Turning a Trend on its Head: Education Reforms in Punjab

September 5, 2012


Twin sisters Saba Talib Hussain and Samia Talib Hussain, 6, present a rhyme in their classroom at the Najeeb Memorial Government Girls' School in Gujranwala.

Muzammil Pasha/World Bank

  • Education reforms in Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, are challenging the perception that government schools are inferior.
  • The World Bank has provided nearly $800 million to the education reform program over the last 10 years, for things like textbooks, new teachers, and infrastructure.
  • "We are very lucky to have this school,” says one student. “The teachers are excellent and kind, so if we sit on the floor, it’s not an issue.”

GUJRANWALA, Pakistan – Nine-year-old Omair Saleem can’t believe his luck. At his new school, teachers let him play with colorful math puzzles, while older students conduct science experiments in a modern lab or learn intricate computer codes in a room filled with desktop terminals.

Even better, Saleem’s father doesn’t have to pay school fees or purchase his textbooks anymore. That’s because his parents recently pulled him out of private school and enrolled him in a government school.

“My father used to think private school was better,” explains Saleem, shyly plucking at new gray trousers. “But everyone told him this school is very good now, so he shifted my brother and me here.”

It’s a trend that confounds many long-held beliefs about the inferiority of government schools, says Haji Munawar Hussain Javed, principal of the Gujranwala Government Comprehensive School (GCS).

“In the past, parents were eager to avoid government schools. They were considered crowded, dirty, a last option for the poor,” he says. “But the results of students here are much better now, so people are shifting their kids and our attendance is increasing.”

As further proof, Javed leads visitors to a hallway where a brightly painted sign celebrates the names of 53 students who recently passed their Class 10 Secondary School exams with an A+.

Reforms improve access and quality

Javed attributes much of this success to education reforms launched in 2003 by the government of Punjab, which aim to improve access, quality and governance in education for about 12 million children in the country’s largest province.

The World Bank has provided support to the education reform program from its inception, providing financing of close to $800 million over the last 10 years.

Although the region is highly industrialized and agriculturally rich, student enrollment in primary schools here was just 45 percent in 2001-02.

During the last decade, primary enrollment has increased to more than 61 percent, and lagging female student enrollment has improved so that 59 percent of girls now go to school in Punjab.

World Bank funding has also helped provide 34 million free textbooks to more than 11 million students in the 2010-11 academic year, helped hire more than 200,000 new teachers since 2003 and improved school infrastructure by adding toilets, boundary walls, and new classrooms.

" These girls need a proper education. Actually, it is more essential for them than men, because soon they will run households and groom their kids for life. If a mother is educated, then an entire society is educated. "

Shahida Riaz

Principal, Najeeb Memorial Government Girls School

Emphasis on teacher support and training

While problems still exist elsewhere, it seems a positive impact is being felt in places like GCS. On a recent afternoon, two families crowded into the school’s tiny reception area, waiting to register their children. Ahsan Pervez, 5, and his brother, Shahzar, 9, sat patiently with their mother and father.

“We heard the education is better here,” explains the boys’ mother, Khalida Pervez. “Now every parent wants to send their kids to a good school like this.” Both Pervez and her husband attended government schools as youngsters and recall quite a different experience.

“Now the teachers’ focus is better, they seek parents’ advice, and use love and affection, not a stick, on our children,” says Pervez. “Also, we sat on the ground in classes, not on benches, and we studied only in Urdu, not English, until Class 6.”

Her husband agrees. “The teachers’ attitude, school atmosphere and facilities, all three are better now,” observes Ashraf Pervez. Suddenly breaking his silence, 5-year-old Ahsan shouts: “I’m so excited to go to school!”

In the last three years, the school enrollment has grown from 1,800 to about 2,200. Teachers Aslam Khokhar and Shahid Bazmi say the surge in students is challenging but represents great progress. “Ours is a very difficult job, but it is true there has been a dramatic and real improvement in our school,” says Khokhar, who has taught for 24 years.

The teachers’ increased job satisfaction has also come because of a new emphasis on teacher support and training programs, they agreed. At their school, Ghulam Murtaza Sandhu works as a senior subject specialist, helping instructors find improved ways to teach English. “This is happening for the first time,” notes Sandhu. “Now there are so many people and courses to help teachers.”

Remaining Challenges

Across town at the Najeeb Memorial Government Girls School, there are more signs of improvement. In a classroom decorated with colorful alphabet charts, posters of birds, and English nursery rhymes, 6-year-old twin sisters Saba and Samia Talib Hussain hop in their seats, clap hands, and loudly sing a series of poems that alternate between Urdu, Punjabi, and English.)

The Grade 1 girls were previously with 50 fellow students, but increased funding made it possible to split the class into two, and buy tiny chairs and tables for the students.

Looking fondly at her teacher Nuzhat Akbar, Saba announces that she plans to be a teacher too someday. Asked why, the little girl says: “Because it’s too much fun, and I love to read and want to help others.”

While the girls’ school also boasts a pristine computer lab for older students like Mahem Butt and Tayyaba Iqbal, both 14, most classes for older students still take place on cold concrete floors, unless girls bring their own small stools. “Still, we are very lucky to have this school,” says Tayyaba. “The teachers are excellent and kind, so if we sit on the floor, it’s not an issue.”

The principal of the school, Shahida Riaz, says the school has expanded from about 800 to 1,013 students in recent years and five new classrooms are under construction. The budget for desks and chairs hasn’t materialized yet.

“We are waiting and hoping for this furniture,” says Riaz, “because these girls need a proper education. Actually, it is more essential for them than men because soon they will run households and groom their kids for life. If a mother is educated, then an entire society is educated.”

The principal said many improvements are happening but about 39 percent of Punjab’s primary school-aged children are still out of school. Problems remain, but things are moving in the right direction, she says.

Student Noor ul Ain, 16, says she moved to the government girls’ school a few years ago because private school fees became unaffordable for her father, a local machinist. “This place is much better than my old private school.  Without this, I would have left classes by now.”