Historically, education has not been one of the highest priorities of Pakistan’s political parties. It was only when Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz assumed government in Punjab in 2008 that education reforms became a rallying cry for the government, media and the people alike. One of the most important projects undertaken by the government at the time was Daanish Schools.
If we look at the context, this period marked one of the most challenging phases in Pakistan’s history. Pakistan was reeling from terrorism as a result of the shortsighted policies of military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. Security, Inflation, power shortages and economic downturn made headlines while education and health received scant attention. These challenges particularly impacted underprivileged people, who often found themselves unable to access quality education.
Some people managed to enrol their children in public or low-cost private schools. However, these institutions often lacked even essential resources compared to elite schools. No wonder that education indicators in Pakistan presented a dire picture. This reinforced the perception that privileges were reserved for a select class, leaving the less fortunate with limited options.
After taking over as chief minister of Punjab in 2008, Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif gave school education a top priority. He was concerned by the lack of basic facilities and modernisation in Punjab’s schools and low student enrollment at schools in villages and backward areas of the province. Despite challenging circumstances, Mian Shehbaz Sharif initiated wide-ranging reforms to upgrade the system, train and monitor teachers on modern lines and equip the school education department with the necessary manpower and infrastructure to provide quality education in public schools. Since then, the government has implemented several iterations of the Punjab Education Sector Reforms Programme with assistance from the World Bank.
It is said that poverty is not a statistical issue but an ethical one. Daanish School project is playing an important role in fighting poverty by giving the vulnerable an opportunity for quality education.
Daanish Schools have proved to be a landmark among reforms initiated at that time. These schools provide state-of-the-art education and boarding facilities to bright students from families with meagre financial resources free of cost. Orphaned children are given special consideration in the selection process.
In 2010, the Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Daanish Schools and Centres of Excellence Authority (PDS&CEA) Act to establish the Daanish School System in the province. Daanish Schools currently comprise 16 campuses, eight each for girls and boys. It looked challenging in the beginning to complete a project of this scale in the stipulated time, but with the untiring efforts of Shahbaz Sharif and his team, the dream to provide quality education to unprivileged children was made possible. Daanish schools were unique in many different ways from the formal school system.
According to the Outcomes Assessment Of Daanish School Authority report published in 2018, “It is a unique and first institution of its type, serving the poor community of its society and imparting quality education to students who cannot afford to get admission in good schools.” Every year Daanish Schools accept 110 students in grade 6 in each campus by conducting a competitive entry test. Out of these 110, 100 seats are filled on merit as per the entry test result of students who meet the need-based scholarshjps criteria while 10 seats are open for self-finance.
It is said that poverty is not a statistical issue but an ethical one. Daanish School project is playing an important role in fighting poverty by giving the vulnerable an opportunity for quality education. These are in fact elite schools which are competing with the best institutions of their cities but charging zero fees.
When this project was commenced in 2009, about 275 acres of land were reserved for the first phase while the budget allocated was Rs430.410 million for boys’ and Rs430.410 million for girls’ campuses. This investment in quality education for the poor speaks volumes about the PML-N’s priorities and vision. Equal resources for girls’ schools affirm PML-N’s commitment to gender parity.
In 2013, when Rana Mashhood Ahmad Khan took charge as minister of school education in Punjab, he continued the development and expansion of the Punjab Daanish Schools initiative. His efforts were focused on enhancing the infrastructure, curriculum, and overall quality of education in these schools.
Daanish Schools are running on the splendid philosophy of investing well and getting the best. These state-of-the-art schools were built in underdeveloped districts of south and central Punjab to facilitate the people and in no way meant to show off the government’s development work. The campuses in Rahim Yar Khan, Fazilpur, Chishtian, Hasilpur, Harnoli, Jand and Dera Ghazi Khan are catering to students belonging to these cities and nearby towns and districts.
Daanish Schools offer a range of facilities for their students. They provide well-equipped classrooms, libraries, computer and science labs. The schools also have boarding facilities with comfortable dormitories and dining areas. Students can participate in various extracurricular activities like sports, arts, and cultural events. Overall, students receive a holistic educational experience.
As chief minister, Mian Shehbaz Sharif himself kept track of the performance of these schools, including quality core content, teacher attendance, teacher training and their ability to upgrade their skills along with upgradation of the curriculum. Today, we can witness the success stories of Daanish School alumni who did not just build a better life for themselves by getting a higher education and securing good jobs but went back to their communities as role models, mentors and facilitators for future generations. Imagine an intelligent child, whose best chance in life was herding cows or working as a labourer in fields, going on to become a doctor, scientist, teacher or software engineer due to an opportunity provided to him by the government. Several Daanish School alumni have achieved these milestones.
It is very unfortunate that the PTI decided to phase out Daanish Schools after taking over the government in 2018 just because the project was launched by their predecessor and political rival. Four years later, in July 2022, better sense prevailed and the government decided to reactivate the Daanish Schools Authority and hand over 13 government schools to it.
I consider Daanish Schools as one of the game-changing projects in the history of education in Punjab, which provides a blueprint for similar reforms in the rest of the provinces. Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif and PML-N deserve a lot of appreciation for being visionary and people-friendly. Without their efforts and vision, it wouldn’t have been possible to make Punjab a role model for the rest of the provinces. Projects like Daanish schools are a need of the hour if we want to become a prosperous, developed nation.
The writer is a political activist and works in youth development.