The idea of building a model district for quality education may seem like a pipedream in a country where 25 million children are not in school. But the district of Hafizabad in the Punjab is well on its way to making this a reality.

As with many transformative interventions in education, the story of Hafizabad begins with the ambition of one individual to make a contribution to society. Mohammad Hussain Sufi, a resident of Kot Ishaq village in Hafizabad, was a civil servant who rose through the ranks to become a high-ranking bureaucrat. His vision was to transform the lives of his people by making sure they had access to quality education. He devoted his life to philanthropic work and died in 1987. In 1994, his son Parvez Sufi established the M.H. Sufi Foundation to honour his father’s memory and carry on his work.

“Education is the most critical factor for people to progress,” says Sufi. “It is the great socioeconomic equaliser. My father wanted people in our district to understand that education is the greatest way to move forward in life.”

Starting with one small school in 1994 in the family’s ancestral village of Kot Ishaq, the Sufi Foundation today runs 12 schools across Hafizabad district. “We have a modular approach to building schools,” Sufi explains. “We start with a primary school, nursery, first and second grade, and then as students progress we add classes to take the students forward.” The benefit of this approach is that capital outlays are comparatively low, allowing investment in the school to gradually increase as student numbers grow. It is also important to win the support of the local community. “We were lucky to have strong ties locally,” says Sufi. “If you get acceptance from local residents then you will gain momentum and things will progress much faster.”

Operating expenses for the Foundation’s schools are covered partly through tuition fees, currently 1,200 rupees a month. Financial assistance is available and some 10-15 per cent of students pay only half this amount. The schools are also supported by private donations and international donor organisations.

“There are children in our schools who would have had few prospects in life, confined to their villages and working in the fields,” says Sufi. “At most, 15-20 years ago, someone might aim to get a clerical job in the government. This thought process has completely changed. People have come to realise that the only way to move forward is through education. We are providing a way for people to achieve their dreams.” By providing high-quality education at relatively low cost, the Sufi Foundation wants to create a critical mass of educated young people able to progress in life. “We want to help people climb the socioeconomic ladder,” says Sufi.

Over the years, students from Sufi Foundation schools have excelled in their chosen areas of study, gaining admission to the best colleges at home and abroad, and going on to become doctors and engineers. In 2013 alone, 80 per cent of their students took First Division in their Matriculation examinations, of whom 50 per cent scored 80 per cent marks or higher.

“The main reason for our success is that we hire teachers from among the young women who have graduated from our schools,” Sufi explains. “Our teachers complete a one-year early childhood education certification, and they teach through activity-based learning techniques as opposed to the traditional system of rote learning that is prevalent in this country.”

Starting small and investing wisely, the Sufi Foundation’s goal is to turn Hafizabad into a model district in terms of the quality of education. They aim to double the number of schools they operate over the next 12-18 years, eventually educating 25,000 children—or 15 per cent of the school-going population of the district. Sufi believes this target is within reach. “Already we have achieved so much momentum in such a short time.”

By setting up small schools and expanding them according to the community’s needs, and by hiring competent teachers locally and providing them with training, the Sufi Foundation is helping children achieve their dreams. But what is perhaps most inspiring about their story is the fact that their simple, scalable model to provide quality education at low cost can be easily replicated anywhere in the country. “We can change the destiny of this district,” says Sufi. “If we can do it, anyone in any part of Punjab or any part of Pakistan can do the same.”