STORY 22 - 06 MARCH 2014 - MUHAMMAD ANSAR KAMAL - TACKLING PUNJAB'S EDUCATION CRISIS ONE DISTRICT AT A TIME

The solution to the national education crisis calls for wide-ranging structural and systemic reform, a process that requires time, commitment and consensus. Meanwhile millions of children receive no schooling and millions more receive an education of poor quality. But there is hope. Instead of waiting for the government to take action, organisations, communities and individuals across the country are finding local-level solutions. And in some cases government officials are part of this movement to bring better schooling to the children of Pakistan.

Meet Muhammad Ansar Kamal, District Monitoring Officer (DMO) Bhakkar, a local government official rapidly gaining a reputation as an education crusader and problem-solver. “Education is the one thing I am most passionate about,” he says. “I see it as a personal failure if my district falls behind. I want my district to be the one that comes first.”

With this attitude, Kamal has improved the performance of every district where he has been posted, starting with Khushab in 2002, where he spend four years as DMO, followed by four yeas as DMO Khanewal. In 2010 he was posted to the district of Chiniot. “When I arrived in Chiniot, 90 per cent of government schools didn’t have running water or working toilets,” Kamal recalls.

Kamal undertook a series of field visits to understand how schools operated in the district and developed a system to monitor their progress. He set up clusters of schools, each typically consisting of five schools, and selected a senior teacher from one of the schools to be responsible for monitoring and evaluating the cluster. This helped Kamal track enrolment, retention, infrastructure and the quality of education.

“For me to be able to do my job properly, I need to motivate people,” he says. “You can’t just expect people to work for the sake of it, you have to give them a reason.” Kamal secured 200 million rupees for the district and spent the money on paying salaries, buying furniture and making improvements to the schools. “Just changing the environment has a massive impact,” he explains, and sometimes it is as simple as a coat of paint. “We put colour in the classrooms, painted furniture and walls, and got proper desks.” By creating a better environment, teacher performance improved and students were more eager to learn.

Kamal believes in engaging with parents at every opportunity. He makes himself available to parents and school administrators and encourages district education officers to do the same. “I give them my contact number and the numbers of the local education officer, so they can reach out to us.”

Another challenge is to ensure that teachers are posted on the basis of merit and that politics does not interfere with appointments. “We made sure that no teacher in a single-teacher school is transferred for at least a year, regardless of politics. These teachers are often desperate to be transferred out and will try to use political influence to make that happen. But that means there is no consistency in that school, which affects the quality of learning.”

In every district where Kamal has worked, he has found district education officers to be cooperative and eager to see improvement in the schools system. “There has been a wave of change in attitudes,” he says. “When there is a chief minister who is doing quarterly school rankings, you can’t afford to fail. Why should it be our district that fails in the rankings? Everyone sees these rankings and you have to work to improve them.”

Kamal acknowledges that the reason he was posted to Chiniot is because it was performing poorly in the provincial education rankings. After two years, its education indicators were vastly improved. The literacy rate rose from 34 per cent in 2010 to more than 40 per cent in 2012. By the end of 2012, Chiniot appeared in the top 10 districts in the province for English, Urdu and mathematics.

After his tenure in Chiniot, Kamal is now posted in Bhakkar, another district that has performed poorly in provincial rankings. If his track record is anything to go by, Bhakkar is set to see its government schools transformed over the next few years.

The story of DMO Kamal proves that an overburdened bureaucracy traditionally thought to be averse to change contains many dedicated individuals who are eager to see change happen on the ground. His experience also demonstrates that simple measures are sometimes enough to set in motion a great transformation. All it takes is a few government officials who believe in the cause od education and in their duty to serve the people.