from Development Channel

Emerging Voices: Sir Michael Barber on Improving Education in Pakistan

May 10, 2013

Children from underprivileged background attend a playgroup class at Mashal School on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan on January 24, 2013 (Zohra Bensemra/Courtesy Reuters).
Blog Post

More on:



Foreign Aid

Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Sir Michael Barber, who is the U.K. Department for International Development’s (DfID) (unpaid) special representative on education in Pakistan, the chief education advisor at Pearson, and from 2001 to 2005, was the chief advisor on delivery to Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the article he discusses an educational reform program he helps lead in Pakistan and the broader debate over the effective delivery of foreign aid.

In many countries, there are two camps: those who want less aid because it is ineffective, and those who want more because it is fundamental to global justice. I propose an alternative to this fruitless debate. I support government’s commitment to aid but surely the aim should be to end it in time, not because it has failed but because it was demonstrably successful.

This is what we in the development community should want, and it is also what visionary leaders in the developing world, including Pakistan, want. They look forward to their country succeeding without aid. In the meantime they want support that is effective and demonstrates results. This demands a radical and rigorous approach to aid.

The Punjab Education Reform Roadmap, which I have been leading along with Shahbaz Sharif, who recently left office as chief minister of the Pakistani province of Punjab, suggests a way forward. When we set the goals for Punjab some donors accused us of being “too ambitious” and “too urgent.” We pleaded guilty. The risks of moving too slowly in Pakistan are much greater than the risks of moving too fast.

When we began implementation of the roadmap in August 2011, only 82.8 percent of enrolled students attended school each day, only 80.7 percent of teachers attended class, and only 68.9 percent of facilities had functioning electricity, drinking water, toilets, and boundary walls. The results after two years speak for themselves: as of December 2012, student attendance was up to 92.1 percent, teacher attendance reached 92.1 percent, and 90.9 percent of facilities were up to standards. This translates to approaching 1.5 million extra children now enrolled in school, and another million, who had been formally enrolled but rarely turned up, attending school every day. Schools serving three million children have had their facilities repaired. More than 90 percent of teachers are now present every day, with new lesson plans and coaching to help them teach and new textbooks for every pupil from next month.

In addition, the program has given over 140,000 out-of-school children from poor families vouchers that they can take to any registered private school. Non-government providers have been encouraged to set up new schools where government provision is weak or non-existent. It is one of the largest voucher programs in the world, and a model of effective public-private partnership in education.

There is evidence of improved outcomes, too. Two years ago Punjab-India and Punjab-Pakistan were level-pegging; now Pakistan is out in front. Perhaps most important of all, more and more people in Punjab believe that this time, after decades of failure, they will succeed.

How was this achieved?

To start, we set clear, ambitious targets for each district and the whole province and developed a system to monitor progress in real time. By collecting data from all 60,000 government schools monthly, we’ve been able to check regularly whether we are on track to achieving these goals. By focusing on school-level data, we were able to tell district leaders exactly which schools are lagging and even which teachers did not attend school in the prior month. This allows the systems leaders to immediately take action to resolve issues and improve performance.  We’ve avoided the classic error of focusing purely on enrollment and ignoring quality.

Second, we established routines to review progress and ensure a constant focus on implementation. In each conversation, we ask officials at all levels of the system whether they are on track to meet their goals and how they respond when they are not. Where they are off track we offer a combination of pressure and support. As a result, we’ve established a system of sharp accountability and tackled corruption head-on by insisting on merit-based appointments. Since the start of the roadmap 81,000 teachers have been hired on merit.

Most important of all, the roadmap was never a separate aid initiative; it was a partnership with the committed chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, to improve the entire schools system, which serves over twenty million children.

The aid money certainly helped to bring about this success, but aid is under 5 percent of Punjab’s total expenditure on education. The real keys have been the program’s design, based on good evidence of what works around the world, and the relentless focus on implementation. Through floods, outbreaks of dengue fever, and the many crises that afflict Pakistan, the routine tasks of implementation--checking impact at the front lines, reviewing effectiveness, and adjusting accordingly--have continued.

We’ve persisted to deliver the change that was needed. We’ve refined our approach throughout, but we’ve never compromised on our vision or the ambitious goals that we set at the start. We’re starting to see the impact of the “science of delivery,” which Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, describes as fundamental to delivering development outcomes. The success in Punjab contributes to the evidence of what works.

For all the gains, Punjab’s education system remains far short of real quality. The progress is far from irreversible. Although we have moved with breathtaking speed, it is not fast enough. After this month’s elections, Punjab’s new leaders will need to continue what has been started for years to come. Yes, real change is a slog.

In the meantime there are three clear lessons for aid policy. First, the case for aid can be sustained only if every penny is spent well. Second, we know quite a bit, and are learning more, about the “science of delivery” required to deliver development aid effectively. Third, if we get the partnership for reform right with developing country governments, transferring the entire responsibility for development, including funding, onto their taxpayers will become possible as well as desirable.