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Research Spotlight: Punjab is making important headways in education attainment and achievement

17 April 2013
Research Spotlight: Punjab is making important headways in education attainment and achievement
Pakistan faces an education emergency. However, in a country constantly troubled by crisis and turmoil ranging from natural disasters to extremist militancy, education reforms often take the backseat. It was December 2010 that, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab signed off on a bold plan that is now known as the Punjab Schools Reform Roadmap. The better news still is not that the plan is perhaps the first of its kind in Pakistan, but rather that it has been working. Based on global evidence of what works in school system reforms and developing countries such as ours, part of the secret to its success lies in it having been pushed forward systematically for two years now. The featured research today “The Good News from Pakistan” authored by Sir Michael Barber, who has been working very closely on the project, contains an in-depth account of the outcomes, processes, lessons learnt and future plans for the project.

The report has been divided into five parts named: the outcomes, the origins, the elements, the routines and the lessons. For the purpose of this feature we will be focusing on outcomes, elements and routines. This will allow the piece to be used more effectively as a potential best-case practice, as well, as allow for a more useful debate. For those interested in reading the full report, it can be downloaded here.

The results yielded by the Roadmap have so far been very promising. With conservative estimates, as of January 2013, approaching one and half million extra children enrolled in school. Student attendance has also seen an upturn with levels now being over 90%. Furthermore, 81,000 new teachers have been hired and teacher absenteeism has also seen improvement with 35,000 more teachers now in school every day. Before, there were less than 70% schools with functional basic facilities as opposed to the over 90% currently. However, perhaps the biggest triumph that the Roadmap can boast of is numerical proof that across all these indicators there has been a narrowing of the gender gap.  Competent and specially trained Executive District Officers (EDOs) have been appointed on purely merit and are stringently held accountable for achieving performance targets. All 60,000 government schools have been equipped with comprehensive teacher guides with day to day lesson plans for basic subjects and almost 200,000 primary teachers have been trained to use these resources. In fact, since their inception these teacher guides have been taken up by many other schools as well. 

There is no denying the fact that the numbers paint a rosy picture, however, a lot more needs to be done especially in South Punjab and on gender disparity. The case that the report makes is despite the need for more, the Roadmap is definitely on the right track. The levels of teacher presence are higher now in Punjab than elsewhere in Pakistan. Incidentally not only are they higher than those in India and Bangladesh but also than any of the other 22 countries supported by the Department for International Development (DfID).  To summarize, results show that not only has there been progress across all indicators but also across the province, both in urban and rural areas. 

The success of the Roadmap can be credited to the fact that the goals and objectives of the initiative were very clear since inception. The necessary auxiliary functions for success, called the elements in this report, were clearly defined with detailed action plans. These areas were: data & targets; district administration; teacher quality and additional supporting activities such as the enrollment drive. Built with the help of the World Bank, an important tool that has facilitated the Punjab government has been the Programme Monitoring and Implementation Unit (PMIU). After the initials hiccups of months of insufficient data, the PMIU has now become an exemplary institution through new leadership, persistent support and technological advancements. It has monthly data available on key indicators from all public schools in Punjab. An invention called “Heat Maps” has also been introduced that tracks and graphically displays progress across indicators throughout the province. District management was improved by appointing EDOs through transparent processes and without any political affiliations; they were trained extensively and undergo regular performance appraisals. 

Teacher quality has seen remarkable improvement through provision of the teaching guides with lesson plans, but also through extensive training workshops. Learning from evidence, the initial focus of those working on the project was to focus on the basics. This included ensuring the teachers were in school and providing them with simple, easy-to-use lesson plans for Maths, English and Science for Grades 1-5. “So, for example, a primary teacher of a Grade 2 class would get 150 lesson plans for each year for each subject. Each lesson plan had a learning outcome, a way of introducing it, an activity or two, and a conclusion.” This is not to say that the lesson plans have been a 100 percent successful. In most cases, the teachers are still not using them. However, measureable outcomes of these initiatives will take time and with the regular administrator visits, teaching practices are improving. These initiatives were supplemented by the “enrollment drive” that worked door-to-door from village-to-village to identify and address parental concerns and convince them to send their children to school. 

Sir Michael Barber, in his report credits the stringent “routines” that were set up for the Roadmap as the success factors for the progress that has been achieved so far. He also indentifies that the success of these routines has been largely due to the Chief Minister’s own personnel commitment towards education and that of the teams working on the project. The most critical for these has been identified as “The Stocktake”. These were regular meetings with the Chief Minister to discuss progress, problems and define future strategy. The meetings have over time evolved to include feedbacks and attendance of diverse stakeholders such as the Secretary-Finance, Chairman-Planning and Development, Chief Secretary, Educational Department officials as well as representatives from DfID, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and World Bank. This enabled the forum to also start being used as recognition for the hard-work being put and demonstrate to a wider audience the progress of the Roadmap. 

The report also recognizes the difficulties with trusting data, about results, originating from developing countries such as Pakistan. Widespread Corruption has often led to unreliable and misreported data. The Roadmap, has however, been able to avoid this pitfall by ensuring the same reporter never visit the same schools twice in a six-month period. They have also not been relying only on self-reporting. Nielsen has been brought on board to conduct an independent survey every six-months. What adds to the credibility of the Roadmaps reported results was Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) having given the initiative an Amber-Green rating on its four point traffic light scale. The ICAI has earned credibility by being an extremely hard taskmaster and the Roadmap is the first initiative to have gotten an Amber-Green ranking as opposed to Amber-Red or Red. Sir Micheal Barber argues that all evidence is pointing in the same direction that the Roadmap is working; is it sustainable? Not yet but it has all the potential of being and the answer will depend on future decisions made by those leading it.

Sir Barber concludes the report by citing his work at 10 Downing Street having taught him that when a government is in crisis, it is routine that helps deliver results. He describes this to be especially true in the Pakistani context, where turmoil seems a permanent fixture and the Roadmaps success so far proves this point. For further progress, there is no need for newer, innovative ideas but rather continuation of the routines that have already been set-up. A sustained enrollment drive can ensure universal primary enrollment. The past two years have been classified as having changed the context on enrollment, teacher presence and facilities. The foundation for teacher quality has been laid through new lesson plans, new textbooks etc. 

The question now is that of sustainability and impact. During 2013, with the elections just around the corner, the major challenge for the Roadmap team is to ensure that there is cross-party support for the programme. The task at hand is to make sure that the bureaucrats, not only in Punjab but rather nationwide are familiar with what has been done so far. Key non-political opinion-formers, for example those in business or civil society need to get behind the cause and understand clearly “what is at stake.” Education needs to stop being viewed as a political tool and rather an important part of the national agenda and should be fostered regardless of which party it traces its origins from.

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