In Pakistan, one-third of primary school age children are not in school, and girls fare worse than boys – 37% of girls of primary school age are not in school, compared with 27% of boys*. Children living in remote parts of the country often have even fewer opportunities to get an education.
In Sindh province, on Pakistan’s southeastern border, government officials and World Bank experts crafted an innovative education program twinning public subsidies with private entrepreneurs to bring schools to poor villages where none existed. The goal of the program, which is ongoing, is to help all children have the chance to get not only an education, but a good one.
The Promoting Low Cost Private Schools in Rural Sindh program, launched in 2009, is supported by IDA, the Bank’s fund for the world’s poorest countries . Dhushyanth Raju, a former World Bank task team leader for the project, who also worked on the impact evaluation  that measured results, talks about the program.
How did you come up with the idea of working through private entrepreneurs to create new schools where learning would not only be supported, but where schools would have to be accountable for taking steps to raise quality?
Raju: From both the government and Bank’s sides, we had people who were strongly reform-minded. They had the right intuition on what approaches could offer a breakthrough. Traditionally, the focus of development efforts in education has been on providing inputs -- more and better trained teachers, school infrastructure and amenities, blackboards, textbooks, and other materials, and improving the administrative capacity of the governments to run their school systems. The focus was on “what” to provide and much less on “how” to provide. But this approach hasn’t always led to the level of results expected. There was a missing link.
This search for a more effective “how” led the government and the Bank to public-private partnerships. This was relatively new in the development agenda, but we had were in the middle of evaluating a public-private partnership program in Punjab province, and the findings  gave us insights into what design and implementation features had worked and what hadn’t worked.
Was it hard to get the government on board?
Raju: Not at all. We were like-minded partners, and it was a deeply enriching and fulfilling experience. For 18 months, we worked together to develop a design to pilot. Whiteboards were put to heavy use. There were long, productive discussions about what types of communities to reach, how to attract and what types of private entrepreneurs to enroll, what benefits to offer and how, and what controls and conditions needed to be monitored and enforced and how. We also dedicated a lot of time to discussing how to attract girls and other disadvantaged children to school and help them progress and learn.
In rural Sindh province, at the time the program was launched, primary-school age girls’ enrollment lagged boys by 20 percentage points. The private schools under the program were able to attract equal numbers of boys and girls. What worked?
Raju: We aren’t sure. We know from national household survey data that girls go to school at lower rates than boys mainly when it comes to government schools serving rural and poor families. We don’t find a similar pattern for private schools serving the same groups. My sense is there are particular features of program schools that government schools don’t always have. These features allay families’ concerns about sending daughters to school. For example, program schools are not just located in the communities, but usually in a central location. They are safe, operate regularly, and have been successful in raising learning.
These features and others may matter much more when parents decide on whether to send their girls to schools compared to boys. Some studies have found this to be the case. Certain design features may have also helped – such as the subsidy for each child in school, girl or boy, and the requirement that schools be staffed with a minimum number of female teachers.
Was there opposition to the program operating through co-ed schools?
Raju: In Pakistan, the government runs schools that are all boys, all girls and co-educational schools (the latter a small share). But on the ground realities may differ. Some primary schools for boys, for example, end up enrolling girls as well. When we were developing the program, government officials we worked with worried that co-ed schools wouldn’t attract girls, especially in the communities that we were targeting. It turned out this wasn’t a barrier at all. Girls and boys enrolled at the same rates in program schools. This showed the importance of not assuming things about the communities in which one operates.
There are some conceptions that people have that are not adequately tested but can hold great sway in policy. This program revealed the shakiness of one such popular conception in a particular setting.
Raju: In this phase, private schools received free textbooks and other teaching and learning materials, intensive teacher training, and regular visits by officials to provide teacher advice and support. The next major step is to make the schools explicitly accountable for student learning, similar to what is working in Punjab.
Program conditions have been reworked so that schools will receive subsidies tied to a minimum level as well as growth in student learning. At the same time, free textbooks and other materials and training to help promote quality learning will be continued. To be able to collect the right information about whether or not students are meeting the standards, the government is now in the early stages of introducing a testing system.
Getting such a system up and running is difficult, but it’s worth it because education is about learning. If students learn, they’ll have a better chance to go on and succeed in having a healthy family, good jobs and contributing society. That’s always the goal.
Follow the World Bank’s education team on Twitter: @WBG_Education 
*Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement Survey 2010-11
- Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund 
- Policy note: Using Low-Cost Private Schools to Fill the Education Gap