Quality in context —Sarah Humayun

Good schools usually have strong leaders at the helm; schools led capably are better able to absorb training and resources provided by external bodies, and they are often more trusted and in turn better able to liaise with their communities.
Recently I came across a study on education that seems to me to bring clarity and a measured optimism to its subject: Education in Pakistan: What Works and Why (published by Campaign for Quality Education, 2007). Why is this study worth taking notice of?

For several reasons. It looks at schools that seem to be working and, just as importantly, derives its notion of working schools not from any standard prescription but contextually and relatively. It affirms that there are such schools, examines why they work, and examines their constraints as stresses and flaws within working systems rather than as monumental failures that elbow signs of functionality out of the picture. First you have to figure out what the problems are, says received wisdom on structural failures in service delivery.

This study doesn’t quite do that — it looks at problems that are shading off into solutions, and asks why and what more.

Higher education is beyond the study’s scope. Its sample is drawn from ‘five to six quality schools each at eight different sites across Pakistan’ that cater to low-income groups. The sites are DG Khan, Rajanpur, Sialkot and Lahore from Punjab; Gilgit and Hunza from the Northern Areas; Gwadar from Balochistan; Khairpur from Sindh; Peshawar and Swabi from NWFP; and Muzaffarabad and Bagh from AJK.

What seems missing is more representation from Balochistan and Sindh. The research employed qualitative research methods — case studies of individual schools involving interviews, focus group discussions and observation. It interviewed not only schoolteachers and heads but also members of the communities in which the schools exist and officials responsible for making and implementing decisions regarding them. Finally, findings were taken back to the field for validation and the stakeholders’ response.

As mentioned above, the study’s way of fixing the notion of quality is one of the most useful things about it. Grades, school facilities and enrolment have all been taken into account, but the study does not take them as fixed parameters. As it says, ‘We cannot begin with a definition of what works that continues to trap us in failure. The idea of quality-in-context has been informed by local perceptions about the schools as being good or bad. The effort has been to investigate what aspects of these schools constitute their appeal as better schools within specific contexts.’

It could be argued that taking local perceptions as indices of quality may result in over-rating schools; that what has to be determined is whether the quality of education measures up to a general, internationally accepted standard.

But the study resolutely eschews this approach. Without seeing that there is better and worse even within the worst system, we cannot take meaningful bearings for change. It is in any case perhaps more difficult to evaluate the overall quality of primary and secondary education than tertiary education. The results of schooling processes may take years to clarify. One would like to hear more on this issue of relative quality from the researchers.

What are the study’s findings? Most notably, that good schools usually have strong leaders at the helm; that schools led capably are better able to absorb training and resources provided by external bodies, and they are often more trusted and in turn better able to liaise with their communities. The trust of the community especially seems to be tied to the presence of strong school leaders; the study motes that School Councils, the formal fora for community involvement, are not effective.

Another finding is that while teacher training is frequent in both public and private not-for-profit schools, its impact is greater in the latter. This is because they are better able to provide ‘on-going systemic support’, which means continuous linkages between schools and supportive bodies that foster both research and development and school monitoring and reinforcement of better teaching practices. Public sector bodies, on the other hand, were ‘found to be more focused on mundane things such as attendance records, and so on.’

In general, the study’s findings on public sector schools give us more to worry about. It notes that ‘there was no evidence of active government support to head teachers from the government education department. In such schools, most head teachers had been there for a long time, and merely allowing them to do a good job without intervening was seen, interestingly enough, as a certain kind of support.’ Relatively successful schools in the public sector seem to have developed their own informal support structures. Here again the standing of school heads with the community, outside of official arrangements, had an influence.

The study is concise, one of its merits, and accessible. It ends with a list of policy recommendations along the lines of its findings, which deserve a long hard look before the next round of policymaking regarding education.

The writer is former Assistant Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and loves to find affinities in objects where no brotherhood exists to common minds

Daily Times, 26/6/2008

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