It is easy for politicians to blame bureaucratic red tape or budget constraints or the political opposition for their own failure to deliver to the people. It is equally easy for politicians to make promises which are forgotten as soon as polling stations close. Prior to the 2013 general elections, all political parties made public commitments to improve the state of education in Pakistan. But few elected representatives have stepped up to take full ownership of the problem.
Sheikh Ejaz Ahmed, a member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly, elected from Faisalabad (PP-68), is determined to break this pattern. At a meeting in the Punjab Governor’s House in 2013, Ahmed was struck by a question: What if politicians’ children were required to study in government schools? “I thought to myself, as parliamentarians, if our children go to Aitchison or Beaconhouse or other elite schools, how will we have any idea of what problems government schools are facing? We have to own this problem. If we do, there is no doubt that the education landscape will be transformed.”
Soon after the meeting, Ahmed returned to his constituency, took his two sons out of the prestigious private school they were attending and enrolled them in the Government AV Modern High School, Faisalabad. “When I went to the school to admit my children, the headmaster was speechless. He had never seen a parliamentarian who had enrolled their children in a government school.” Ahmed then became involved in improving the school’s performance. “The global standard is around 40 children per classroom but here they had 70-80 children in each room. With so many students in a class, children don’t get any individual attention. Their education suffers as a whole.”
Soon the school received government funding and eight more rooms were added. Sanitation and garbage collection was improved, toilets were fixed, a filtration plant was installed, damaged portions of the building were repaired and unpaved areas were properly cemented. But this wasn’t enough. For Ahmed, it was important to get other parents involved. He began reaching out to parents, urging them to participate in school activities, and he helped reorganise and galvanise the school council. In the matter of a few months the school was transformed. All it took was one politician to undo decades of apathy and neglect.
Ahmed believes there should be legislation requiring all parliamentarians and civil servants to send their children to government schools. “Other parliamentarians say I have a lot of strength to put my kids in a government school,” he says. “They should explain why they haven’t done the same but I think the only way to force the issue is to draft legislation.” Ahmed thinks legislation will create political will for change. “If famous TV anchors like Hamid Mir or Shahzeb Khanzada put their children in government schools, the administration will address issues themselves for fear of being caught on camera neglecting their school.”
Ahmed believes that unless you declare an education emergency in the country, and treat is as one, you cannot begin to tackle other issues. He is confident that terrorism and crime can be curbed if young people are in school and enlightened through education. “When it comes to reforming education in Pakistan, it is not just infrastructure and teachers that matter,” he says. “One of the most essential components is the curriculum. I am a strong believer in one curriculum for the entire country, much like in India. If everyone’s children regardless of class are studying from the same books, no one will feel like they are getting less of an education or that they are inferior or superior.”
While Ahmed is just one politician who has transformed one school in one city, it is the simplicity of his idea that is so powerful. Today, both his sons are enrolled in Class 9 and preparing for board exams to be held in March 2014. He says he will make sure that his children continue their education in government colleges. “It’s only fair,” he adds. “If these parents have voted for me and put me in the assembly, then our children should go to school together. It is my responsibility to make this happen.”
Ahmed is leading by example and his story proves that when it comes to making change happen, all it takes is one person to step up to the challenge.
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