The Citizens Foundation of Pakistan: The nation-building movement extraordinaire

The image always saddens me. When I see children, dressed in their school uniform, hair neatly combed, as they walk to their schools, as they are perched on their father’s bicycle or motorbike, as they are seated in an overfilled school van. Their faces always melancholic. What awaits them in their state-run, their low-fee private schools? Small windowless rooms; no-ground PE and sports; no library, activity room, IT lab; low quality education; and unfriendly teachers who believe teaching is a solemn affair maintaining a strict regimen of discipline in and out of the classroom. Underprivileged, they are children who deserve the stars but who at a very young age learn to coexist with their incomplete dreams, their no-dreams.

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As things gradually change in government schools, one day I see a collage of wonderful pictures of a school system that is for children who are born in a world that does not offer them much. A set of educational institutions that has all the perks of schools for children who are not forced to go to a government school or a low-fee-low-quality private school. Well-equipped classrooms, properly stocked libraries and art rooms, playgrounds, trained teachers with a passion for teaching, management dedicated to the meticulous running of schools, a school system for the underprivileged, less privileged children of Pakistan: The Citizens Foundation (TCF).

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TCF, a non-profit organisation, works on a simple agenda: to educate each child of Pakistan.

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TCF’s message is unique: accessibility to a healthy, constructive and long-lasting opportunity for learning. TCF’s credo is remarkable: quality education for each child of Pakistan irrespective of their background. Self-respect is the silent gift of TCF to each one of its students. Education is a fundamental human right, and the price tag attached to good education must not be an impediment in any way. TCF believes and practises that in its schools spread across Pakistan.

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TCF’s 25 years of clear dedication are 1,652 schools educating 266,000 students. The splendid journey of educating each child of Pakistan continues.

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For the last eleven years Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad, a former high-level corporate executive, is the CEO of TCF. Having been a supporter and later a donor of TCF since its inception, Ahmad’s commitment to his work is manifested in his singlemindedness to maintain the exceptionality of TCF, and to make it a much bigger world of opportunity for learning with willingness, joy and dignity for each underprivileged child who enters a TCF school.

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Ahmad talking about his commitment to TCF says, “My motivation to work for TCF results from my lifelong interest in contributing towards education in Pakistan. I truly believe that long term investment in quality education is the only solution for a better, a stronger Pakistan. Even when I was a student, I was involved in education related stuff. I also taught in a school for a year before I embarked on my corporate career. Initially, my friends, family and I used to donate small amounts to TCF, and later we made a larger donation to build a school. In all, we donated for the construction of three more schools.”

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I asked CEO TCF Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad a few questions:

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Tell us about the genesis of The Citizens Foundation (TCF).

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Six friends, all of them Karachi businessmen and philanthropists–Mushtaq Chhapra, Ehsan Saleem, Ateed Riaz, Rashid Abdulla, Arshad Abdulla and Hamid Jaffar–started TCF in 1995. Their desire was to do something for Pakistan, they looked at healthcare, education, job creation, social welfare, and many other sectors. Ultimately, they chose education as they believed it holistically addressed our society’s various challenges. Within education they chose education for the less privileged. In 1995, they set a target of one thousand schools in the less privileged areas throughout Pakistan.

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How successful in implementation are the three fundamentals of TCF–mission, vison, values?

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Our vision is positive change. Our mission is quality education, and a better future for our students. Our values are integrity, ownership, and continuous improvement. I’m happy to state that we are one of the biggest organisations of Pakistan in terms of the number of our employees. 18,000 people work for TCF. We are very clear in the alignment of our mission, our vision, our values. That is because there is a very strong focus on the culture and the ethos of the organisation, and how to practise the values that we espouse.

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There is a lot of clarity on our purpose for existence. Alhamdulillah, I’d say that it is also the power of the intent. A very clear neeyat (intention) as to what our purpose is and how to focus on what we have set out to deliver for ourselves: quality education for the less privileged. We are also highly focused on how we measure the quality of education and how we can deliver the most value remaining within the resources available to us.

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What is TCF’s biggest achievement in its 25-year long journey?

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In my view TCF’s biggest achievement is staying true to our vision, mission, and values, keeping a laser like focus on affordable quality education. We do charge a fee, so it is not a zero-fee school, but we always ascertain the affordability capacity of a student’s family. What matters is that parents and children must value education, but, at the same time, no child is going to be turned away from our school because their family cannot afford good education.

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Another important factor in TCF’s 25 years is the assurance that we provide quality education in all parts of Pakistan. Today, we are present in more than 60 districts all over the country. Our focus is on serving the most deserving and the most under-served areas of Pakistan.

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What are the major obstacles in making the dream of education–one of the basic instruments of human development–a reality for every child of Pakistan?

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I believe that as a nation we must make quality education one of our top priorities. As a nation or even as a state quality education is not one of our main concerns. It is very low on our list of national priorities, or else the state would have ensured the availability of resources required for quality education.

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As the sixth largest country of the world, unfortunately, we are much behind in terms of not just quality of education, which is very low, but also the spread of education that is in about just the 60 percent of the population. Literacy and numeracy levels are some of the lowest in the world. After Nigeria, Pakistan has the largest out-of-school children population: one out of ten children in the world who is not educated is in Pakistan.

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When you fix education, you fix health, you fix governance, you fix the economy, and you fix the challenges related to extremism.

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What are the key elements of a TCF school?

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Firstly, a truly significant factor since the time of the establishment of TCF was that the founders were of the view that TCF schools were not going to be poor schools for poor children. To me that is the fundamental philosophy of TCF. We believe that the building, the ambiance, the environment, the spacious grounds, the library, the art room, and the facilities all contribute to learning. Learning does not just happen in the classroom; it happens in the whole school. That to me is one of the defining features of TCF, as opposed to the prevalent mindset that for a poor area non-formal education and a makeshift school under a tree could work. But we believe otherwise. The external factors are part of the curriculum. School should be a place where you want to come not where you have to come.

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Secondly, right from the beginning a great deal of investment has been made in teacher training. A huge issue in Pakistan is that teachers do not have the requisite training for their job. As an organisation we continue to invest a lot in teacher training to improve the quality of teaching. Alhamdulillah, we have been very successful.

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Thirdly, we have, over a period of time, developed excellent quality textbooks. Much research has gone into that field. Textbooks have been contextualised looking at the type of areas that we operate in and the standard of education in a particular area.

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Fourthly, TCF operates on a very strong mechanism of monitoring and evaluation. TCF has very evolved systems of field monitoring and quality assurance and assessment.

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How has the pandemic changed or affected the work of TCF?

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Residents of most of the communities that we operate in do not have access to digital technology. In many places even smart phones are a rarity. That is a marked difference from middle- and upper-class locations where infrastructure and facilities to avail digital technology are available. We, therefore, had to ensure that during the pandemic we kept our students engaged.

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One of the steps was the inception of an infotainment magazine titled Ilm Ujjala. We also participated in the government’s initiative of tele school; we produced a one-hour education show with storytelling by our own people as well as Saniya Saeed [a leading TV artist]. The idea was learning through fun activities ensuring that we were focused both on the minds and bodies of our students, and for that we had segments on exercise and physical activities.

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We also recognised something that perhaps many people failed to acknowledge that children like adults were going through stress due to the pandemic. We made sure that when schools were reopened, we welcomed our students with activities, two of which were called Khair Maqdam and Jaiza. The idea was to explore children’s feelings regarding the pandemic, and the situation in their homes. What we found was that such sessions were extremely useful, as children while opening up bonded with their teachers. All of that helped in getting them back into the learning cycle.

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We at TCF ensured that all SOPs were followed. We observed that in many of the areas, unfortunately, the environment was such that most of the inhabitants were not following any SOPs. As our students were following SOPs–regular washing of hands and maintaining social distancing–in school, they were able to take the SOPs back to their homes in various low-income localities.

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If I were to ask you today, what as the CEO of TCF is your goal for the next five years?

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We at TCF have delineated our goals for the next ten years. Our Vision 2030. What we have set out to do is to magnify our impact by tenfold. Our target is to reach out to more than two million learners by 2030.

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We are exploring various areas, one of the biggest in terms of impact and scope is public-private partnership. TCF has around 300 schools in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that are being run on the public-private partnership model. There are different models in different provinces. All these models have scope both in terms of reach as well as improving the quality of education.

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Another area that we continue to work on and develop is teacher training in which we have tried different models, including training through digital technology. That makes it a domain of endless potential. In the near future, we hope to reach tens of thousands of teachers, inshaAllah.

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The third area is textbooks that we plan to develop over a period of ten years. Another high potential field that could also be beneficial to other low-cost private schools. We’ll be able to offer our textbooks even to the public sector. InshaAllah, in the not-so-distant future, we’ hope to introduce our textbooks to hundreds and thousands of schools.

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Another area that holds a great deal of potential and where we have started work: how to help out-of-school children. According to different estimates, there are more than 22-24 million children who are not only out of school but also because of their age have probably missed the chance of getting into any school. The way to help these children is not necessarily inside a school. We have to think outside the box. We must develop a solution that is specialised, paying attention to various scenarios of the lives of the out-of-school children. Teenagers who work in the daytime and can only study in the evening, girls who have some commitments at home, we’d have to design a separate programme for them. That is an area where we need to come up with bespoke solutions, depending on the location and culture of a particular community. A team comprising highly intelligent professionals is working to create a mechanism to help out-of-school children.

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Many such areas in which, inshaAllah, TCF in addition to its flagship programme–that continues to expand–will be involved.

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Is there any ideal of the universal right of free quality education that is your constant inspiration?

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Absolutely. That is the reason why we were formed, the reason for our existence. We believe that free quality education is the universal right of every child. That is the goal that we specifically picked: we continue to only focus on the least privileged, the most under-served areas of Pakistan. This is something that, to be honest, if you ask me, is not only the government’s responsibility but perhaps something that only a government can do. The private sector, for-profit as well as non-profit, can only do that much. Today if you look at Pakistan’s landscape, 40 percent of education is being imparted through the private sector. In urban localities, the percentage is around 65 percent.

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The issue of quality exists not just in public schools but also in private schools. As most of the private schools are low fee and low cost, there is obviously a quality issue.

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The other big issue that Pakistan faces is the huge disparity between the number of primary schools versus middle or secondary schools.

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My hope is that if we ever think of closing down TCF, or when schools being run by the private sector become irrelevant, it only happens when government is fully committed to providing free quality education to every child. But we are, unfortunately, a long way away from that. And, therefore, for the time being, government and the private sector, both for-profit and non-profit, must work side by side.

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There are numerous opportunities in public-private partnership in education. One can see that happening in the healthcare sector with some very good results, particularly in Sindh. Many public-private partnerships are emerging, and I think the same route can be and should also be adopted in the education sector. That would, hopefully, in the short run help bridge the gap that is painfully prominent in Pakistan’s education sector.

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