A couple of Saturdays ago, I had the opportunity to attend a large event organised by a private school – that was before the Government advised that we should refrain from big gatherings for some time. The event I attended was the annual event of Sir Syed Preparatory School System (SSPSS) in Khanpur, off Express Highway, at the Islamabad-Rawalpindi border. The coeducational school is a few years old and has seven hundred students, taught mostly by female teachers, with just a few male teachers. The founders and owners are an engineer, whose factory is making window grills and doors, with three Kashmiri guest house owners. I am indeed impressed when I see quite ordinary people set up schools, and next year, they intend to set up two more schools in other locations in the capital.

I basically want the government school system to be improved and more resources to go to them rather than to private schools. Still, I admit that I am impressed when ordinary people set up their own schools. In future, I hope a simple system will be developed for partly-private and partly-government schools. New regulations must be put in place so that the private schools are not mainly for profit, but set up as a public service.

In my home country Norway, and in neighbouring Sweden, where the government education system is indeed good, but we recently have seen the opening of more private schools, especially at secondary level. It has become a critical issue for the authorities to regulate private schools better. Almost all profit should always be ploughed back to the school, not siphoned off to the owners’ bank accounts at home or even abroad. The same applies to other fields of the social sector, including clinics and hospitals, homes for the elderly and children who cannot stay at home. At the same time, it should be a right to run private schools and institutions, especially by faith and other such ideal organisations, more so than by private business outfits. But we have in Scandinavia seen the need for tight control and better regulations for private providers.

In all countries, even in Scandinavia, there is indeed a need to keep an eye on quality and cost of private schools. We should welcome ideas and inputs from the non-governmental providers, but we must also regulate those schools, and the government may also advice private schools about innovation requirements. In Pakistan, there is a need to provide support for the public sector in education so that it can again gain both status and provide good services for all, which is only something the government can do. It is a failure of the state if private schools are generally better than government schools; they can be alternatives to government schools; and maybe a few private elite schools can also be allowed. However, generally, it is the public system that must be good.

I believe it is high time that we look into the usefulness of the many private schools that Pakistan has seen mushrooming in the last couple of decades. We should also look into the curriculum they have, as well as the underlying national and human values and thinking the private school system is built on. We should have a system and values that see equality for all as basic.

Atle Hetland

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com

Currently, Pakistani authorities are considering and preparing policies for how to improve the education system to become the true foundation for all citizens in the society. The high number of out-of-school children, the high drop-out rate, and the often poor quality of education, especially in government schools, must be changed so we can face the new time, the knowledge society we live in. It will cost more money and a higher proportion of government budgets must go to education.

Let me also mention that not all changes and new things have to cost more money. I believe that is built on a wrong understanding of how to plan and implement change. We must be able to find ways of doing things that can stretch existing resources. For example, we could have half-day schools, or children could go to school on alternate days, three days a week. That was common in rural areas in Norway up to the 1960s. Exams were the same all, so the rural schools were not seen as second-class. Interestingly, often rural children did better at exams than students from the city, and they had often also developed better work habits, especially those few who had managed to attend lower and upper secondary education.

When I write about these issues, I usually draw attention to the fact that a primary and lower secondary school is not just a place where a child’s head should be filled with knowledge and facts. I believe that we should focus less on that. True, some is needed, but the most important is always to learn to reason, judge, consider, explore and find out things, more so than learning to know ‘everything’. The great British physicist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) had only primary school, but he managed within his adolescence (working in a book company) to become one of the greatest inventors in chemistry and electricity of his time. I am sure he would have been a good student in an ordinary secondary school, too, but I also wonder if maybe that might have stifled some of his creativity, his questioning and ability to do entirely new things.

Finally, what is the most important in education? When I spoke at the SSPSS school event I mentioned above, I reminded parents and teachers, and the children, too, that the most important in life is that we learn to see each other, that we remain curious about people and everything around us, and try to improve everyday life for ourselves and others. Children know this, and schools must focus more on it. Besides, it doesn’t cost money to do it; it actually helps the economy to do better.