Concept Note by Prof S M Naseem


For the last three decades or more, Pakistan has gradually descended to the depths of social and economic backwardness. The dream of an independent, prosperous and equitable society has receded further into the realm of impossibility. Despite the rhetoric of its leaders and the promises of its foreign patrons, an increasing proportion of its population is becoming marginalized and deprived of the most basic necessities of life, even as a tiny elite enjoys the comforts of a Western life-style and has access to world-class amenities.

A fundamental source of deprivation of the poor is the access to education as a means of leveling the playing field of economic opportunity and ensuring upward social mobility. Our educational system is becoming increasingly ghettoized into various strata and stream that make the goal of universal access to education impossible. It remains largely the preserve of the privileged classes and gives little room to the poor to find a place under the sun and to improve their bargaining position vis a vis the privileged and exploiting classes.

Pakistan’s performance in primary education, which is recognized as a pre-requisite of industrial progress and democratic transition has been dismal; its ranking judged by various indicators, such as enrollment rates, adult literacy, the quality of education and gender parity has hovered around the bottom of the table among 10 of the world’s worst performers, mostly least developed African countries. Despite this, there seems to be stark public apathy about achieving this overarching goal. Notwithstanding countless policy documents and pronouncements made at international conferences in Jomtien, Dakar, Monterey and other places, the goal of Education For All remains a distant El Dorado.

The Malaise
In order to understand this dismal performance, we need to remind ourselves that the current educational system is embedded in the unjust, inequitable and exploitative economic system that has characterized Pakistan since its inception. It is not merely a matter of “bad governance”, mismanagement, putting square pegs into round holes, favoritism and other assorted charges that are leveled against the present educational system. Although the oppressing classes no longer overtly  oppose the opening of schools in their feudal domains – as they did in the past – they adopt much more subtle ways to neutralize the challenge of education to the dominance of their power.  Eschewing their erstwhile unwelcoming attitude towards the establishment of schools for their peasants’ and tenants’ sons and daughters, they are busy capturing the public resources allocated for education and disbursed through their chosen MNAs and MPAs in a manner that further enhances their political power.

Educational institutions become an additional source of rent-seeking and enhancing the patron-client relationship through building contracts and hiring of teachers. Since their interest in promoting education is peripheral, they often succeed in making the schools dysfunctional, blaming the poor for their lack of interest in getting their children educated.

A Right for the Rich, A Mirage for the Poor

Education is the main instrument through which the oppressed toiling masses can wrest power from those who have acquired control over national resources and who are afraid of allowing a level playing field in education to the children of the poor and underprivileged households. It is this undeniable fact that, despite all the hypocritical rhetoric and lip service by the ruling classes,  accounts for the deliberate and willful indifference of the Government towards ensuring guaranteed access to education to the poor, notwithstanding article 25A of the 19th constitutional amendment Article 37-B, Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, 25 A. Right to education states: The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.

Article 37-B, Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, also states that “The state shall remove illiteracy and provide free and compulsory primary and secondary education within minimum possible period.

However, in fulfillment of these constitutional provisions, in either letter or spirit, the Government has been unable to raise adequate resources. The allocation to education would need to be raised from 1.8 % of GDP to at least 7% of GDP, if these goals are seriously intended to be met. An alibi often used to justify the low allocation of resources to education is that a large part of such allocations – as high as 50% — remains unutilized at the end of each year because of the “poor absorption capacity” of the present educational system. Since no efforts are made to increase the absorption capacity – which itself requires additional investments in infrastructure, teachers’ training and the removal of disincentives to enrollment and continuation of education – the alibi becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thus the “right to education” is, in effect, available to only the children of the affluent and not to those of the poor. The reigning anti-public and pro-private economic paradigm, promoted most vigorously by the present head of the Planning Commission, who is obsessed with the idea that the Government needs to withdraw itself from the economic and social sphere and make way for the private sector and the NGOs, has let the right to education of the poor go by default. No serious effort has been made to estimate the needed resources for implementing and operationalizing the right to education provided in the Constitution. In India, an eminent educationist and economist, Professor Tapas Mazumdar, was appointed to head a Committee to estimate the required resources for the provision of education as a fundamental right to all and to suggest measures to ensure that government provides a steady flow of adequate funds for the same.

The Committee had estimated in 1999 that making elementary education a fundamental right would involve an outlay of Rs 1,37,000 crore (or about Pakistan Rs. 200,000 crore) for a 10-year period. The Tapas Mazumdar Committee also recommended that the central government should bear the total additional responsibility of financing free and compulsory education, until the goal is achieved. The Indian Government has passed the Right to Education Bill in 2010, providing substantial additional resources, although falling considerably short of the recommendations of the Tapas Mazumdar Committee’s report. It is highly unlikely that the Government of Pakistan will make a similar effort, in view of its present strained financial situation and its pro-privatization bias. Only through sustained and intensified initiatives like those being proposed under Zoya Science Schools Network (ZSSN), can we force the Government to change its disastrous course.

Public Education the Only Answer
Professor Amartya Sen, the Noble laureate, told the Confederation of Indian Industries in December 2007 that school education can be funded only by the state. No advanced country in the world has ever been able to provide universal quality education by negating or undervaluing its public-funded education system. This is true for all the G-8 countries, including the USA.

The creeping and sinister incursion of private and quasi-private (often under the umbrella of dubious NGOs) institutions into the education field, began in 1979 in the wake of Zia Government’s reversal of the Bhutto regime’s nationalization of private educational institutions.  The latter was mainly intended to stem the tide of commercialism and exploitation of both teachers and parents by private entrepreneurs – with the exception of a few who were benignly motivated.

Growth of Private Schools
There are many factors which have led to the rapid growth of private schools, currently estimated at 56,000 or more (accounting for about 40% of all schools) and make them “one of the fastest-growing markets in the country”, largely serving various shades of elites. Some of the more successful private school chains are reportedly charging not only high tuition fees but “franchise” money of up to Rs. 1.5 million. The main reason, of course, is the elite’s quest for higher quality of education and its urge for exclusivity, based on income and wealth.

The growth of private schools has gone hand in hand with the decline and attrition of public schools. Indeed, there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the two phenomena. The growth of private schools impacts adversely on the quality of education in government schools which are reduced to educational ghettos/orphanages, with the exodus of children of relatively prosperous and influential parents and the departure of good teachers tempted away by private schools or tuition centers. The harrowing tales of neglect, misuse and depredation of public schools, absent teachers, pupil abuse and non-available text-books that are related in the media, are enough to scare even poor parents into sending their children to private schools, despite their much higher costs.

The protagonists of the private schools, however, spin the story the other way around by arguing that private education is no longer an elitist or urban phenomenon, it is just that the private schools are more efficient and sustainable (even affordable).  Some of them would like to dismantle publicly funded schools altogether and hand them on a platter to the fast-growing private school chains and philanthropic foundations. However, as argued earlier, the goal of universal primary education can be uniquely served only by public education system and the latter can at best play a secondary and transitory role until public education receives the resources and the political support to revitalize itself.

It is unlikely however that the trend can be reversed as the vested interests in private education are much more strongly entrenched and even in cahoots with the Government. In the name of public-private partnership – which is a clever way of subsidizing private entrepreneurs, instead of the poor – the government is deceptively disengaging itself farther from the education sector. Most of these programs are intended to improve the  bottom-lines of private educational institutions and secondarily to help some middle-class parents to get their children to taste private schools of dubious quality.

The private school protagonists in Pakistan argue that it is much cheaper to run a private school than a public school, because of the higher overheads and supervision costs of the latter. One of the ways in which private schools claim to save money is by hiring locally available teachers (often female) who have no alternative sources of income at salaries much lower than paid to public school teachers – perhaps, even below the current minimum wage rate. Another way to encourage private schools is that those who can’t afford to pay the tuition fees or are dissatisfied with a public school can be issued vouchers by the Government (or given subsidy in some other form) to send their children to private schools. Ironically, instead of fixing the dysfunctional public school system, exploiting unemployed labour and providing substandard education is the alternative being glorified by the champions of privatization.

The Role of IMF-WB and Foreign Aid
The privatization lobby has been heavily backed by the IMF and World Bank and the donor community, whose educational agenda is dictated by the needs of the global economy, rather  than of national development. The global economy is basically interested in two segments of developing countries’ labour force – the one at the very bottom of the educational pyramid, as a literate labour force for labor-intensive industries outsourced from developed countries. The other is that at the top of the pyramid, consisting of scientists, engineers, doctors and other professionals whose skills are costly to produce in developed countries and whose “brain drain” from developing countries provides a ready source of supply. That is why the focus of the international community in the area of primary education is on literacy, rather than on quality primary education, with emphasis on physical and social sciences, which only elite private schools cater to.

Private schools are the most divisive force in society as they perpetuate class differences and condemn the children of the poor to substandard education. The IMF-WB doctrine essentially consists of commodification of education, based on the neo-classical rates of return calculus. The value of education at each level depends on the private benefits of an individual, not of the society. According to this doctrine, literacy skill is all that the masses need to become a part of the global working force. At most,  it is required to read production instructions and to use the Internet. Critical thinking, creativity, scientific orientation, analytical abilities, sense of history or philosophy, aesthetic appreciation and other such educational attributes – which need to be cultivated at an early age – are considered forbidden fruits for the masses and reserved for the privileged few, who have access to private schools. ZSSN will try to end the marginalization of the poor children in terms of the quality of education.

Despite the massive pouring of external aid to the education sector through (the now-defunct) SAP I and SAP II and other foreign-funded programs – many of which ended in scams – access to primary education has remained a mirage for the poor. Apart from leading to serious policy dilutions and distortions, external aid has had an adverse impact in terms of the political will to reset the priorities for the national economy to help mobilize public resources for universal primary education. The national effort to mobilize public resources for primary education slackened with the growth in external funding.


In view of the above compelling arguments, it seems imperative that that those who are directly affected by this exclusionary process in education, especially primary education – the poor – will have to take the matter in their own hands. All other options lack credibility or seriousness or both.

The drivers of the agenda of educational reform – which has been proceeding at a snail’s pace and has hardly got anywhere in the last six decades – have been powerful rural and urban elites, who have used it to advance their own interests.  It is about time that those who have been deprived of the fruits of education realize its importance and the harm that has been caused to them by limiting its access to them, both overtly and covertly.

Although a number of initiatives have emerged recently to ensure that the gates of education, which have been virtually shut for the children of the poor toiling masses both in rural and urban Pakistan, are pushed open to them through the collective efforts of civil society, these have been few and far between. What is needed is a concerted and coordinated effort, embedded in the grass roots and with the active participation of the poor themselves.

We view education not simply as a salvation of an individual and her family, but more so as an instrument of social change and transformation and as a means of asserting her rights as an equal citizen. In this regard, we see Mukhtaran Mai’s saga of transforming her struggle against feudal oppression into a crusade of empowering underprivileged children by establishing a network of schools in her neighbourhood and linking with other communities, a very inspirational effort. We hope to forge close links with her and similarly motivated groups.

Objectives and Plan of Work
The Zoya School will create a knowledge network system designed to serve the needs of the poorest section of our population.  It will start from the grassroots level to fulfill the demand for education in underserved communities. For its funding, typically, the system will depend on local initiatives – such as the gift of land by one or more members of the community for building/use as school premises, and voluntary labor. The Zoya School will provide a proportion of the funds necessary to start the school. The template of the already-established Zoya Science schools (ZSS), will be followed, subject to its modifications in view of the experience gained. ZSS will provide support in respect of curriculum, educational materials and academic guidance as needed.

Although our initial aim will be to increase the coverage of primary education, especially for girls and to inculcate the scientific bent of mind, it will aim in the medium term to cover studies up to matriculation and higher secondary (intermediate) level in cooperation with government schools and such organizations as Mukhtar Mai Women Welfare Organization. Eventually, we hope our efforts will lead to the establishment of a People’s University, catering to the needs of the underprivileged sections of the population and addressing the challenges of the 21st century from the perspective of those who have been denied access to higher education for generations.

ZSS will question and challenge the socio-political character of knowledge, linked to global market and corporate capital, and counter obscurantism and religious extremism in our curriculum and pedagogy. Efforts will be made to raise public awareness about the politics of diverting flood waters to underprivileged areas. 

ZSS will strengthen communities through increased participation of underprivileged children in primary education by establishing Zoya Science Schools, and by facilitating improvements in government schooling.

ZSS will develop innovative teaching methods through science programs integrated with the economic life of the villages (agriculture, environment—tree planting, public health—making clean water). For example, a module built around the lives of scientists, e.g Archimedes. The social program will include dramatization of Archimedes’ Dialog with the King; his Eureka moment to illustrate displacement principle. The Seraiki program will present the principles in the local language in poem form. 

ZSSs will be the hub of communal activities. The ZSSs will interact with communities through their social, sports and Seraiki programs. Social programs promote education of girls and challenge the status quo. Students will participate in community activities like May Day, Women’s Day celebrations and peasant rallies. ZSS will provide public health services and assist in disaster relief efforts. ZSSs will organize periodic cultural and sports activities and Seraiki bazams combined with fund-raising events. ZSS will improve public health in underserved communities by establishing and operating clinics. ZSS will publish a newsletter on the activities and progress of the schools which are available on ZSS’s website ( 

ZSS will ensure transparency and accountability of the schools. All schools will prepare bi-annual accounts which will be posted on the school notice board and on ZSS website.

ZSS’s priorities for science, social, etc. programs will be reflected in the framework of the accounts. The management of the school will be overseen by a committee of community leaders.

ZSS will collaborate with government schools to address prominent weaknesses, for example, as reflected in students’ under-performance in Mathematics and English. It will also promote active participation by the community to improve the quality of education in government schools.

 ZSS will collaborate with similarly motivated organizations and individuals, share teacher training experiences, curriculum development and support greater state involvement and funding of primary education.

ZSSN will enhance employment opportunities for individuals with little or no formal education by providing vocational training. Vocational training such as sewing centers for women can provide a sustainable income stream for those with little or no formal education and limited employment opportunities. However, even after graduating from the sewing center, women often need assistance in finding markets with sufficient demand for the products and securing funding for purchasing the necessary equipment (sewing machines, etc).

ZSS will connect with merchants (either local or in urban centers), set up temporary shops/stalls during holidays and special events and establish profit sharing cooperatives or provide low-interest loans for purchasing equipment or some combination of the two.

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