Amir Mehmood Qureshi

Lahore -  Pakistan is in the midst of an unparalleled education crisis. There are 22.6 million out-of-school children in Pakistan which accounts for 44 percent of all children in the country. According to Alif Ailaan, children who are enrolled in schools receive a poor quality of education, especially students enrolled in government schools. Government schools’ students lag behind their private school counterparts regarding reading and arithmetic skills. Progressive Education Network (PEN) is a non-profit organisation that is working to address the education crisis in Pakistan. Presently, PEN is providing quality education to 50,436 students through a network of 227 public schools across Pakistan.

We sat down with Dr Muhammad Najeeb Khan in PEN’s head office in Lahore to ask him about PEN’s work. Dr Najeeb has recently joined PEN as its Chief Executive and wants to see it grow across the country.

PEN CEO is a former civil servant – who previously headed different development programs, including the Benazir Income Support Program. Dr Najeeb is a medical professional with specialization in Community Medicine, but he has also spent a significant time managing human development projects in civil service.

He has had a long-term interest in primary education and brings private sector business experience and international fundraising exposure, also, his passion and vigor to this venture.

Question: What was the rationale behind the founding of PEN?

ANSWER: Progressive Education Network was founded by seven close friends; who are educationists, bankers, professionals, and people in the business.

Pakistan has the worst indicators regarding infant mortality rate, infant health, child stunting, and early childhood education in the world. There are nearly 30 million children out of school in Pakistan which has a total population of 220 million and ranks 6th in the world by population.

With an impending youth bulge in Pakistan’s population, our failure to act now can lead to grave consequences: poverty trap, sheer illiteracy, extremism, and high crime. Eighty-eight percent of the marginalized families send their children to government schools – where students lag 2.5 years behind their private school counterparts regarding basic literacy and numeracy skills.

PEN was established as a non-person centric, transparent organization that works to address the education crisis in Pakistan. We believe that given the extent of the problem, it is no longer just the government’s responsibility. The private sector will have to play an integral role in addressing these problems.

Therefore, we work under a public-private partnership model. PEN adopts underserved government schools for a minimum period of 10 years. This allows PEN to build on government’s existing infrastructure and implement reforms focusing on student enrollment, retention, drop-out, and international academic standards.

PEN model focuses on the provision and training of teachers, student learning and assessment, and character-building in addition to providing vital missing facilities.

By improving education delivery in government schools, we are able to reach the underprivileged children given that Government schools cater to low-income families.

Can you tell me how you reform government schools?

In addition to operating 227 public schools nationwide, PEN is also launching PEN Academy – an online portal with learning resources in Urdu for Pakistani children.

Our goal is to reach 1 million children through PEN-adopted schools by 2025 and have 5 million children benefiting from our learning resources through PEN Academy.

Let me explain how we transform under-performing public schools after adopting them. Before adopting a school, we conduct a baseline survey of the school. This survey includes assessing a school’s physical facilities, community engagement, net and gross enrollment, student achievement, and teachers’ evaluation. Based on this, we develop an intervention plan that addresses the shortcomings of each school. After a lot of internal debates and brainstorming sessions, we have evolved a model for a PEN school. This model lays out the number of classrooms in each school, student-teacher ratio, number of washrooms per student, etc. We compare the surveyed school to this model and devise an intervention plan.

Our academic interventions in adopted schools include the addition of teachers to reduce student-teacher ratio, teachers’ training, student assessment, student and teacher incentives, etc. It also involves imparting leadership skills to head teachers.

Under-performing government schools usually have poor physical facilities. While our focus is on academics, we also want to create an environment that is conducive to learning. Hence, PEN builds classrooms and washrooms where needed, provides clean and cold drinking water, and furniture for all students and teachers. We also appoint a maid in the school who cleans the premises twice daily.

PEN has a rigorous monitoring and evaluation mechanism. Our staff members visit schools daily and record their observations through a mobile app which relays this geo-tagged data to the head office. This information helps us to determine our performance on a regular basis.

We at PEN are passionate about life-skills training to the students and computer education. We have established computer labs in our elementary-level schools and launched a pilot project of digital learning. As part of life-skills training, we have included co-curricular activities in the curriculum. PEN students participate in sports competitions, debates, creative writing and summer camps. We organize Student Week every academic year which is a week-long event featuring inter-school competitions.

What is your core competency?

Teachers’ training. We have a very comprehensive teacher training program  which is held throughout the academic year. During the summer and winter holidays, we organize longer training sessions. Internal and external trainers deliver training; external trainers come from LUMS, GCU, University of Education, etc. We have a very high attendance rate at our training programs which focus on classroom management, child psychology and improve teachers’ subject competency. We also cover interactive learning and encourage a participatory approach to learning among students.

What are your goals?

We are driven by our goal to provide quality education to a million children by the year 2025 and have 5 million children benefiting from the learning resources on PEN Academy.

What are some of the challenges you are facing?

Our biggest challenges are funding and reforming Government teachers. We are revamping our website, frequent updates on social media and better donor stewardship.

One of our continuing challenges is student retention. We see that that in Government schools you have 100 students in KG but only a third stay in school until Class 5. Most of these children drop out and start working in the fields or at small shops. The drop out ratio is even worse among girls because of child marriage in rural areas. We are addressing these issues by increasing our contact with the parents. We’ve increased the frequency of the parent-teacher meetings and are now using these meetings to highlight the benefits of education.

What do you, personally, spend most of your time on?

I am an avid reader and conduct a fair amount of research on educational initiatives around the world to learn what may work in our scenario. My interests are philosophy and comparative religion.