Sir Michael Barber is no stranger to education reform—indeed, he is well known to serious policy reformers, education leaders, and wonks in the U.S. and around the globe, thanks to his key roles in British reforms under Tony Blair, his penetrating analyses of diverse systems while at McKinsey, his writings on “deliverology” and other education topics, and—most recently—his work as “chief education adviser” at Pearson.

A Kindergarten graduation

What practically nobody (outside Pakistan) knew about Barber until a week or two ago is that he has also served these past three years as “special representative on education in Pakistan” for Britain’s Department for International Development (the U.K. counterpart to USAID). In that capacity, he has spearheaded a remarkable ed-reform initiative—indeed, an education transformation, albeit just getting beyond the pilot stage—in Punjab, the largest province in Pakistan with 94 million people. Considering that nearly all the news about Pakistan that reaches American eyes and ears is so grim—political upheavals, terrorism, assassinations, floods, poverty, corruption, illiteracy—I was blown away to learn that Michael and his team of change-agents in the Punjab government, with help from several international donors, have been successfully beavering away at this hugely ambitious endeavor to bring a decent education to children throughout that vast chunk of south Asia.

Now he’s described that project in a short, readable book that is informative and optimistic without trivializing the many challenges ahead, particularly the challenge of sustaining a complex undertaking in a volatile place.

The book and the project it describes are interesting from three perspectives:

  • Aficionados of South Asia, and all who understand the complex role of Pakistan in a dangerous neighborhood, will welcome evidence that two major sources of that country’s poverty, instability and radicalism (namely, widespread illiteracy and governmental failure) can actually be tackled.
  • Foreign-aid skeptics and international-development doubters will find here a promising example of how this sort of endeavor can be undertaken in a way that actually succeeds—and true believers will find a case-in-point to justify their faith.
  • And education reformers around the globe, but especially in poor and developing lands, will encounter a really interesting case study of a hugely ambitious undertaking with multiple moving parts—and a master plan (known here as the “Reform Roadmap”) that holds them together.     

Although I’ve long harbored a mild interest in the Punjab—my wife began life there back when Barber’s territory was still part of British India—the ed-reform angle was what caught my eye.

The Roadmap’s reform goals are straightforward: getting kids into school, reducing the dropout rate, and ensuring that they learn the basics. But that requires decent teachers who actually turn up, as well as adequate facilities. (In rural Pakistan, obtaining fundamentals such as water and toilets is a true challenge.)

The plan’s framers understood, as Barber writes, that “above and beyond all this activity on improving the supply of education, there has also been a major drive to strengthen demand.” That has meant using media extensively and also enlisting religious leaders.

Perhaps most interesting to me—and least expected from a government-driven development program—is the Roadmap’s vigorous use of the private sector to deliver education, leading to the creation in Punjab of what Barber believes is the world’s largest voucher program. A new non-governmental (but government-financed) entity, the Punjab Education Foundation, was fashioned, as was a major program of aid to low-cost private schools (making them free for children to attend), followed by a parent-driven voucher program which, by 2011–12, was assisting more than 140,000 youngsters and planning to add up to 80,000 more.

Like many developing countries with disastrous public schools, Pakistan had a robust sector of low-cost private schooling even before the Roadmap began. In Punjab, it served about 40 percent of all children; in the big city of Lahore, that figure reached a staggering 70 percent.

Unlike so many aid programs that work only through governmental institutions, here the Roadmap sought both to capitalize on this private capacity and to create more nose-to-nose competition with the public school sector.

That wasn’t the whole story, of course. The Roadmap also focused on teacher quality, the effectiveness of local administration, and a vigorous data-and-reporting system that made participation and results transparent to all, including provincial leaders.

Their leadership was, and remains, hugely important to the success of all this, beginning with Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, “the dominant political force in Pakistan’s biggest province.” “He runs a centralized administration,” Barber writes, “with everything important running through his office. He is impatient, determined and demanding….”

But the man at the top can’t do it alone, and Sharif and Barber enlisted top-notch civil servants, business leaders, technocrats, and others to help design and deliver the Roadmap. They mustered the requisite financial resources (predominantly from the provincial government, not overseas) and the leverage to dismiss people who didn’t deliver.

The Roadmap approach works only if a number of stars align, and that’s not the case today even in other parts of Pakistan. But the early results in Punjab are encouraging after just two years.

“As of January 2013,” Barber reports. “there are approaching one and a half million extra children enrolled in school…[A]ttendance daily is now over 90 percent, 81,000 new teachers have been hired on merit and more than 35,000 more teachers are present at school every day than two years ago. Over 90 percent of schools now have basic facilities…Across all the indicators, there has been a narrowing of the gender gap.” 

It’s quite a saga. And if the dozen lessons Barber adduces at the end are familiar, at least to “deliverology” mavens—“set clear goals,” know what’s happening,” “refine but don’t compromise,” “create momentum,” etc.—they come to life vividly when read in the context of an ambitious real-world enterprise in a tough location, an enterprise inspired and overseen by a very impressive fellow.

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