The Sialkot district education officer issued a letter to six government high schools in the district on Nov 3, 2021, warning them of strict action if they failed to improve the attendance of students in their respective schools. The letter was written to head teachers of Government High School Peero Chak, Government Girls High School Bambanwala, Government High School Muslim Awami Sambrial, Government High School Islamia Ratta Jathol, Government Girls High School Bhallowali and Government High School (GHS) Public Ghartal. The letter cited a report received from the School Education Department Lahore showing that 69.47% students had attended GHS Peero Chak on Oct 16, 2021, 63.65% students attended GGHS Bambanwala, and 60.22% attended GHS Muslim Awami Sambrial on the same date. The report also pointed out that only 40.48% students had attended GHS Islamia Ratta Jathol on Oct 18, 2021, 69.79% came to GGHS Ballowali on Oct 23, 2021, and only 59.04% students attended GHS Public Ghartal on Oct 25, 2021.
Addressing the head teachers, the letter said: “You have failed to perform your duties efficiently regarding students’ attendance on the dates mentioned above.” The letter called upon the head teachers to be careful and vigilant in the performance of their official duties in future otherwise strict action will be taken against them. Does it sound logical to hold teachers responsible for absenteeism among students? Yes, to some extent. But assigning them the task of bringing the absenting students to school, and making it a regular feature of school education seems totally illogical. The particular task was assigned to teachers during former Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government in the province. Also, in November 2018, the Punjab government had made a new law for the parents of absenting school students. Under the law, the parents would have to pay a fine of Rs500 to Rs1,000, if their children remained constantly absent from school. Along with the fine, they would be jailed for one week.
There are close to 23 million children aged between 5 and 16 that remain out of school across Pakistan and repeated attempts to bring them to school have failed in the past. However, the law was never implemented, fearing a severe reaction from parents. Two years back, in the first week of November 2019, the Punjab School Education Department (SED) announced abolishing the Shehbaz-era system of punishing schoolteachers for poor cleanliness, low attendance of students, less enrolment and other administrative issues.
During the previous government, teachers were directed to visit the houses of absentees a number of times to convince their parents to ensure their children’s presence in school. Punjab Minister for School Education Murad Raas tweeted: “The School Education Department has decided to steer away from excessive monitoring and focus on school improvement and action management through a new School Improvement Framework, which will emphasise incentives rather than fine.” However, the new framework failed to produce the desired results, and the department had to revert to the old system.
Absenteeism among students increased especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic when educational institutions were closed and they reopened after a long period. A teacher, who does not want to be named, told Cutting Edge that absenteeism among students, especially in rural areas, was not linked to the pandemic. “It has always been a practice among students that they remain absent from classes on every wedding, even of a distant relative. They avail up to six-day leave for every wedding ceremony, and parents not only approve of it but also insist on it if teachers contact them for sending their children to school. Most students remain absent from school on Monday and Saturday, and even their parents do not attend the phone calls if they are contacted by school,” he laments.
Another teacher, Ishfaq Ali, who teaches in a village school, says teachers are informed by parents that their children will not come to school for a week as wheat or garlic sowing or harvesting is underway. “During the cotton-picking season, which is currently underway, parents prefer their children, especially young girls, to accompany them to the fields instead of going to school. Teachers have to face warnings, and sometimes punishment, throughout the year due to absenting students,” he gripes.
Bashir Ahmad Sajid, who has long served as a member of the chief minister’s monitoring team for school education, believes assigning teachers the task of bringing absent students to classes is proving counterproductive. He tells Cutting Edge he has firsthand experience of the consequences of such an assignment. “Class teachers spend the first two periods locating the absent students, especially in rural area schools. After taking attendance, and finding out who’s absent, class in-charges mostly send their students to the homes of the absent students to bring them to school. These students mostly return at the end of the first period or in the middle of the second period. In this way, the most precious time of the teachers and students, when they are with fresh minds in school, is wasted in making efforts to bring the absent students to classes. In most cases, those going after the absent students return empty-handed with the information that the absent students have gone for crop sowing or harvesting, or attending some family function in another village,” he laments.
Mr. Sajid believes teachers should be relinquished of any such assignment, and given a free hand to only impart education to their students, who are present in their classes. He suggests that parent-teacher councils should be improved and parents should be given a greater role in ensuring students’ presence in classes. “Meetings of the councils should be held regularly, at least once a week, and the council members should be empowered to hold accountable the parents of absent students,” he proposes and believes it can produce better results than the current arrangements.