An uphill drive

THE road that takes you to the Khatoon-e-Pakistan School, Karachi, is a steep one. It has been an equally uphill drive for Shehzad Roy's Zindagi Trust to transform the institution it adopted in 2015.

The school was in a shambles a few years ago like all peela schools I have visited. They have huge buildings and expansive playgrounds testifying to the vision of their founders from the early years of Pakistan. But lacking maintenance and good governance, they have fallen into decay.

Some committed people like Anita Ghulam Ali, the late managing director of the Sindh Education Foundation, tried to rectify the malaise. She conceptualised the Adopt-a-School programme and won sponsors for many public-sector schools. But the scheme failed because of the corruption and non-cooperation of functionaries of the education department. Many adopters abandoned their projects in frustration.

It is a feather in Shehzad Roy's cap that he has managed to take over Khatoon-e-Pakistan in the face of resistance and turn it around. It was his determination, a successful lawsuit and dexterous negotiations with the government on the transfer of management that helped him acquire and transform the school. He is a celebrity - a pop singer - and few in his position are interested in educating the poor man's child. Another achievement is that the education department continues to cooperate with him in this venture.

The school was in a shambles a few years ago.

What is Shehzad Roy's goal? He tells me he has learnt from his experience with the Fatima Jinnah School he adopted in 2006. He realised that if he had to make a policy impact he would have to create an enabling environment that would push the government to do its job. His strategy was to make the Zindagi Trust's presence felt in the school while the government worked on the brick-and-mortar stuff. The academic management has been entirely with the trust. The teachers, however, are on the government's payroll with the exception of a few. He hopes to make this a model of public-private partnership for others to follow.

I agreed to visit his project and see how he has managed the reform process. The school is elegantly but not ostentatiously done up. The decor is creative with pictures, artwork and handicraft produced by the students from inexpensive material. With a library containing 4,251 books and a huge playground, the school has two essential accessories. In Khatoon-e-Pakistan, a qualified librarian and a physical education instructor put them to good use. They ensure that all children read books and play games, keeping them mentally and physically healthy.

My focus was on the school management and the quality of education. Considering that the trust inherited a cluster of three schools with 870 students and 50 teachers in contentious relationships and with minimal discipline - some with special connections with the education department - one can imagine the challenge the new management faced.

In three years a system has been devised. Eleven Zindagi Trust teachers and a project manager (the principal) have been hired. Government teachers not willing to cooperate were transferred and replaced. It goes to the credit of the head, Anam Palla, that she has managed the transition process skilfully. Her professional development manager, Sana Husain, with a team of seven, addresses not just the pedagogy aspect but also enhances teachers' subject knowledge on a one-to-one basis. To rectify shortcomings, new material has been prescribed for additional reading and the NGO Ahung's Life Skills Based Education books introduced.

Anam describes her work in the first year as being "all about relationships". "At first the teachers did not relate to me, but now we get along well," she says.

There has been a marked improvement in the students' performance as the matriculation results testify. The percentage of students who passed has shot up from 22 per cent in the general group a few years ago to 88pc in 2018. In the sciences it has jumped up from 45pc to 89pc.

It was, however, disappointing to find the trust still trapped in the language dilemma. Roy agrees that a child learns best in her mother tongue. But he cites his "majboori" (compulsion) for the school's hybrid language policy which has a good dose of English as the medium of instruction.

I wonder about the University of Helsinki's thoughts on this matter. The university has recently entered into an agreement to help revamp the teachers' training college which the trust's subsidiary Durbeen has adopted to improve pedagogy in government schools. Experts tell me that Finland ranks the highest in international assessment tests on education because nearly all Finnish children get their education in their mother tongue.

Neither would the two teenagers from the trust's schools have addressed a crowd of thousands with such confidence and eloquence at the Aurat march last Friday, had they not opted to speak in Urdu to convey their message.

Published in Dawn