Pakistan’s lessons in school reform


What the world’s sixth most populous state can teach other developing countries

WHEN Pakistan’s schools attract global attention, it is often as a backdrop to violence. In October 2012 a masked gunman from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan boarded a school bus and shot Malala Yousafzai in the head, neck and shoulder. Two years later, and six days after Ms Yousafzai received the Nobel peace prize, terrorists from the same umbrella group killed 141 people, nearly all pupils, at an army-run school in Peshawar, one of the deadliest attacks on a school in any country. According to the Global Terrorism Database kept by the University of Maryland, 867 educational institutions were attacked by Islamists between 2007 and 2015, often because these places had the temerity to teach science—or worse, educate girls.

Such attacks have added to problems that schools in Pakistan, the world’s sixth-most-populous country, share with those in other poor states—irrelevant curriculums, high rates of dropout as children (especially girls) get older, and woeful teaching. Yet the spectre of violence may have obscured another development: the emergence of Pakistan as perhaps the world’s largest laboratory for education reform (see article).

Pakistan has long been home to a flourishing market of low-cost private schools, as parents have given up on a dysfunctional state sector and opted instead to pay for a better alternative. In the province of Punjab alone the number of these schools has risen from 32,000 in 1990 to 60,000 by 2016. (England has just 24,000 schools, albeit much bigger ones.)

More recently, Pakistani policymakers have begun to use these private schools to provide state education. Today Pakistan has one of the largest school-voucher schemes in the world. It has outsourced the running of more government-funded schools than any other developing country. By the end of this year Punjab aims to have placed 10,000 public schools—about the number in all of California—in the hands of entrepreneurs or charities.

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