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ISLAMABAD (Express Tribune) - Pakistan’s national flag sways proudly in the wind, perched atop Federal Model School for Boys in Mal village. From afar, it looks like the school is in session, yet a closer inspection reveals that the building is deserted, not a student in sight.
There are no tell-tale signs of activity. This is a ghost school.
“Our teachers told us that the school was being closed down because of an insufficient number of students,” says a second grader, Ali, whose full name has been withheld to protect his identity. “I miss it.”
Like thousands of students across the country, Ali is denied an education because this school is not functioning, and yet four teachers continue to draw salaries. With the gates firmly closed for education, the building is being used by the housing society.
Ghost schools are one symptom of a troubled education system in Pakistan, where government resources are diverted by powerful local leaders. According to a joint report by United Nations and the government, nearly half of all primary school children and nearly three-quarters of young girls are not enrolled in school. Currently, Pakistan’s spending on education is less than 2.5 percent of GDP. Only nine countries in the world spend less than that on education.
The country’s top court intervened recently and ordered district judges to conduct a survey to identify the number of ghost schools nationwide, a murky task in itself.
The Supreme Court defined a ghost school as an infrastructure built for education but no longer used for that purpose. It might house animals in its courtyards and classrooms; or these schools today are residences, stables or offices of private or official departments, including the police and Rangers, Pakistan’s paramilitary force. Teachers continue to draw salaries, while the buildings are occupied by those other than students.
A COUNTRYWIDE EPIDEMIC
In the northern mountainous region of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa alone, there are 28,510 schools, out of which more than 3,000 have been destroyed or damaged because of militancy, military operations and floods since 2001, according to provincial government data.
“We left our homes in a hurry when the security forces launched an operation against the militants,” said one resident of Behrain - a small town in Swat - who declined to give her name for fear of retribution and her family’s safety. “My 10-year-old son was distraught at having to leave the house without his books and schoolbag.”
A teacher said that although she has been drawing the salary of a primary school teacher for a decade, she does not even know the location of the school she is supposedly employed by.
Similarly, the province of Sindh in southern Pakistan, historically known for its peaceful and tolerant culture, has been badly affected by ghost schools. Many locals blame local leaders, known as waderas, who want to curb human development in their districts in a bid to keep their influence intact.
When asked about this, residents of Jacobabad did not say much. Instead, they furtively showed pictures of a man severely beaten up by the local wadera for helping a judicial team identify a ghost school in the area.
A top official in the Sindh Rural Development Society said that in the rural district of Matiari alone, more than 60,000 children are not going to school.
In Balochistan, the situation is worse in many ways. Official records indicate that this province birthed the phenomenon. Although only 36 out of the total 12,388 schools have been identified as ghost schools by the provincial education department, government officials and education experts claim that this figure grossly underestimates the scale of the problem, especially considering the level of militancy in the region.
Punjab is also plagued by ghost schools. Government data show that out of 58,000 schools, more than 266 are occupied for purposes other than education.
According to the secretary of Punjab’s education department, the deplorable situation can largely be blamed on a lack of planning. He says there are 460, not 266, ghost schools. But rather than addressing the issue, authorities keep shifting the onus of responsibility onto the shoulders of others. While education department officials cite planning problems, the planning and development department officials say that funds can only be released for school buildings based on the education department’s assessment and input.
The major parties have pledged to overhaul the education system, a mammoth task for the newly-elected Pakistani government. Yet the manifestos of the major parties - Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf - completely fail to address the issue of ghost schools.
Aurya Maqbool Jan, a high-level education officer in Punjab, said that in many cases, funds were allocated for construction of schools before a thorough needs evaluation had been conducted. Now a comprehensive survey is required of the school-age population, the number of operational schools and the ghost schools before a strategy can be developed.
Imran Masood, the former education minister in Punjab, agrees. He and Jan said that government schools are easy targets for encroachers. The lack of ownership makes them vulnerable and up for grabs by those involved with illegal activities, or by influential local leaders in the area.
In the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the finance minister Sirajul Haq said he plans to tackle the school shortage. “The functioning of the closed and destroyed schools will be a top priority of the newly elected provincial government,” he said.
Others, too, are optimistic. Fazalullah Pecheho, a secretary of the education department of Sindh, said that efforts are under way to recover such schools.
“Two hundred and seventy-seven schools have been retrieved this year and they are now functional,” he said. “More will be done soon.”
Azam Khan is a reporter for the Express Tribune in Pakistan and worked on this story as part of an International Center for Journalists project to expose significant issues among the youth in their countries. It was first published in the Express Tribune on May 30, 2013.