The school arithmetic
The good news Pakistan had been waiting for has finally arrived. On April 5, 2009, the ghosts who had permanently occupied the Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto School at Goth Qaim Kharrul of District Dadu decided to move out. After remaining closed for 27 long years, the school finally opened its gates to the children of the area. What happened to the two or three generations of kids who altogether missed going to the school could be explained by the many gun-toting 14 year olds freely roaming around in the town.
Greetings to the Education Department of the Sindh province. One was expecting a special newspaper supplement (paid by tax payers’ money) with large photographs of Mohtarma Shaheed Benazir Bhutto and not as large photographs of the Education Minister announcing this titanic favour to the people of Goth Qaim Kharrul. After all, with the de-ghosting of one school, we have only six thousand four hundred and seventy nine more ghost schools to worry about. Simple arithmetic tells us that if we continue at this rate it will take us exactly 6479 more years to have all schools free of ghosts and full of children. While we seem to be moving in the right direction, it is also appropriate that we ask some more serious questions that may help expedite the process.
The ghost ridden schools fall under numerous categories. Some were constructed not for the sake of children but for the disproportionate profits involved in such contracts and constructions. Then there are schools where children are willing to attend, but not the teachers, as they are located in far-flung or unattractive locations. The local influential people have found some very creative ways to utilise these vacant structures. This utilisation ranges from cattle pens, refuge for flood affected people, fodder storage and guest houses (Otaqs). If one goes by the government records, most of these schools appear to be functioning, while in reality the schools are closed and used for other ‘ghostly’ activities. The teachers employed for these schools stay at home or pursue other gainful professions. The entire process is facilitated by paying Rs2000 to Rs3000 as bribe to the concerned superiors to ensure a ‘round the year UPS’ (uninterrupted payment of salaries).
Even perfunctory readers who limit themselves only to the catchy newspaper head lines know that over the past many years, different education ministers have spoken of different figures for the ghost schools of the province. This number varies between 5000 and 7700. Notwithstanding the argument that it is not a good idea to take foreign funding to merely count our schools, the World Bank-supported Sindh Reform Support Unit has finally come out with an exact figure of 6480 ghost schools in the province of Sindh. (List displayed at www.accountabilitywatch.org under the caption ‘the ghost schools’.) Assuming for a moment this to be a fair and final figure, the Education Ministry needs to come out with the list of ghosts who received the salaries and expenses shown against these schools for all these years. Clearly this unforgivable combination of incompetence and corruption is equitably shared between the education department and the local politicos. The people of Pakistan have a right to know where and why their money is being pilfered and misused. The guilty are no different from the militants who bomb schools or flog girls in Swat.
A number of actions can be taken to put an immediate end to this ‘ghostly’ phenomenon. Start by putting the taps off. All funding and salaries to all 6479 ghost schools should be totally stopped, even when the ghost recipients are your ‘own people’. Hold all concerned officials of the education department accountable for being a party to this gross incompetence and corruption. If this is not done, the disease would promptly reappear and the ghosts who would always be hanging around would re-occupy the schools.
A student truancy monitoring system is implemented in schools in many western countries. This could track and report the absence of a student even for one period on any school day. The least we could do was to be able to track our schools, if not our children. Why can’t the province of Sindh place all facts and information relating to all its schools on a website. This could include the name of the school, address, names of the teachers, number of children, number of class rooms, yearly expenses, academic performance and many other elements of information relating to each school. Community based school monitoring and reporting systems could be instituted. Any citizen should be able to make a complaint if he found a teacher missing or an irregularity of any other kind. The education department’s budget for placing political advertisements should be instead spent on informing citizens on how they could monitor their local schools and make a complaint by using an e mail, phone, fax or letter. Key performance indicators need to be created and reported by each school every month. The current method of school inspection and monitoring has collapsed and needs to be completely revamped. A public debate and consensus is called for to address the issue of closed schools and to prevent the open schools from becoming ghost schools in future. Can we ever compensate those thousands of children whose future has been destroyed because we siphoned millions from the state exchequer that were intended to keep their schools open. The guilty must be held accountable.