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Private schooling and inequality

Private schooling and inequality

In February, Oxfam, in collaboration with the department of economics at LUMS, published a report on persistent inequality and multi-dimensional poverty in Pakistan. The core message at the heart of their study is that despite moderate-to-high rates of economic growth, Pakistan remains a thoroughly unequal society if measured along multiple dimensions, over and above consumption and income. Another key message is that inequality is worse in urban areas, and appears to persist over generations. Forty per cent of all children born in bottom income quintile households will remain in the same quintile over their lifetime, while only 9pc will see some substantive upward mobility.

The startlingly low levels of upward socio-economic mobility may come as a surprise to those who thought more ACs and refrigerators being sold was a sign of evenly spread-out prosperity. All independent research appears to confirm the existence of rigid inequality traps: households locked out of access to land and housing (agricultural or urban), employable skills, and quality skill-imparting education will suffer over multiple generations.

Traditional government instruments used to kick-start social mobility include redistribution of agricultural land, provision of low-cost loans for urban housing, and access to quality public education. The first two remain non-starters in Pakistan (for any number of reasons), while the third strategy remained partially successful only till the mid-80s.

What’s often understated in Pakistan’s case, especially on the third front, is the multi-faceted part played by elite private schools, and the qualifications they impart, in the persistence of intergenerational inequality.

In the first instance, a larger pool of expensive schools now means that children from affluent households no longer go to a government-owned or government-regulated institution for their basic education. This is a departure from earlier decades where elite institutions catered to a much smaller subsection of the population, while the bigger chunk of the urban middle class (children of bureaucrats, army officers, mid-tier professionals) had no other option but to attend government schools.

Given the pervasive presence of affluent offspring in elite schools, the socially embedded pressures to improve government schooling no longer exists. Simply put, if the children of all decision-makers ie politicians, bureaucrats, judges, and army officers, and the children of all those connected to these decision-makers, study outside of the government system, why would anyone be interested in fixing public schooling?

When confronted with this question, the almost universal reply is that elite private schools are simply catering to a pre-existing demand for quality education at a high price point. Government schools failed which is why the private sector stepped in. The causality commonly suggested, however, doesn’t work in such a linear way. The relationship is much more complex, and a review of history suggests the purposeful encouragement of elite education businesses (such as Beaconhouse and Lahore Grammar) happened due to political expediency and outright profit-motive at a time when government schooling was still dominant.

The second impact of elite private schools on intergenerational inequality is through the creation of an alternative market for credentials, and the consequent cultivation of insulated social networks. As a first step, most universities (private and, increasingly, government-run too) show a preference for candidates from elite private schools — ie those who’ve done their ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. This reinforces the school-level exclusion at the level of higher education. Ultimately, it is replicated in the job market where employers with credentials from elite schools exhibit a preference for candidates with matching credentials.

At every step — starting from schooling credentials, to universities, and on to the job market — children who can’t afford that first entry into an expensive private school will remain locked out of high-return opportunities for the rest of their lives.

The catastrophe doesn’t end here. Even if one accepts such inequality as organic, or natural in some cynical way, expensive private schools still need to be made answerable on the question of value for money. On average, an elite school located in a major urban centre charges anywhere upward of Rs10,000 per month for a single student. Based on my experience of both being a student, and having taught students from such institutions, the quality of education being delivered is suspect at best.

The outdated GCSE and GCE certifications — with their frequent recycling of previously administered exams — provide little in the way of new learning. Schools train their kids in ways to crack the exam, rather than teaching them actual content. As a result, grade inflation is rampant, and despite exorbitant fees, out-of-school tuitions are encouraged to further learn exam-cracking.

Moreover, despite their claims of being English-medium institutions, the median high school graduate from any given private school (barring a few exceptions) will struggle to read, speak, or write the language effectively, despite having had 10 plus years of formal education in it. This is compounded — socially and institutionally — by a reluctance to learn any local language either. Finally, co-curricular activities (such as debates and model UN) that encourage cliquish socialising instil a false and decontextualized sense of achievement amongst a set of kids already cut-off from the rest of society.

Quality education as a public good remains one of the most effective ways of bridging inequality in both developed and developing countries. There are countries in the world where elite private education has been regulated to make it more democratic in terms of intake (the UK being a prime example), and with greater checks on pricing and the quality of education being delivered. Next door, India’s standardisation of curricula and credentials (such as the gradual sidelining of GCSE/GCE) has taken place alongside rising number of admissions to top-tier universities abroad. Pakistan would do well to adopt some of these measures before the inequality problem reaches an irredeemable threshold.

The writer teaches politics at LUMS.

[email protected]

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2015

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