging them even as we cheat ourselves out of a dynamic future.
The first school, a coeducational primary school, in Hyderabad was custom built in a very small space. It is located at the edge of a lower middle class neighborhood and the access roads leading up to the school were in terrible condition: we had to walk the last 200 yards or so just to reach the building.
But when we entered the school, we could feel that education was happening. This place had the buzz of a school that works. Children were busy, engaged, and interested in the lessons going on in their classes.
The school, a private initiative of a Sindhi and French couple who have been teaching in Hyderabad for decades, does not charge any fee, caters to children from very marginalized communities, supports children from nomadic families to attend when possible, and even encourages children who have missed the first couple of grades to enroll (the school forms a separate class for these children). With a lot of volunteer teachers the cost of running the school is only about $500–600 a month. But finding individual donations from a non-affluent area, even this amount is a struggle. Despite these challenges, the school enrolls about 200 students.
Most of the teachers in the school were not trained, and the facilities needed more textbooks and other teaching materials; but the school made do. Although it relied a lot more on informal modes of teaching and learning than other more established schools, it was clear that the children wanted to be there, looked forward to coming to school everyday, and most importantly were getting an education. Their parents could not have afforded a private education and the lack of available public-sector schools meant that for these 200 children this free, privately run institution was their only option. Without a doubt, this couple was making a huge contribution in the lives of these children.
From there we went to a government-run, boys-only primary school in a slightly more rural setting but still in Hyderabad. Though the school was larger, with five rooms and a veranda in front, the rooms were rundown, hot, dark, dingy, and airless. Only the beginning of April, the rooms were already uninviting. Although there wasn’t electricity in either of the schools we visited, the government school was not designed with this in mind while the private school—despite being smaller—had more windows and there was more light and air in them. The walls too were brighter and more cheerful. The difference in environment reminded us that the electricity crisis in Pakistan will continue for many years to come and government planners should take heed and design schools with more windows to allow for more light and air, and think about possible changes in already existing schools too.
Although it was middle of the school day when we visited, the public school teachers had already let the children go home. So we could not meet the children but the conditions in and around the school spoke volumes. There was a large pool of stagnant green waste water just opposite the school. Its stink was unbearable. The surrounding area was littered with garbage. The bathrooms in the school did not work. And the grounds around the toilets reeked of human and animal feces. Even the classrooms were not clean and tidy. They had a look of neglect about them. The only thing that looked relatively new and unused were the textbooks that were kept in closed shelves in one of the classrooms.
But it was the difference in teachers that was more striking. Though the public school teachers were better educated, had more training, and received better pay, it was the private school teachers who seemed a lot more engaged in what they were doing. They were eager to tell us what they were up to, share their lesson plans and strategies, show off the work of their students, and point out their students’ work that graced the walls of the classrooms. The public school teachers were not eager to even engage with us. They were, I thought, mostly looking forward to going home. They seemed to take little pride in what they were doing.
Of course these are only two schools in Hyderabad. There are many public schools that are better and there are many private schools—especially in the low-fee category—that are quite bad. But what we saw in these two schools affirmed some of the generalizations about education in Pakistan: public schools enroll 65 percent of children yet they are delivering, by and large, poor quality education while private schools, which are expanding rapidly and primarily cater to student from better-off families seem to be doing a better job.
Although public-sector teachers are more qualified and trained than their low-fee private school counterparts, and paid more, they still deliver poorer quality. The answer lies in the poor design of the incentive systems and the lack of monitoring or accountability of teachers in the public school system coupled with political interference (nepotism, corruption, patronage networks). Educational reform in Pakistan, must deal head on with these problems.
The Open Society Foundations is working on a number of education initiatives across Pakistan, with both private- and public-sector schools (including these two schools), to improve the quality of education for children. But with hundreds of thousands of schools in the country—and many more needed to serve the millions of children still out of school—we need many more hands on deck. The government must make this a priority.
Too many schools—in both the private- and public-sector—are cheating our children, their parents and our society as a whole. Without substantial investment, we will continue to miss out on generations of talent that could be groomed, shaped, and nurtured for the betterment of the country.