Education Reform in Punjab

This is the first of a blog series discussing findings from the Punjab Education Sector Programme (PESP) II evaluation, an ongoing performance evaluation funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). In the first interim phase, survey and administrative datasets were reviewed to understand changes in Punjab’s education landscape since 2012.

In the five-year period between 2012 and 2017, Punjab has either begun implementation of or initiated planning for a large number of policy initiatives in education. This blog summarises some key findings from a reform mapping exercise undertaken by the team participating in the evaluation of the large Punjab Education Sector Reform Program (PESP II).

In comparison to other provinces, Punjab appears the most active in many ways. The province has the largest aid programs, the largest scale of new partnership programs, the highest number of reforms, the lowest proportion of out-of-school children, and the highest proportion of children learning. For example, in 2016, Punjab reported 13.6% Out of School Children (OOSC), compared to Baluchistan 34.8%. In the same year, only 16 primary schools in Baluchistan reported receiving government grants, compared to 396 in Punjab. In learning levels, 37.9% children in Baluchistan in grade 5 could read English, compared to 56.5% in Punjab (Annual State of Education Report, ASER-Pakistan 2016).

Despite the frenetic reform activity, challenges remain. As the largest province in the country with nearly 56% of the population, the scale of the problems is also proportionately larger. For example, there are currently approximately 10 million OOSC children in Punjab between the ages of 5 to 16 (Pakistan Education Statistics 2016-17). While it is worth noting that this is a significant decline from nearly 26 million in 2012, 10 million is still a problematic number in the context of Pakistan’s education crisis. There are stark regional disparities within the province, with some districts in South Punjab emerging as the most underdeveloped regions in the country. Districts across Punjab vary significantly in the quantity and quality of education services available for their populations. For example, as of 2016, the percentage of OOSC in Rajanpur was nearly 41%, compared to 6.4% in Lahore (Annual State of Education Report – District Directory, ASER-Pakistan 2016). This highlights the role of decentralised polices at both the provincial and the district level.

Reforms in Punjab have, so far, not been grounded in a coherent policy framework

Since the 18th Amendment in 2010, Punjab has been responsible for developing financing and implementing its own education policy and an implementation plan for it. The Punjab Education Sector Plan (2012 – 2017) is the costed implementation plan, linked ostensibly to the national education policy. The Sector Plan lacks specificity, especially in setting and monitoring targets. This plan was complemented by the Punjab Education Reform Roadmap, a target-oriented mechanism for tracking progress through regular Stocktake meetings chaired by the Chief Minister of Punjab.

There have been several issues with the Roadmap: a) the targets were mostly determined in an ad hoc fashion, which inadvertently encouraged short-termism in setting and meeting them; b) the frequency and high-pressure environment of the Stocktake meetings created counterproductive incentives for district managers to ‘game’ the system to meet targets that were high-stakes but arbitrarily set; and c) the central focus of the tracking mechanism has had negative implications for the intended decentralization towards the districts.

Punjab may have a tendency to start too much too soon

One of the most significant reforms was the creation of District Education Authorities (DEAs), which were introduced in 2013. The objective of these committees was to strengthen capacity and consolidate district level governance. So far, these DEAs have not been able to develop adequate governance capacity. This is primarily because of the centralized monitoring mechanism currently in place under the Roadmap. How these committees fare under the current government will be an important test of the sustainability of the reform process.

The Non-Salary Budget (NSB) was another key reform introduced during the PESP II period. The purpose of the NSB was: a) provide funds directly to schools (rather than routing them through the district level bureaucracy); and b) provide greater fiscal autonomy to head teachers of schools. The primary issue with the NSB so far has been underspending of allocated funds. Reasons for this included teething issues with transfer mechanisms leading to delayed receipt of funds by the schools; behavioral inertia by the school management; and time lags because of understanding new rules and regulations of the NSB process. There was also considerable pressure on schools to spend which caused them to find the NSB onerous rather than helpful.

Another major reform is the reliance on Public Private Partnerships (PPP). PPPs have been a factor in education service delivery in Punjab prior to the PESP II reform period. PESP II formalized some of the modes of PPP previously being used by the government for example the Adopt-a-School Model. This was formalized in 2015 under the Public Sector Support Program (PSSP). Under PSSP, the management and operations of struggling government schools were given to private actors, with financing from the state. The government chose to not build new schools instead relying on PPP schools to improve indicators such as enrollment.

While it is possible to say that at the provincial level Punjab was able to take up the mantle of policy making with relative success, it is unclear whether the provincial center was able to pass on capacity and responsibility to the districts. This is because most reforms are still in their nascent stages (the NSB for example was only adopted by all 36 districts in 2016) and need to be given time to be evaluated properly.

While some steps have been taken towards decentralization, a tendency to centralize remains

A common thread in the reforms introduced under PESP II is that a shift towards greater decentralization has occurred in parallel to increased oversight and control at the center, creating uncertainty and tension in the overall governance structure. The monitoring mechanism of the Roadmap is the biggest example of this. The mechanism for tracking progress of reforms ultimately rests power with the Chief Minister. This is counterproductive given the focus on decentralization and in terms of empowering districts to monitor their own targets. Additionally, while top-down buy-in of political leadership sustained the momentum for reform so far, it is unclear whether this momentum can be carried forward given the change in leadership in the province.

According to the rationale behind the PESP II evaluation, a well-functioning system requires several components, and relationships between all actors to be aligned to a clearly defined objective. It also needs each of these elements to be pulling in the same direction for the fundamental goal to be achieved (World Development Report 2018). There needs to be a recalibration of the objectives of all reform programs in Punjab. Are these in line with what is required to alleviate Pakistan’s education emergency? To what extent are they effective, and what will it take for them to be more effective? Punjab needs greater coherence and accountability between all actors in the system, at the provincial and district level, and a re-alignment of reform goals to ensure that education reforms in the province are effective and successful.