Quality Education That Is Affordable: The Dream That Could Be

Early March 2019, I walked past security into Sindh’s magnificent Governor House. The inaugural Adab Festival – a three-day event to celebrate and discuss culture, literature, and society was happening on its premise. I had made a shortlist of the panel discussions I would attend – the foremost being one on education. Like most young people, I was doe-eyed and eager to engage, had even made some calculations as to where I should seat myself in order to be within comfortable reach of the staff member who would eventually be carrying microphones to audience members that had questions.

Also like most young people, I had questions. I asked one –I don’t even remember what I said exactly, but it was about affordability in education and implied, without mentioning, a December 2019 Supreme Court order stipulating a 20% cut in private school fees. What I do remember, very precisely, is the CEO of a mainstream schooling system telling me in response that it was just not possible to want a McDonald’s burger or a Sana Safinaz designer dress and get it at half the price. This was the first time I heard education being conflated to articles of luxury food and clothing, but it was not to be the last.

In fact, this vernacular in our education discourse is almost too common: education is a commodity to be sold. How we got here is simple. The private sector steps in to fill the lacuna created by the inadequacy of the public sector. It follows that the former is also cognizant of the fact that to many parents it may seem the only viable option.


Ten months later, I visit the Khatoon-e-Pakistan Government School. I’ve been to a government school before, my grandmother (Nani) retired as headmistress of one in Bahawalpur, in the Punjab province. Like that one, this too has large expanses of land separating reddish buildings.

As I wait at the reception I make some conversation with a student who has just returned from her village and did not know of the exam happening that day. She tells me this in what is mostly grammatically correct, even if hesitant English, and that she is in Grade 4-B.

I am greeted by a spirited and professional-looking woman at the reception – “Maam Sana”. Sana Kazmi, an employee of the non-profit Zindagi Trust, their Head of Advocacy and Special Programs, shows me around the school. The weather is wintery and I enjoy walking past some very green strips and corners. This used to be three schools inside one periphery, but they have now been consolidated into one for administrative efficiency –enabled by the School Consolidation Policy (2011), for which Zindagi Trust had advocated. I realize speaking to her that we share an alma mater.

It is exam season, so most of the classrooms are deserted and the ones with an exam in process are quiet. In the kindergarten section, the windows and soft boards are festooned with art made by students and teachers. Nothing is unfamiliar – my school had all this too, but I am still impressed, because I know that many government schools, which tend to be typecast as dilapidated and poorly run establishments, don’t.

Something that my school did not have is a breakfast room. Sana tells me of their breakfast program, intended to incentivize healthy eating and more simply, coming to school. Madiha, another Zindagi Trust employee, speaks of their success with the introduction of porridge, so much so that parents had come asking for the recipe. Sana asserts that hygiene and good health are priorities — the milk is non-TetraPack, from a dairy farm, and the utensils are all ‘stainless steel’. Nasreen, who heads their breakfast program, shows me their menu: a daily schedule with combinations of boiled egg, yogurt, chanay (chickpeas), and a treat for one day of the week – andaa paratha (egg and paratha). In addition to being in charge of the first-aid room, Nasreen maintains medical files for all students, conducts a yearly height-weight and lice check, and the school cooperates with the government in the administration of polio drops. “Recently we had a typhoid awareness session for parents,” Nasreen speaks to me while checking classwork that KG-1A students are bringing up to her. “I have sessions with the girls in all grades and I discuss health concerns they may have at their respective ages.” She, too, stresses that the students’ productivity is contingent upon wholesome eating.

I am studying to be a medical doctor, so I completely and scientifically understand all this. I feel equal parts visceral awe and shame – the latter because, like most doctors, I routinely and adamantly eat things that I know are wholly bad for my health. We discuss how the junior section is the best age to inculcate this sort of awareness; the children are like a sponge that will absorb what we teach them, even if it is about what to eat.

What stays with me after my tour is the signs outside their classrooms – unconventional and innovative. A sign reads “3 squared B” (9B) and another “under-root of 49 A” (7A). Sana says this helps with reinforcement of what the students learn in math class.

Like their classroom signs, the work Zindagi Trust is doing is ingenious and impactful – a model that is practical, sustainable, and will help work slowly but firmly towards equity in education provision through the piece-meal improvement of government schools. To do this they have centered their reformative effort on what they believe is the most important stakeholder in education – the vehicle of information delivery: teachers.

Because they want their paradigm to be easily replicated by other public schools, Sana says they try to maximize the use of the existing government resources and minimize the import of external resources, which can be both expensive and hard to find. At the core of their current model is the in-school formation of a Professional Development (PD) Team, whose work is focused on teacher training. With its constant follow-up and its acute awareness of the specific needs of the school, this team is more effective than disconnected, one-time teacher training workshops.

For people like me, this is academic jargon we’ve heard thrown around in our schools all the time. But this school is a work of reform in progress – it helps an observer see a “before” and “after” template and discern, in real-time, the effect of enriched classroom practices.

“When we came here, these ideas were alien and none of this was happening,” Saima, the Math subject lead, tells me when I meet the professional development team. There are five subject leads, and a director, Ms. Sana Zaidi. Sana Zaidi is now the school’s project manager. According to them, they took up the position thinking it was the methods of information delivery that they would need to redress and/or diversify. Soon, though, this began to look irrelevant, because teachers and students could look very similar in their (lack of) understanding of syllabus content. They realized they had to cover some ground on ensuring the teachers knew what to teach before they could move on to how to teach it.

Nasima, their Urdu lead, says that a “copy and paste” ritual was rampant – teachers would write out sums and solutions on the board, the children would copy this down, and when the same questions turned up in tests, reproduce what they had memorized. The gross system was a closed, hapless circle: the teachers came from a similar place, where rote-learning was the principal teaching and learning praxis.

The PD team sought to start by first amending the intricate components of this circle, but all of them agree that their attempts were regularly met with resistance. “We are always trying to show the teachers what we can offer,” Saima says. “Many of them are now seeing that the traditional model is not sacrosanct, and new ideas are not a waste of time.”

A seminal achievement at their campus has been the meaningful incorporation of digital literacy. The school has two computer labs, which the students frequent often. Initially, online programs like EdEqual were used for diagnostics, first for teachers and then for students. “The results were horrific,” they recall. Now, e-learning resources are a regular part of classes, as they ensure both better comprehension and continued interest in the curriculum content. The Science subject lead, Hina, enthusiastically recounts a Kahoot quiz in class: “Everyone had a lot of fun and the class has never interacted with me, and with each other, more.”

Nasima, however, laments the dearth of Urdu learning aids on the internet. “But I have been creative,” she re-assures me, “we have made videos ourselves; a lot of labor has gone into them.” Painfully true, she mentions that it is often believed that anyone who can speak Urdu can teach it – expertise is never a consideration.

Since the Zindagi Trust has taken over, the Urdu and English Departments have inducted Oxford textbooks to be used alongside Sindh Board textbooks, at no extra cost to the students.

They point out that the other significant end that online learning serves is immediate and organized feedback both for students and teachers. This forms an integral part of the “self-assessment” component of their curriculum – an attitude that has empirically enhanced student learning.

Redefining in-school assessment has been another challenge. The head of the Social Studies teaching department, Aasia, explains how they have had to move away from tedious written assessments that would only be a test of speed and memory, and not critical thinking. She says that they spend a considerable amount of time with teachers working on drafting test questions, deciding how much content to test, and developing marking criteria. Testing has become more frequent and problem-based – bimonthly tests, a midterm, and a final-term exam.

The PD team recognizes that scholastic achievement is not the only measure of success, and they try to attune their grading to include all aspects of student development. Nasima, for example, has rolled out to her teachers what she calls a “four-column sheet.” There are four columns to grade a student on: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. All of these are used to calculate an aggregate grade.

“Our lesson plans are objective-based, instead of ticking topics off a checklist, or no plan at all,” Saima describes their struggle to re-invent a bland classroom dynamic. “Wherever we can, we weave in activity-based learning, so that concepts are delivered in ways other than simply translating the textbook.”

One of the most remarkable examples they quote is project-based learning. “My aim is to familiarize students with the concept and intricacies of research,” Asia says. “Recently, the students did a project on bullying in school. The idea is to teach them data handling, report-writing, and presentation. They tabulated and graphed their findings and presented their proposals to the administration.” I find this an excellent initiative, and then learn that the other projects the students of grades 3 to 8 have completed include work on the quality of canteen food and the water crisis in Pakistan. Concurrently, in order to ensure that there is some practical application of what is taught in classrooms, the teachers make sure that money calculations are part of bake sales. “Sometimes the students sell their idea to their peers before they put up a stall. To me, that’s a form of entrepreneurship, too.”

An implicit but omnipresent trend in the school classrooms is a shift towards student autonomy. Questions are raised and the teachers take them non-defensively, which was rare some time ago. In science classes, Hina prefers that teachers allow students to choose whatever topic intrigues them to make a project on, instead of handing them out herself.

Of course, to me, and to many readers of this piece, much of this is things we have heard ad-nauseum in our own careers through school. But to the staff and students in a public sector setting, this is new, even revolutionary. “When I came here,” Saima says, “most children were passing their Board Exams with a less than fifty percent mark.” After two years of the formation of the PD Team, she reports with great satisfaction, hundred percent of their students have passed with more than sixty percent, with many achieving a grade significantly higher.

It would come across that perhaps their model is a facsimile of practices already part of private sector schools. It is, however, important to consider that this a substantially lower resource setting. “We have to customize it to a government context,” Saima adds.

They note that the parent response has been enthusiastic. “They are eager to meet us at parent-teacher meetings and most cooperate very enthusiastically when there is a play or an intra-school event that needs their support.”

The English lead, Komal, has had a more hurdled path to traverse.

“I have a perpetual faculty shortage. Many of the existing teachers are not language proficient themselves, and it’s a tough job to teach someone a language.” She says that she knows that no giant leaps can be made, but that they have slowly progressed from classrooms where English stories were translated before they were taught and comprehension answers were lifted verbatim from the passages. One of her goals is to enable the students to have a conversation in English, which is not their first language.

Komal also hints at how the existing public education apparatus makes the work they do at Zindagi Trust so difficult. “The teachers come from a system where there is no accountability for those not working at all and no reward for those working overtime.” Concomitantly, she finds the Board Exams, which are meant to gauge student learning at the end of the year, both “dubious” and “unrepresentative.”

Despite this, all of them think that there is little to no hesitation in the students on account of the language barrier they may encounter in English-medium schools. “They are getting their point across, even if bilingually, and we have given them the confidence to do so.”

As a private-school educated outsider, I notice that while for people like me, community engagement meant charity work and volunteering – in essence, engaging down – for the girls at the Khatoon-e-Pakistan School, outside interactions are essentially engaging up. “Our goal is to ensure they can compete with the private sector.” The PD team unanimously agrees that they have made advances towards this. “Our students have participated in art and math competitions, where all the others were private schools.” In the Math and Urdu categories, they took pride in highlighting that their students had won awards. Sana Kazmi, too, emphasized the need to provide every child the opportunity to explore any unrealized interest or talent he/she may have: “It’s not about winning, I keep telling them.”

At all levels, the Zindagi Trust hopes to develop links with the more veteran players in the education landscape. “This sort of contact is very important for the confidence of our students and to inspire them.”

Later I meet Ayesha Imtiaz, an alumnus of the school. Articulate and passionate, she describes her transition from a private school in Nawabshah to this school in Karachi. “I cried when I heard I was going to a government school. But the support and encouragement I have received here is unparalleled, even in my family or my old school.” An aspiring visual artist, she tells me of the all-too-common censure student artists have to endure. “There was never a time when my teachers would speak well of me to my parents, I was always the dunce that couldn’t get anywhere in life.” Ayesha was repeatedly told that art as a career was either for the very rich, or the very incompetent. At her new school, though, this changed. “My art teachers loved my work and have promoted it every way they can. It has been put up at T2F [a cultural space and café]. It was life-changing to have my talent recognized and valued, to be praised in front of my parents as someone who had a bright future.” Her mother is still distrustful, but whenever people ask Ayesha to paint something and pay her in turn, she seems to inch towards amenability. “This is what the Zindagi Trust people do – they help make aware not just us, but also our parents.”

Ayesha’s path to self-discovery, facilitated by her school, inspired Zindagi Trust’s #MoreThanMyMarks social media campaign. The ethos of acceptance and diversity that the hashtag emblemizes exists throughout the school. There is a weekly “club” period which allows students to dabble in music, art, environmental preservation, chess, and the like, so that they find something they have an affinity for.

The school has an admirably well-maintained indoor sports facility. When I ask Azra, their sports teacher, what sports was like before she joined, she stares at me dully for a moment, then shakes her head, “Kuch bhi nahi tha (there was nothing)”. Now, the sports department of three has introduced competitive basketball, futsal, throwball, cricket, and badminton. “The first Sports Day happened after I joined, but the response to a more rigorous and organized sports program has been overwhelming.” She points to a set of trophies on top of a cupboard; their school’s teams have won inter-school contests and have even hosted a throwball competition.

But arguably the most arresting part of the school is the art room. A large, dedicated space, it sports large Van Gogh-esque murals in front and the rest of the walls are accessorized with boards of student artwork; portraits, sketches, stipling, collages, cubism. Hamida, the art lead, briefs me about the art program, but points out that it was Anum Shakil who established it in its present form. “We have a meticulously devised art curriculum, such that art is no longer a period other subject teachers can hijack for extra lessons or missed work.” Hamida says that they coalesce theory with practical work, so that their students understand the techniques and mediums they are working with. “For the rest of the teachers, art was an ostracized, inconsequential subject before, so now one of our foci is subject integration.” For example, the students had coupled their study of the artist Sadequain in their Urdu course with an activity in art class. They also study the lives and works of famous artists, and have often taken their art outside the classroom, painting murals around the city and participating in Art Biennales.

I observe that most of the work is thematic but still vastly diverse. Hamida reasons that this is because art class is about nurturing inherent creativity, which cannot be policed to the degree it becomes counter-productive. In her words, their greatest achievement has been the fact that parents, too, have begun to think of art as a career choice. “They come to us at PTMs and ask us about what the future may hold if their daughter pursues an art degree. I enlist textile, fine arts, fashion design, etc. In many ways, even our course is wired to allow an easy transition to university arts courses for those that are interested.” To me, this is very encouraging, because the insecurity associated with an arts career is something that exists in the minds of parents across all socio-economic strata. Hamida’s words add to Ayesha’s story: “The parents see that this class – this art room – gave their daughter confidence, a sense of self-discovery.”

A pioneering intervention at the school is the Life Skills Based Education (LSBE) Program – an idea that is being incorporated into government schools with the collaborative advocacy of Aahung and Zindagi Trust. The LSBE is a self-awareness curriculum – it covers topics pertinent to self-protection, puberty and associated physical and emotional changes, hygiene, and nutrition. Sana Zaidi, director of the Zindagi Trust program at the school, calls it “extremely urgent, given the social backdrop against which the girls are growing up, where child abuse and harassment is not uncommon.” When I meet Shazia, who teaches the LSBE course, she shows me a detailed teacher guide that is given to all teachers of LSBE, who are trained by the NGO Aahung. I skim through the index – it is comprehensive and need-oriented. She mentions that for the girls in the senior section, a copy of the nikah-nama is also attached, so that girls know their constitutional marital rights. “The most crucial chapters, which stimulate the most in-class discussion, are the ones relevant to menstruation and female health, and those about methods of self-defense should they encounter an uncomfortable situation.”

She says that the immediate response to LSBE was diffident and averse, but that in the two years that it has been happening the girls have opened up about their insecurities and questions. Sana Zaidi remarks that the conversation with the government about this is ongoing. “We reviewed some early government textbooks on sensitive topics like these and found that the information in them was presented in an obscure, unhelpful way –some of the content was, paradoxically, almost regressive.” As a result of their advocacy with the government, a chapter on Violence and some other Life Skills themes have been introduced into the Sindh Board Textbooks. “Our objective is to ensure that the students become not just independent learners, but independent, empowered women.”

According to Sana Kazmi, they have actively worked towards Child Protection: the establishment of an easily navigable system where trained healthcare providers, law enforcement personnel, and the media help in the provision of free legal aid and shelter for minors. In Punjab, I hear, they have made some progress. From other work, however, I know that the situation in Sindh remains abysmal. Karachi’s only proposed child protection shelter in Korangi has been under construction for ten years, and the framework for reporting and punishing child abuse is ineffectual, if not non-existent, in most places. So it gives me immense hope that this is a cause the Zinadgi Trust is actively pursuing in governmental corridors.


In March, after coming back home from the Adab Festival, I thought about the panel discussion on education for a while. I don’t “hate” privately-owned schools, even if this is often implied in articles written by school-owning families in their defense – I went to one, perhaps the most exclusive of them all. But after I left school, I came to see what can come across as a panorama of private schools, sometimes with a sizeable mismatch between the quality of provision of their “product” and the charge put on it. The popular derision, then, is for a for-profit model for something as fundamental as education. Obviously then there is also the very real question of how much profit is safe to call ridiculously exorbitant.

It is because of my expensive, privileged education that I realize that my experience is not even remotely universal. It is also my education that makes me feel that it is necessary and urgent to initiate a revival of public sector classrooms, where most of the population of my country will inevitably find themselves in.

I have interned in many summers at other education non-profits functioning in the country. At Zindagi Trust, perhaps because their projects at this point are only two – the Khatoon-e-Pakistan School and the SMB Fatima Jinnah School – I have found the greatest concentration of available resources into their chosen institutions. It follows that the observable outcomes of their interventions are more profound and more pronounced.

I appreciate in particular that their staff and administration acknowledges the difference between putting larger numbers in school, which may inflate the “school-going” number on a census, and ensuring that there is incisive development of the cognitive abilities of school-going children as a result of the education they are receiving. Only the latter will warrant success in universities, and then the workforce.

Their parallel efforts towards better policy-making ensure that their impact extends beyond the two schools they currently manage. The Zindagi Trust also played a key role in the criminalization of corporal punishment in schools. It is significant that specific problems are being highlighted and addressed in this way – some to do with archaic and discredited practices, others with accountability and regulation, and others still which require corrective legislation.

It is easy for people like me to box the problems of the public sector as one gross case of state neglect – but my time with Sana and her team, and with the other organizations I have briefly volunteered with, has made me see that the sequelae of this neglect are too many, too suffused, and too widespread to be overturned in a year or two, or with one swish of the legislative wand, or even a doubled education budget.

The failure to ensure the evolution of education systems in sync with the evolution of everything else has precipitated problems that are institutional, at every level, and affect student learning, personality, and development. A less-than-complete education means that these young people are functionally excluded from the pool of contenders for many opportunities that others will compete for.

Partnership with the government sector is a realistic and long-term solution to increasing access to quality education in the country, for two reasons: the private sector will continue to cater to an exclusive minority, and independent non-profits cannot educate all of the remaining majority forever.

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(The featured image is the author’s)