15Apr2024
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Breaking a vicious cycle

Ensuring access to education remains a major challenge in Pakistan. With nearly 23 million children out of school, the country is struggling to provide education and retain children in schools. Economic factors, particularly in the case of the marginalised and economically challenged groups, are a significant constraint to education access and school retention.
Certain civil society initiatives are helping fill the gaps that the state is struggling to bridge. TNF-Akhuwat Boarding School, Faisalabad, is an effort made in the same direction. The Noorani Foundation, with the support of the Akhuwat Foundation, built this low-cost boarding school for underprivileged children and enrolled its first batch of 160 students (all boys) in 2021.

While it is modelled after the country’s famed boarding schools, there is a key difference. It is built on a mere six acres, unlike most residential schools that have ten times the land.

Students enrolled at the TNF School come from 49 districts. “We have students here from far-flung areas of the country. Some of the students have come from Zhob, Mithi, Tharparkar, Waziristan and Dera Ghazi Khan,” says Muhammad Asad Saeed, the assistant administrator.

On arrival at the school, some of the students could not even speak Urdu, says the school principal, Tariq Saleem. “48 students appeared in board examinations from our school. 42 of them secured an A+; the other six got an A,” says the proud principal. “I had never headed a school built specifically for children from humble backgrounds. My previous experience was that of elite boarding schools.”

Saleem, a former principal of Abbottabad Public School, says working at TNF School has been a fulfilling experience.

Not only students but the faculty also reside on the campus.

“We live here on campus,” says Muhammad Atif, the tenth-grade biology teacher and housemaster. “As a housemaster, my responsibilities extend beyond teaching. I also act as a counsellor and points person for students under my supervision,” says Atif.

For now, the TNF School is being run without any government assistance, “but we would welcome it,” says Noorani.

Education and economic empowerment are connected. “Education, especially the boarding experience, can be transformative,” says Noorani, who led the development of Sargodhian Spirit Trust alongside fellow graduates from PAF Public School, Sargodha. “In order for these students to achieve some form of upward social mobility, they need to be removed from the caustic environment of poverty,” says Noorani.

The goal of education and literacy is to prepare young minds to take on the challenges of life and to break the vicious cycle of poverty and disparity.

Saad Ali, a tenth-grader at the TNF School from Dera Ghazi Khan with exceptional scores in his ninth-grade board exams, tells TNS, “My father is a mason.” Ali has eight siblings, all enrolled in some educational institution or working after completing their university education.

“As a day scholar in my local school, it wasn’t uncommon for me not to pick up my books after coming home. Much of the day was spent in the company of friends, playing or wasting away my time,” says Ali. The situation has changed, he says, ever since he enrolled at the TNF School .

There are several activities to keep students engaged throughout the day. Sports and physical activity are mandatory for all TNF School students.

The chairman, school principal, teachers and students all say that children are provided not only school uniforms and residential facilities but also sports gear and trainers. “The goal is to make them well-rounded individuals,” says Saleem.

“We live together on campus and celebrate each other’s events,” says the tenth-grade teacher. The students celebrated Holi with their Hindu schoolmates. The school has an ethics teacher for students from minority religious communities.

Students from nearby areas are allowed to visit their families over the weekend. Those from far-off districts or other provinces can visit during summer and winter holidays or on Eid, says Hamza Zubair, another student at the TNF School . The boy says he first heard of the TNF School from a friend in Faisalabad.

“The schooling here is completely free of charge. We realised that many upstanding parents felt an unease, so we decided to charge a small fee to anyone who expressed a wish to pay. Some of them pay as much as Rs 1,000. It depends entirely on a family’s economic situation,” says the TNF School chairman.

Tasneem Noorani hopes to build schools like the TNF-Akhuwat Boarding School in every district, if not every tehsil. “It is possible to build low-cost boarding schools; we have already done it once. It was built at a cost of Rs 150 million in 2021. Considering inflation, it will likely cost double that amount the next time. It can be done,” says Noorani with great resolve.

Access to quality education and its safe provision can help millions break the cycle of socio-cultural and economic disparity.