It has been a mixed year for those seeking a foothold on the arduous climb to education reform in Pakistan. But there is also good reason for optimism. The journey, no doubt, will be in small steps and will require patience and perseverance. It will also require a public voice to demand quality education and an efficient system of schooling for all children.

Dedicated organizations and activist groups continue to strive for reform, hoping to see systemic change. The largest and boldest education experiment in Pakistan is the non-profit education system run by The Citizens Foundation (TCF), which provides primary and secondary schools for underprivileged girls and boys in the country’s poorest communities.

With excellent professional management and a focus on delivering quality education, the TCF system stands out as a beacon of success, now poised to expand its influence to thousands of low-cost private schools that could benefit from TCF’s experience and expertise.

After surpassing its target of setting up 1,000 school units, TCF has now set its sights on a larger goal of bringing TCF-like quality education to one million more children through partnership with affordable private schools. TCF is doing this through a franchise model called the Quality Improvement Program, offered at no cost to the private schools.

Causes of the crisis

In my view, the underlying causes of the education crisis are the low priority it is given by policy makers, and a lack of public demand for affordable, accessible, quality education. To achieve real change, education NGOs and reform activists should band together to exert political pressure on the policy makers who hold the education purse strings.

Changing the status quo will also require public outcry and a vocal demand for many more schools and higher-quality education. Collectively, NGOs and other concerned groups need to speak up and mobilize this public demand.

NGOs are already doing outstanding work in altering the lives of thousands of underprivileged Pakistani children by providing better opportunities through education. Their efforts are to be commended and supported. But as a coalition, NGOs can be a stronger catalyst for change.

By default, NGOs and private schools are already a part of the national discourse on education. A coalition, as a collective voice for reforms, would mitigate risks and carry more weight. Such a coalition should strive to be an unbiased, non-political voice of reason and moderation.

So, what should be the role of NGOs in reforming the education system in Pakistan?   Improvements in content and teaching methods are at the top of the agenda. Some NGOs are already experimenting with more effective teaching methods and better, more learner-friendly content in their schools. Here’s how they can work together:

1. NGOs can strengthen pedagogy by using their schools as laboratories for innovative changes in curriculum and teaching methods, e.g. including courses to promote increased tolerance, training teachers to facilitate critical thinking in young minds, and promoting inquiry-based learning.

NGO-run schools should hold joint workshops to discuss and evaluate modern methods of teaching, using current technology and inquiry-based approaches. The next step would be to work towards having these innovations adopted in the public school system. This is where NGOs can play a greater role.

2. Studies confirm that there is a widening gap between education demand and supply. There are 25 million out-of-school children, increasing by three to four million per year. But there is a severe deficit of schools and teacher capacity.

NGOs run a few thousand schools and enroll a few hundred thousand students. They cannot fill the gap or act as substitute service providers. The responsibility for providing universal education rests with the state. The most effective role in this context is for NGOs to act as a pressure group, to lobby the state to discharge its responsibility to the citizens.

3. Education is a right that has to be won through political struggle. It will not be given to the citizens as charity, and we should not expect supply without effective demand. Therefore, NGOs need to act as consciousness-raising groups to mobilize excluded citizens around their basic right to a good education.

4. Both the state and international donors claim to have invested a very large amount of funds in education. This effort has been very high in visibility but very low in impact.

NGOs must act as a watchdog group on behalf of citizens, and demand greater accountability. Collaboration with the media to investigate the outcomes of specific projects would generate the pressure to improve results.

The reform effort will require political capital, as policy makers are more likely to respond to crowds than to individuals. Let’s work together to push for the quality education that is the right of every Pakistani child.