The Road to ‘Good’ Teaching in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Public Schools

Between 2010 and 2018, there appeared to be some very exciting and frenetic reform efforts unfolding across the school education sector in the Punjab. Moving the needle on school access and learning outcomes, it seemed, was as aspiration closest to the hearts of decision-makers based in Lahore.

But something was also quietly happening in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

In 2013, when the newly-elected PTI government stepped into provincial office, it was met with two urgent demands: manage rising unemployment, especially of educated young people; and fix a struggling education system marred by years of violence and politics – both big manifesto pledges by the incoming party.

Easing entry restrictions into teaching

On the table was a policy conversation already underway: was the current teacher recruitment policy for KP working effectively to meet staffing and instructional quality needs across the province’s 20,000+ government primary schools? And how flexible could it be made to respond to the needs of the time?

In 2012, a chance encounter between senior leadership at KP Elementary and Secondary Education (ESED) and the National Testing Service (NTS)had already raised the possibility of revising entry requirements into the state-led provincial teaching service. Instead of holding applicants to conventional pre-service teacher training standards (e.g. B.Ed/M.Ed), why not ‘lower the barriers to entry’ by inducting anyone with ‘a reasonably good university education, who could then be trained by us (ESED) to become a teacher’ is how one key decision-maker explained the thinking in Peshawar at the time of this teacher recruitment reform effort.

If non-education background applicants could be asked to qualify through a general standardised test (such as the NTS), this could introduce a larger pool of potential applicants looking for jobs. Some of the best university graduates in the province might be inducted into primary school teaching. And nobody would any longer be singularly held to the questionable standard associated with a largely outdated and poorly valued B.Ed. degree in the Pakistani context. A similar policy eventually spilled over into teacher recruitment thinking in Punjab.

By 2014, the KP policy had officially been given shape and notified by the Department – an intriguing continuation of decisions at the provincial level from the former ANP government into the PTI-led one. Unlike most education decisions in the Pakistani context, which are known to be disrupted by electoral cycles – particularly those that entail a change of governing party – the continuity in reform thinking denoted what is widely considered an important signal of political interest in education reform. This one was couched in the language of ‘merit’.

Building a system on ‘merit’

The teacher policy created seven years ago in KP offers an opportunity to investigate the process of continuous rule-based decision-making in sustaining reform efforts. This is a phenomenon associated in contemporary reform scholarship with a gradual move towards organic policymaking (in contrast to top-down driven subjective rule implementation or only grassroots reform efforts between clients and providers).

Whether because it served the political ruling elite’s interest at the time to offer jobs (public school teaching offers one of the largest job markets in any province); or was a chance to experiment with novel means to improving teacher quality (through a standardised selection filter at recruitment); or both simultaneously, an incentive emerged in KP’s education service delivery chain to alter the way the system was thinking about teacher presence in schools. This incentive managed to persist until a recent stalling of induction against 17,000 sanctioned primary teacher posts involving the NTS.

Disruptions like these offer nice points at which systems can be studied more closely to identify gaps and prospects of important decisions. One of the big questions through which to evaluate the relevance of the 2014 teacher recruitment policy to today’s learning needs is whether it moved (or didn’t) the system towards an improved notion of merit.

Is teaching a ‘profession’?

If the ambition of ESED was to minimise, and possibly eliminate, political intervention from the induction stage into government teaching, research findings will increasingly lean towards ‘yes’ to the question above. So long as the NTS was considered a credible performance reporting mechanism for aspiring candidates, its mandatory submission as part of the application process became a means to crowd out political influence on district-level recruitment of teachers, which had previously been a systemic norm (primary teachers are recruited within their home district against a set number of advertised vacancies in their home Union Council’s primary schools).

But if merit was intended as a means to improve the overall quality of teaching in public education, did it yield such returns? The results are mixed.

With an existing pool of jobs now open to any kind of applicant, schools in KP now manage to attract some of the most highly qualified individuals in Pakistan with the correct provincial domicile. According to the most recently uploaded Annual School Census data, this includes 182 PhDs and about 97,000 MSc or similar qualification holders (about 50% of all teachers). Of these, 14 PhDs serve at the primary level and at least 39,000 MSc or similar (40% of primary teachers).

But field research with teachers from across Districts Peshawar, Swabi, Swat, Haripur, Bannu and Chitral all suggest the same implication: primary school government ranks (12-15) do not offer competitive enough a wage structure to retain such highly-qualified individuals in the long run. Most teachers interviewed (or speaking on behalf of their colleagues and friends in the system) plan to exit primary school postings at the earliest, whether into post-primary school positions through further competitive examination, school management posts, or out of the education department into a different part of government service.

An induction training programme that lasts about 9 months, and includes training in core educational areas such as pedagogy, curriculum and child psychology alongside in-classroom experience provides a competitive parallel to any pre-service teacher education degree applicants for which applicants may previously have had to opt. The edge in the government’s own programming, however, is the hands-on experience their teachers receive from Day 1 of appointment: all new hires go straight into schools on 3-year paid contracts and will simultaneously be trained and teach actual students. Whether this is an effective means for training (hands-on from Day 1) remains to be further investigated, but my fieldwork suggests so far that most new recruits will spend at least half of their first year in a school adjusting to the demands of teaching such young children and being an officer of state.

Annually, the Directorate for Curriculum and Teacher Education now conducts sample-based teacher assessment on content and pedagogic abilities. Although the results of these evaluations do not feed back into next cycles of recruitment – which presents a significant gap in systemic improvements to quality – they do inform targeted lesson planning for next rounds of Continuous Professional Development (CPD).

The DCTE datasets must also be read with some level of caution because of the sampling frame used: results cannot be disaggregated at even the district level, nor can they be matched with student sample-based assessment data to look for patterns to teacher-student results at subprovincial levels. Despite these challenges, the feedback mechanism that the DCTE evaluations does put into practice is only manifest in KP for the Pakistan case, and represents a key policy space for institutionalising learning-oriented reform.

Will the system grow?

The learnings above suggest that even the most well-intended interventions may not clearly be linked with improved learning outcomes. In their current form, these interventions demonstrate efforts to adapt policy design to whatever is realistically possible within an existing environment of constraints. What does this mean for the system, though? For instance, do some of the decisions above genuinely allow government school teaching in KP to be understood as a competitive professional career option with pathways for growth? And relatedly, how might that teacher actively work towards the improvement of student learning in a typical public school? These questions get picked up in the next post of this series.

Soufia A Siddiqi, Assistant Professor, School of Education LUMS