My attention was caught by a recent opinion piece about Daanish schools – for gifted young Panjabis from poor backgrounds – asking whether they are a good idea.
My starting assumption is that any initiative to narrow achievement gaps between rich and poor gifted learners must be self-evidently ‘a good thing’, so I was curious to find out exactly why this project is so controversial.
Panjab is the second largest province in Pakistan and, with over 80 million people, contains over half of the country’s population. Although relatively more industrialised than other parts of Pakistan, with about 30% of its people living in urban settings, it is also heavily rural and suffers from high income inequality and a north-south divide. Over half of the population in the more rural South is officially below the poverty line compared with slightly over 20% in the North.
Daanish schools are an initiative of the Panjabi Chief Minister Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, a welfare-minded politician from the Pakistan Muslim League (N) party who began his current term of office two years ago in March 2009.
They are sometimes described as ‘the poor man’s Aitchison’, a reference to a selective boys’ public school in Lahore , the only Pakistani school in the Headmasters’ Conference (HMC), with annual fees of over £2,500.
By contrast, Pakistan’s GDP per capita is around £655.
The article that prompted my interest made a good case against the Chief Minister’s initiative, arguing that:
- the schools are an expensive ‘white elephant’ – a waste of resources that could be invested more wisely;
- they will benefit only a tiny minority of pupils and may not be sustainable beyond the lifetime of the present Government;
- Pakistan has more fundamental and pressing educational priorities. Some 6.5m 5-14 year-olds are not being educated at all and Panjab is not yet meeting the educational element of the Millennium Development Goals; and
- additional funding is much needed elsewhere in the education sector, including to support the Government’s plan to reduce the stock of schools by a third to around 40,000.
Before we consider the validity of these points, let us take a closer look at the nature and genesis of Daanish schools.
The Legislative Basis of Daanish Schools
The Punjab Daanish Schools and Centres of Excellence Authority Act 2010 provides for the establishment and management of:
- Centers of Excellence, meaning existing high or higher secondary schools identified as such by the Government and
- Daanish Schools established ‘to provide quality education to the children of the most deprived and marginalized strata of the society’.
It gives the Government power to establish such an Authority, to be chaired by Shahbaz Sharif himself, as Chief Minister, and including three members of the Provincial Assembly, representatives of key Panjabi Government Departments and the Managing Director, to be appointed under the terms of the Act.
The Authority’s responsibilities include:
- establishing and ensuring sustainable management for schools;
- providing for the advancement and dissemination of knowledge in such manner as it may determine;
- prescribing courses of studies, conducting internal examinations and assessment and undertaking inspections;
- establishing, maintaining and controlling students’ halls of residence;
- promoting students’ extra-curricular activities and their health and general welfare;
- creating teaching and non-teaching posts for the efficient management and administration of schools;
- prescribing the code of conduct for Members, governing bodies, teachers and other employees of the Authority;
- conducting pre-service and in-service training of teachers and other Authority employees; and
- agreeing its annual budget including estimated expenditure and receipts.
It may also
- ‘recommend measures to the Government for improvements in the education system’, especially in elementary, secondary and higher secondary education;
- promote cooperation with international agencies and non-governmental organizations for the promotion of quality elementary and secondary education in the Punjab;and
- conduct educational research and commission and publish independent evaluation of schools’ performance.
The Authority is responsible for appointing a governing body to each school and center of excellence which is responsible for admissions. They:
- must ensure that admission is merit-based;
- can set aside 10% of places for fee-paying students but must otherwise ‘admit the destitute, most deprived and marginalized student, if the total combined gross income of the members of the household of the student does not exceed six thousand rupees per month [£44], or any other amount as may be notified by the Authority and the student, in order of precedence, falls in the following sub-categories:
- he is an orphan having lost both of his parents and having no guardian or being taken care of by an elder sibling or a member of his extended family;
- his father is dead and he is living with his mother;
- both parents are illiterate, the parents do not own any immovable property and either of them is disabled;
- he has been a school dropout and his both parents are illiterate and the parents do not own any immovable property;
- both parents are illiterate, the parents do not own any immovable property and do not have any fixed job or source of income;
- he is not resident of a town, tehsil or district headquarters and any of his parent is a semi-skilled or unskilled menial village worker, and the parents do not own any immovable property and are illiterate; and
- he is resident of a town, tehsil or district headquarters and his household resides in a katcha house
The Act was passed in February 2010 and in June the Panjab Government allocated three billion rupees (over £22 million) for the Daanish Schools and Centers of Excellence programme in the 2010-11 budget. This was to meet the costs of establishing the first of 15 new schools and the conversion of 72 existing schools into Centers of Excellence.
A further two billion rupees (about £15 million) was also set aside for the Panjab Educational Endowment Fund (PEEF), a parallel initiative which:
‘aims to provide equitable opportunities of education to under privileged but brightest boys and girls especially from the southern districts of the province’.
It was announced that PEEF would provide special support for students in 15 poor districts of Southern Punjab and special quotas would be introduced for children of low-ranking Government employees, disabled students, those from ethnic minorities and the children of widows.
The Fund was initially established with seedcorn funding of two billion rupees. The Government has pledged to increase the fund to an amazing ten billion rupees (about £75 million) in the next 5 years.
Established in 2008, PEEF typically awards over 5,000 scholarships annually to those attending schools in Panjab and other Pakistani provinces and has recently introduced scholarships for postgraduate study abroad.
To be eligible for the school-based scholarships pupils must have achieved marks of over 60% (equivalent to ‘First Division’ in their most recent Secondary or Intermediate Examination). Their monthly family income must be below 15,000 rupees (so considerably higher than the limit for Daanish schools). The scholarships are heavily biased towards those studying science and engineering.
Progress and Plans
The Authority has been established under the leadership of Yousaf Kamal, formerly the Chairman of the Punjab Vocational Training Council. He has announced that the schools will embrace modern teaching methods including experiential and project-based learning. The schools are embracing English-medium teaching and equipped with ‘state-of-the-art’ computer laboratories and well-equipped libraries.
The Authority has decided that a first class masters’ degree is a pre-requisite for staff at Daanish schools. It is reported that highly-qualified teachers are being headhunted, including in the Pakistani community in the UK, and that there are plans to set up a teacher training institute in some of the schools.
In October 2010, a major policy shift was announced, in that Daanish Schools would only provide high school education, rather than admitting children from the poorest backgrounds into Class 1 of the Pakistani education system.
Meanwhile Shahbaz Sherif has emphasised the future benefits of Daanish schools to the Panjab. He holds up the initiative as proof of his intention that the poorest children should have the same right to a high quality education as the children of wealthy families. He sees the schools as key to the alleviation of poverty, but also to the eradication of extremism and terrorism.
The political rhetoric suggests that lines have been drawn. While The Chief Minister argues that the richest 10% of the population are benefiting at the expense of the poor, educationalists typically counter that the Panjabi Government should concentrate first on the 10.9 million learners studying in public schools in the Panjab, instead of diverting the available funds to give a prestigious education to a few thousand poor students.
To date, three or six new schools have been built, depending how the counting is done. There are three schools in two Southern Punjab districts – Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar – at Chistian, Hasilpur and Rahim Yar Khan, but each has separate buildings and teachers for boys and girls. Each of these campuses is catering for 110 boys and 110 girls.
Each campus cost around one billion rupees to build and has operating costs of 21 million rupees (over £150,000) per year. The fee-paying students at the Boys’ Campus of Rahim Yar Khan are reportedly paying 15,000 rupees per month (£110) so this is a guide to the amount spent by the Government on PEEF scholarships for those from poorer backgrounds.
In the next phase of development, further new schools were expected to be established at Dera Ghazi Khan, Rajanpur, Attock, and Mianwali. But the latest reports suggest that the Daanish experiment has been scaled back radically, possibly to the extent that no further schools will be opened.
Although the Chief Minister’s remains fiercely protective of his project, this decision is likely to have been dictated by Pakistan’s national economic crisis. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has given the country nine months to implement tough measures to improve its growing financial deficit, or it will cut off loans.
So Daanish Schools may already be dead in the water, although it is unlikely that Shahbaz Sharif will give up his cherished project without a fight.
The story of Daanish schools invites the question whether it is right for a developing country with scant resources to use huge sums of Government money to develop an academic elite drawn from poor backgrounds.
On one side, it might be argued that this can help to create a multiplier effect, prompting philanthropists and the businesses who benefit to match the government’s investment. It will also create an intergenerational impact that will eventually benefit a much larger proportion of the population.
On the other, one might reasonably advance the arguments put forward by the commentator who prompted this post.
An economist might quantify the relative costs and benefits and help to provide the Panjabi government with a clear answer – but that argument may not count when the country faces financial disaster: short-term cuts will always trump longer-term benefits.
And in this context, the ‘excellence versus equity’ arguments that lie at the heart of all discourse on gifted education play out somewhat differently. For an initiative that would have a clear ‘equity’ stamp in a developed country can seem inequitable in a developing country where millions of children are still not attending school.
To put it another way, are the political arguments in favour of an expensive intervention for a small number of poor gifted young people inevitably undermined by the higher priority of securing universal basic education? Is gifted education essentially a luxury that cannot be entertained until this essential foundation is in place, or might addressing the two priorities simultaneously be the most enlightened course of action?
Most Pakistani educationalists seem to believe the former rather than the latter. One anonymous representative sums up the prevailing view:
‘There is a need to prepare a cake first rather than going for its toppings and embellishing’
I’m not sure I agree. How about you?