Michael Barber on Education Reform in Pakistan

By Catherine A. Cardno — April 02, 2013 4 min read
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Sir Michael Barber (former head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit and chief advisor to the Secretary of State for Education under Tony Blair and now Pearson’s chief education adviser) has written a new, brief book, The Good News From Pakistan (Reform, 2013), about the promising education reforms in the Punjab region of Pakistan that he oversaw during the past two years.

Barber released the volume in a personal capacity, related to his role as an unpaid special representative in education for the Department for International Development in Pakistan.

In November 2010, the chief minister of the Punjab region, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, asked Barber to prepare an education reform plan. Barber created the Punjab Schools Reform Roadmap following his work as a member of the U.K.'s Pakistan Education Task Force. Implementation followed quickly, beginning in January 2011. By August 2011, the roadmap was in place and affecting the region’s 60,000 schools. The work is ongoing, but Barber decided to release the volume now because of the upcoming Pakistan national elections.

Since implementation, school enrollment has jumped by an additional 1.5 million children, daily attendance has grown from 83 percent to 90 percent or higher, and 81,000 new teachers have been hired. A school voucher system that enables poor, out-of-school children to attend private schools has grown from 20,000 to 140,000.

Punjab is important, Barber argues. Not only is it Pakistan’s largest province, but with a population of over 180 million people it is roughly half of the country’s entire population, and it can be a trendsetter for the country as a whole. As Barber writes in the prologue, his team determined that if “we could make the schools work there, we’d have a chance of making schools work nationwide, too.” The problem, they quickly realized, was one of implementation.

He and his team have worked to get kids and teachers into schools on a regular basis, created official oversight within districts, matched the availability of resources with the student populations that need them, and made sure the National Curriculum—approved in 2006, but not yet available in textbooks—made it into schools via newly created classroom materials.

During his two years working on the roadmap he learned 12 fundamental lessons. (Under different circumstances, it would feel a bit unfair to reveal them all, but the book is in the public domain, so it seems reasonable to share them):

1. Be ambitious: “Incrementalism isn’t enough and even if it were, it isn’t motivating.”

2. Set clear goals: “Translate the vision into measurable outcomes.”

3. Prepare and plan and get on with it; you can refine as you go: “When there is an education is not sensible to spend a long time planning before acting.”

4. Establish routines that work: “Government is driven by crises and events but it is routines that deliver results.”

5. The conversation must be honest: “Failure needs to be named; and its causes need to be identified.”

6. Know what’s really happening: You need a “reasonably reliable data system that gets the data in, analyses it and gets it out round the system again in short order.”

7. Refine constantly but don’t compromise: “It is only when a compromise is ruled out that people become genuinely creative in seeking solutions.”

8. Create momentum: “Never stand still....Changing a large or, in the case of Punjab, huge system requires movement.”

9. Persist: “It hasn’t been easy. It won’t get any easier for a long time, but there is visible progress and persistence will be rewarded ultimately.”

10. Build a guiding coalition: “What is needed to drive reform of a whole system is a guiding coalition of political, official and donor leaders who share the objectives, share a deep understanding of the strategy, and share participation in the routines that drive delivery.”

11. [For Donors Only] Focus on the change that is back from there to the money: “The aid money is at the end of the argument, not the beginning. And the aim consistently should be to reduce it over time.”

12. When all else fails in Pakistan, you can always talk about cricket: “An area where American foreign policy requires refinement,” he notes.

There is still much work to be done, Barber writes, but the hard work of education reform within Punjab—which proceeded despite the major flooding the country saw in 2010—has paid off and the prognosis for schools, and children, is good.

In addition to the fundamental lessons he has learned from his past two years working on education reform in Punjab, Barber also details the origins, elements, and processes of the roadmap program in the book.

Because The Good News From Pakistan is in the public domain, it can be downloaded for free from Reform Research Trust, the independent no-party think tank that published the volume.

You can follow Barber on twitter (@MichaelBarber9).

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.