Last week, I said in my article that a new school year is meant to be a happy time. Today, I will say that the first day of the new school at the opening of the SSPSS school on Kuri Road in Islamabad was indeed happy. The full name of the school in the new sector of the capital is ‘Sir Syed Preparatory School System’, and it borrows from the Montesori School’s pedagogical ideas, notably placing the child in the centre and emphasizing individual growth in cooperation with fellow students, so that good values and attitudes can be developed in all.

I attended the impressive opening day at SSPSS with beautiful primary school children, most of them quite young since the school is also just a few years old. The teachers, all female, about twenty in number, had prepared the event in detail, and the 350 students, boys and girls, had learnt songs, theatre skits, speeches, and more, by heart. It was a treat for me and my friend, Mrs. Ruth Zulfikar Butt, a retired music teacher originally from New Zealand. She was training to be an opera singer in London when she met her Pakistani husband to be. They married and settled here some fifty years ago. The family lived in USA for a while, but the children were homesick and family moved back.

The SSPSS school, where we had been invited as chief guests at the opening, was established by an engineer and iron factory owner, Khadim Husain. He is paying back to society and his local community in a way that we should all do if we have the resources to do so. SSPSS is a private school, but the school also works with the government in different ways. Samar Raza, a senior civil servant, is the main adviser at the school. The owner of the school, or managing director, as he preferred to call himself, said that cooperation between the private sector and government is important in developing the new school.

The owner and the adviser, together with the head teacher and other teachers showed the chief guests around at the school at the smart classrooms, library, IT and science rooms, and more. The teachers, administrators and students had decorated neat and friendly corridors and class rooms. Also, one could notice the practical touch of an artistic engineer, the owner and manager, using bright colours and untraditional styles.

Today, I want to celebrate this private school and all private schools. Yet, I am also an advocate of the government education system. In earlier articles, I have said that I have questions about the role of the private sector in education in Pakistan, hoping that we could also keep up the government school system, and improve it. But when I see a school like the SSPSS, I also want to celebrate such a private school. When private schools implement alternative pedagogical ideas, such as the Montesori principles, I am particularly glad.

In my home country Norway, it was always difficult to get government approval to open private schools, but when the pedagogy or ideology, or religious thinking, were alternative, it was easier to open private schools. In Pakistan, the Montesori schools are popular; in Norway, the Waldorf and Rudolf Steiner schools are more common. Today, though, more private schools have begun opening also in Norway. Yet, many see that as a problem since they take parent and community interest away from the government schools.

In the Europe, especially in Scandinavia, it was a general foundation of a community that there should be local government schools of good quality which all children living there had to attend. The reason for this principle was that children should feel belonging to the community. Furthermore, it was also seen as important that children of all classes, religions and other differences integrated and gained respect for each other. A poor child might be scoring higher at exams than the son or daughter of rich family, or a highly academically educated family. An upper class child might have his or her best friend from a poor family, or from an immigrant or refugee family. This would have been difficult if the children would have gone to different private schools, especially at primary and lower secondary levels.

In Norway, we tried to make the upper secondary school system the same, notably one school for all, in recent decades also having academic and vocational subjects under one roof. Alas, this has not been successful since the vocational streams where made too academic and many pupils would drop out before completing their full course. It should be mentioned that there is now ten years compulsory education for all from 6-10 years of age in the country; and there is a free 3-year upper secondary school, but it is not compulsory. The vocational training streams, including apprenticeship, are now being revised. In our time, in Norway as in the West in general – and in Pakistan, too – we place too much emphasis on academic subjects and competition in education, and on knowledge learnt by heart. Actually, we forget the principles of the pedagogy of Maria Montesori and Rudolf Steiner – and even the messages of religion, which always remind us that the most important in education values, kindness, compassion and the art of living peacefully together. The school, together with the home and local community, must teach us how to do this; bookish knowledge, vocational skills, work competences, and so on, always come second.

Let me repeat that private schools can be good; the SSPSS school that I visited this week is one such example. I am glad that good souls establish and run good school; more than that, I am impressed. However, I am also for parents and community members helping government schools to be run well. In actual fact, government schools cater for the majority of children in Pakistan and in most countries. I referred to Norway, where government schools are certainly in majority, and they are indeed good schools, often better than the private schools. The government schools have the important role of integrating, not segregating, children in a community. In a world with high migration and growing class differences, the role of the government education system in a country becomes more important.

I hope that in Pakistan, we can have a renewed debate about the important role government education. Yes, I am glad that the private sector does what it can, too, but the government schools must be given first priority. In any case, all schools, private and government, must be regulated and have a common core curriculum. I believe that in any community, the normal situation should be that the schools are good government schools, receiving the community’s support as a fundamental institution in the community, along with houses of worship. The private schools could add to what the government schools do, but it is the government schools that should be the normal, not the private schools. This doesn’t mean that I today also want to celebrate the SSPSS school, which I had such great pleasure to visit this week.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid.