It is not an exaggeration to say that school leadership constitutes the most fundamental deciding factor as to whether an educational institute will succeed or fail. The course chartered by school leadership decides upon the vision, mission, and policies with which a given institution implements its plans and attracts potential students. This, in turn, means that school leadership has the potential to transform mindsets — not only of the students attending an institution, but the very communities served by that institution.
In the past decade spent working in the education sector of Pakistan, we have been heartened by the tremendous displays of strength and resolve that different school leaders have demonstrated as part of their duties to their individual schools. This has also led us to reflect on the potential of different styles of school leadership when working together with a common goal in mind.
To properly contextualize this potential, however, one must understand the circumstances behind Pakistan’s education and school systems within which schools operate. The education system of Pakistan can broadly be broken down into five categories. Students follow a set progression path designed to take them from primary education to middle school education, followed by secondary education, followed by higher secondary education, and finally followed by tertiary (i.e., university level) education. Pakistan’s secondary and higher secondary educational framework revolves around a national curriculum that is implemented by different examination boards throughout the country, with the ultimate objective of conducting high stakes examinations that determine whether students are prepared for a transition from secondary to higher secondary to tertiary studies.
School systems in Pakistan can also be broken down into two main categories: Public schools hold a majority, i.e. 67% of all students, while private schools hold the remaining 33% (AEPAM, “PAKISTAN EDUCATION STATISTICS 2007-08”, 2009). For the purposes of our article today, we are choosing to focus the crux of our analysis and argument on the latter group due to the unique challenges that it faces, though we must emphasise that it is not our intention to undermine or downplay the significance and effort behind the work of any singular educational entity, be it private or public.
The private school sector in Pakistan is quite diverse, owing primarily to the fact that there is no strong regulatory body to enforce standards. This, in turn, means that the quality of leadership in private schools can differ quite greatly, as can the cost of attending each school. Indeed, two private schools operating within the same neighborhood of a given locality could operate on very different standards and fee structures due to this situation. Furthermore, Pakistan’s private education sector lacks strong Education Management Information System (EMIS) tracking — this means that student and teacher numbers across the sector cannot be verified to the same degree that those operating under the public sector do.
How then is school leadership defined by its ability to operate under such circumstances? As noted earlier, high stakes examinations are a key feature of secondary and higher secondary education in Pakistan. In a nation whose education systems already face serious quality issues in areas such as assessment and learning among students, this can pose a serious challenge to school leadership due to there being a perceived tension between a race for marks (i.e. students performing well in examinations) versus an improvement to the actual quality of education (which may not reflect well in examinations due to assessment methods themselves being flawed).
Given that marks determine the academic progression of a Pakistani student from secondary school onwards (particularly where high marks can result in better chances of admission to university), teachers are also pressured to ensure that students are able to secure these marks and thus to shape classroom practices around this expectation. This then further snowballs into an effect that sees public perception of schools determined by how many students within that system are able to secure high marks.
A further side-effect of an emphasis on rote memorization and poor methods of assessment also presents school leadership with an additional challenge: Students lose interest in actual learning and instead become focused on passing examinations by memorizing passages from textbooks without developing an understanding of the concepts. In the long term, this practice thus feeds into a cycle that sees assessment methods remain mediocre and neglects to ensure a holistic education that develops the ability of students to apply what has been learned, as well as the development of essential 21st-century skills that students should be equipped with in today’s world.
Put together, we are thus faced with a situation where a desire by school leaders to transform or improve the systems of learning and assessment at their institutions can be met with understandable trepidation, if not outright resistance from stakeholders. Implementing these changes despite resistance can further result in a drop in student numbers, a lowering of confidence in the institution itself, etc. This is also, however, where the challenge of being able to transform mindsets begins and where good leadership can stand to make a considerable difference with the correct approach.
A case study that we intend to offer for the purposes of this article is that of the very institution where Dr. Shehzad Jeeva has served as Director since 2014 and where Dr. Naveed Yousuf has served as Associate Director of Assessment since 2015, the Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB).
In 1995, school leaders from 16 private schools in the city of Karachi wrote and signed a letter to Aga Khan University, expressing their alarm at the “…deteriorating standard of secondary education in country”, and proposing that “…an Independent Examination Board be set up in the private sector to remedy the situation.”
Thus, in 2003, the Aga Khan University Examination Board first opened its doors as the first indigenous private examination board in Pakistan, with a mission towards offering quality examinations and assessment to lower and middle-income households who would otherwise have been unable to afford the education from foreign boards. We must emphasize here that our goal is not to discuss the merits of AKU-EB as an entity unto itself, but rather as an example of the original 16 school leadership’s collective vision. AKU-EB was not founded on a business-oriented model of making money but was the result of an effort at a systematic change that went beyond individual schools.
By specifically requesting the foundation of an examination board, the leadership of these schools ensured that vital components of education such learning and assessment would all be included. The adoption of AKU-EB’s various academic programmes by various schools thus serves as a reflection of the level of faith that institutions have in their ability to push for changing community mindsets towards modes of education that maintain a mandate towards fairness, transparency, and validity of results as being the defining characteristics for their methods of assessment. It also reflects the degree to which school leaders believe they can push for this change, based on the degree to which AKU-EB’s programmes are adopted by their respective institutions.
For instance, AKU-EB’s Middle School Programme (MSP) has rapidly gained recognition on both a national and international level (Bourn, Hunt, & Bamper, 2017) because it operates within the context of a part of a student’s academic journey that is not subject to progress towards the next academic level, and in fact operates as a project-based form of learning that enhances the existing experiences of students. This leaves schools with a measure of confidence that the communities they serve will be more accepting of a move towards incorporating the MSP within their structures — parents are likely to be receptive to new educational activities that do not entail risks for the future academic progression of their children, whilst principals can more easily convince school boards and other institutional leaders about the merit of adopting the programme due to an obvious lack of drawbacks. It is also pertinent to mention that many private schools in Pakistan have displayed a willingness to take up additional educational products or short-term projects when there is no apparent risk of interfering with the existing mandate for marks — thus, this phenomenon is neither exclusive to AKU-EB nor the region where it operates. Has gained increasing attention at both a national and international level.
On the other hand, we have also encountered a perception that adopting AKU-EB’s SSC or HSSC programmes is a riskier endeavor from a school’s perspective as it displays a mindset shift that is more bold and determined. The risk of potentially losing students or, at the very least, facing skepticism about the adoption of a newer, relatively unknown mode of education over a “guaranteed” avenue of high marks from examinations is one that school leaders will only take when they believe that the potential benefits outweigh the costs.
However, once schools successfully introduce such changes the question of transforming mindsets becomes a matter of time. Communities able to witness the raising of educational standards in a manner that emphasizes academic rigor and allows both students and teachers to benefit will automatically place more trust in that system. The fair and transparent nature of scores under this type of assessment is also seen as being more reliable by higher education institutes, thus leading to increased rates of acceptance among students. This, in turn, can ultimately retool communal perceptions of education as focusing on learning and growth, rather than the pursuit of marks.
The greatest takeaway that we would emphasize in conclusion to our argument is the importance of maintaining strong educational leadership within Pakistan’s secondary institutions. The leadership must also be supported by stakeholders such as families of students and school boards and trusted to charter a course towards transforming mindsets by challenging the current status quo of learning and assessment practices. With enough public confidence behind them, school leadership is capable of introducing the type of systematic change in their respective communities that will have a long-lasting, communal impact — this, in turn, will continue to attract more schools towards adopting the same methods, and thus eventually create a national impact.
About the Author:
- Shehzad Jeeva
Director, Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB)
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, AKU
Dr. Shehzad Jeeva was appointed as Director, Aga Khan University Examination Board in October 2014 and holds joint appointment as Assistant Professor of Faculty of Arts and Sciences, AKU. He has transformed the institution from a start up to a robust organization through his enthusiastic leadership. He has also re-defined the institution’s vision and mission to make AKU-EB a model of excellence and innovation in education for Pakistan and developing countries. Dr. Jeeva is also registered as a Consultant with the Asian Development Bank and is currently working with the Govt. of Balochistan on a project funded by UNICEF/EU and to enhance the capacities of the Balochistan Examination and Assessment Commission. Dr. Jeeva obtained his B.Sc. (Hons) in Chemistry at the University of Karachi (UoK) where he was awarded the Best Young Chemist Award. He earned his M.S. in Organic Chemistry from the UoK. He received the Aga Khan Foundation Scholarship, Cambridge Commonwealth Scholarship, and Lundgren Award to complete his PhD in Chemistry from the University of Cambridge, and subsequently received the Toby Jackman Prize for the most outstanding PhD thesis in any subject (St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge).
- Dr Naveed Yousuf
Associate Director, Assessment, Aga Khan University Examination Board
Assistant Professor, Educational Development, Faculty of Health Science, Aga Khan University
Dr Naveed Yousuf is Associate Director, Assessment & Research and Assistant Professor, Educational Development at the Examination Board and Faculty of Health Sciences, Aga Khan University. His Ph.D. thesis focused on psychometrics and standard setting in assessment. Dr Yousuf is responsible for the psychometric quality of national level assessments and for psychometric research projects at AKU. He also serves as thesis supervisor and faculty member for the Master of Health Professions Education Programme. He is an Editorial Board Member for Education in Medicine Journal.
- Mr Kamil Hamid
Associate, Storyteller, Aga Khan University Examination Board
Mr Kamil Hamid is a member of the Communications team at AKU-EB, with a focus on content development, social media management and editing. In this capacity he captures high-impact stories in multiple media formats from various AKU-EB stakeholders across Pakistan, in order to highlight the transformational power of education in changing lives and uplifting communities. He is a graduate of Earlham College, where he completed a B.A. in Peace and Global Studies, as well as an alumnus of the Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong, where he completed the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.
- (2009). PAKISTAN EDUCATION STATISTICS 2007-08(Rep. No. 222). Islamabad: AEPAM (NEMIS). Retrieved September 19, 2018, from http://wbgfiles.worldbank.org/documents/hdn/ed/saber/supporting_doc/SAR/Finance/Pakistan_Punjab/Punjab Pakistan Education Statistics 2007-08.pdf
- Bourn, D., Hunt, F., & Bamper, P. (2017). A review of Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship Education in Teacher Education(GEM Report, pp. 46-47, Rep. No. ED/GEMR/MRT/2017/P1/8). UNESCO. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0025/002595/259566e.pdf