Mr. Omar Khayyam Sheikh is the Chief Executive of Progressive Education Network, a non-profit company registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan under Section 42 of the Companies Ordinance 1984.
Mr. Omar Khayyam began his professional career as an investment banker, first at Merrill Lynch in New York, and then as a Limited Partner at The Lodestar Group, a merchant banking boutique firm.
He sat on the boards of various companies and oversaw the businesses, arranged re-financings and developed M&A prospects. In 1994, he returned to Pakistan to establish Hadayat Sons, a family-owned firm that imports, distributes and retails construction related products. Hadayat Sons is the exclusive importer of Kohler Plumbing Products, GE Home Appliances and Life Fitness Gym Equipment.
He holds a B.A. from Columbia University New York, where he was awarded the John Jay Scholarship and graduated with the Leonard Pullman Award for “academic excellence and service to the College.” His graduation thesis was on universalizing primary education in Pakistan. He also holds an Executive MBA from LUMS with a Silver Medal for Second Position in Class.
He has had a long-term interest in primary education and brings private sector business experience and international fundraising exposure in addition to energy and vigor to this venture.
1. What inspired you to found Progressive Education Network?
Progressive Education Network was founded by 7 close friends; we have known each other for nearly three decades. Some of us are educationalists, bankers, professionals and businessmen. For years, we have pondered how best we could give back to our country. Without a doubt, the single most immediate and crucial need of our country is education reform. It is shameful that we have the world’s second largest population of children out of school; by some estimates the figure is as high as 7.5 million. Imagine the outcome when a large number of illiterate and unskilled people enter the workforce and they can’t find any jobs. High crime rate, high unemployment, depressed economic growth, so on and so forth, we are staring at a bleak future if we don’t do something about it.
What is the idea behind PEN?
The idea for PEN was to establish an institution that is transparent, non-person centric and which will address the core issues in the education sector. We studied several models fromaround the world, BRAC, The Citizens Foundation and CARE. In the end, we decided it was much more efficient to adopt public schools, through a public-private partnership, and build on the existing infrastructure, instead of building new schools from the ground up. We could then focus on what goes on inside the classroom, the teacher-student interaction and the quality of education. Moreover, the public school system is the largest school system in Pakistan and it caters to the low-income strata of our society. So it was a no-brainer that this is where you get the most bang for your buck. Whatever resources we put in, we want them to have a high impact.
What are the Programs at PEN and how are they funded?
We adopted our first batch of schools in 2010 with over 6,000 students. Most of us are based in Lahore so naturally we started with the public schools located here. Three years later, we now have nearly 11,000 students and our schools are spread across Pakistan, as in Lahore, Karachi, Gujrat and Muzzafargarh. We have set a target of providing education to 1 million children by the year 2025.Basically, when we adopt a school, we begin collecting baseline data, student-teacher ratio, condition of the schools’ infrastructure, student exam results, teachers’ credentials, students’ reading and arithmetic skills, etc. It can also include hiring additional teachers to reduce the student-teacher ratio, which is proven by research to positively impact the delivery of education, and teacher training to improve the teachers’ pedagogical skills.
In terms of infrastructure, our goal is to provide basic amenities, such as clean and cold drinking water, proper washrooms, properly lit classrooms and furniture. We also hire ayas in each school who clean the school premises twice daily.
Most importantly, our monitoring and evaluation teams visit schools every day; this has the outcome of drastically reducing irregularities, such as teacher absenteeism and poor teacher performance in the classrooms.
Computer education is something we’re passionate about in PEN. With help of our partner organizations, like Parbat Foundation, we have established 6 computer labs. We plan to establish a computer lab in more schools this year. I have seen how our students, who have never used a computer before, have learnt to use Ms Word in just a few months. Computer science is being taught as a subject in our Middle schools as we have provided computer instructors and syllabus break-up to these schools.
We also regularly organize co-curricular activities sports, debates, and quiz contests. This might appear pretty basic stuff to your readers but you have to understand that the public school system is completely broken. If you randomly visit a public school, you will find dilapidated infrastructure, absent teachers and lagging student achievement.
Since 2010, we have seen a gradual improvement in PEN adopted schools, student enrolment has increased by 34 percent, student test scores on average have improved by 13 percent in PEC exams.Our main focus is on primary education, this is because it is proven by research that strong reading, writing, and arithmetic skills at primary-level are the most critical factor in a student’s academic career.
Initially, PEN was funded by the founders and their close friends. We invested our own resources as ‘proof of concept’ to improve education delivery in public schools through a more inclusive approach. With the success of our effort in Lahore, we have expanded to other regions in the country with the help of major corporations, such as Servis Industries in Gujrat and National Group in Sheikhupura. We have a ‘Good Neighbor Program’ where companies and individuals work with us to improve public schools in the vicinity of their homes or plants or offices. As we expand our presence throughout Pakistan, we will inevitably have to rely on companies and high net-worth individuals to join hands with us to address education emergency in Pakistan.
2. What do you think is the best thing about your organization?
Let us look at all of our primary stakeholders one by one.If you’d ask a student of a PEN school, what is the best thing you like about PEN, I’m sure they are likely to mention the improvement in their school’s infrastructure, furniture and proper washrooms. They might also mention the sports activities, quizzes and debating competitions. I have seen students get especially excited during the inter-school cricket matches and quiz competitions. If you’d ask a teacher, they are likely to mention the teacher training program. Our teacher training program is very comprehensive, which is held during the summer and winter holidays. Our master trainers come from LUMS, GC and University of Education. All our training programs have a very high attendance rate which goes to show that public school teachers are eager to learn about classroom management, child psychology and improve their subject competency.The Education Department officials appreciate our approach; they welcome frequent updates and improvements in academics.
3. How has PEN changed since its founding?
We are constantly evolving and expanding. Our goal is to provide educate to 1 million children by 2025 all over Pakistan. This is, obviously, an enormous challenge. What we have going for us is that the organizational structure, initiatives and our model has a high multiplier effect.
We are currently in the process of setting up a database management system that will help us track academic records of each student in our schools. You see this is a continual process and we are working on it.
Recently, PEN was certified by the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy as a non-profit that adheres to best practices in internal governance, financial management and program delivery. We are also in the process of getting ISO certification. We are audited by Deloitte, one of the Big 4 audit firms in the world, and our audit reports are posted online.
These measures ensure that we remain true to our core values, especially transparency. In fact, we are embracing the emerging trend of radical transparency, where we share all information with our stakeholders. Nothing is confidential. This helps to keep us on track.
4. What are your long-term goals?
We are driven primarily by our goal to provide quality education to a million children by the year 2025.
5. What are some of the challenges or barriers on your way to achieving your goal?
We have the Good Neighbour Program which allows companies and individuals to sponsor schools in the vicinity of their residence or place of business. Last year, we signed an agreement with Servis Industries in Gujrat. We identified 10 public schools near their plant and gave a detailed presentation to their management, who agreed to fund PEN intervention in those schools.
We expect to begin seeing positive results in the next few months. We are hoping that student results average will begin an upward trajectory with every board exams.Our greatest challenge is to continue to find corporations and individuals who will join hands with us to impart quality education to the under-privileged. Another challenge for us is to manage and operate schools in remote locations and evolve an effective mechanism for monitoring and evaluation.
To be honest, one of our continuing challenges is to train public school teachers. Right now, we provide them training during the holidays and then follow it up with monitoring and evaluation. Whatever feedback we gather from our Academic team is then shared with the teachers. But old habits die hard. With a series of measures, including offering incentives, we are beginning to see change and we hope to continue our endeavors to this end.
6. What is the hardest decision the organization has had to make recently, and how did you evaluate the tradeoffs involved?
As I mentioned earlier, we hire teachers for our adopted schools with a shortage of teachers. Now given our budget constraints, we cannot afford to pay large salaries, and still not have to compromise on the quality of the teachers. The quality of education cannot exceed the quality of teachers in any school system. In the end, we decided to offer good salaries while cutting back on our expenditure for infrastructural works. In this regard, we need help from donors who can join this noble cause.
7. What do you, personally, spend most of your time on?
I am an avid reader and conduct a fair amount of research on educational initiatives around the world to learn what may work in our scenario. In addition, I have recently finished writing a booktitled: Strategies of Prophet Muhammad (S). It explores Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) brilliant strategies which led a small movement in Makkah to expand to one of the largest empires spanning several continents. On the week-ends I love to play golf and do a bit of travelling.