EducationFeaturedVolume 13 Issue # 04

Literacy: A losing battle

An annual exercise, the International Literacy Day was celebrated across the world as well as in Pakistan on September 8. International Literacy Day is observed worldwide to bring together governments, multi- and bilateral organizations, NGOs, private sectors, communities, teachers, learners and experts working in the field. It is an occasion to mark the achievements and reflect on ways to counter remaining challenges for the promotion of literacy as an integral part of lifelong learning within and beyond the 2030 Education Agenda.

This year’s theme is literacy in a digital world. As we all know, digital technologies are rapidly changing the way people live, work, learn and socialise the world over. They are giving new possibilities to people to improve all areas of their lives, including access to information; knowledge management; networking; social services; industrial production, and mode of work. However, those who lack access to digital technologies and the knowledge, skills and competencies required to navigate them, can end up marginalised in increasingly digitally driven societies.

Just as knowledge, skills and competencies evolve in the digital world, so does what it means to be literate. In order to close the literacy skills gap and reduce inequalities, this year’s International Literacy Day highlighted the challenges and opportunities in promoting literacy in the digital world, a world where, despite progress, at least 750 million adults and 264 million out-of-school children still lack basic literacy skills.

The Literacy Day in Pakistan passed almost unnoticed. The literacy scene in the country is dismal. According to the latest count, the literacy rate in Pakistan is around 58 percent. But this is said to be an exaggeration. Experts say that effective literacy is not more than 30 percent. As for digital literacy, the less said the better. This is so because Pakistan’s public education system is in shambles. Reports compiled by both national and international agencies continue to underline the hopelessness of the situation.

The list of problems is long. Despite numerous education policies, the literacy rate has remained abysmally low and universal primary education remains a distant dream. We are among the few nations who failed to meet the Education For All target. There are more than a dozen education systems working in parallel in the country, with the education gap between the rich and the poor ever widening. The enrolment rate is low, while the dropout rate is high. The sector’s woes are endless.   According to the latest Pakistan Education Statistics report, a staggering 24 million Pakistani children are out of school. Of the 50.8 million children aged five to 16 in the country, 47 per cent do not receive any kind of education. Of the 24 million who are not in school, more are girls — 12.8 million compared to 11.2 million boys. The PES report also reveals that 69 per cent of children enrolled at primary school level drop out by the fifth year. Only 28pc last until class 10.

Enrolment and retention vary from province to province. Balochistan’s and FATA’s retention rates until class five are the lowest at 34pc and 32pc, respectively, while Gilgit-Baltistan and Islamabad have the highest rates at 93pc and 92pc, respectively, with the  overall national average at 69pc. Enrolment drops drastically after the primary level, but more steeply so for girls than boys. Boys continue to outnumber girls at every stage of education. Nearly 10m boys and 8.1m girls are enrolled at the primary level. The figure drops to 1.9m boys and 1.4m girls at the higher level, and just 1m boys and 700,000 girls at the higher secondary level.

The situation is especially alarming in rural areas due to social and cultural factors. One of the most deplorable aspects is that in some places, particularly northern tribal areas, the education of girls is strictly prohibited on religious grounds. The situation is more critical in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, where the female literacy rate stands between 3 per cent and 8 per cent. Poverty is also a big hurdle to girls’ education. According to UNICEF, 17.6 per cent of Pakistani children are working and supporting their families.  Some government organizations and non-governmental organizations have tried to open formal and informal schools in rural areas, but the local landlords oppose such efforts out of fear that if people  become literate they will stop doing their bidding. Unfortunately, the government has not so far taken any steps to promote literacy or girl’s education in these areas.


Available data shows that although the number of out-of-school children (OOSC) has decreased by 1 million ─ from 25m to 24m ─ and retention rates have improved over last year, almost half of all children between the ages of five and 16 are out of school and more than 18m have never seen the inside of a classroom. Of the 24m out-of-school children, 18.6m have never attended school, while 5.4m enrolled at some point but dropped out. Balochistan has the highest proportion of out-of-school children, followed by the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). As much as 70pc of children in Balochistan and 60pc in FATA are out of school. Despite a five-year trend depicting increasing enrolment rates, many children are still out of school and more girls than boys are not in school ─ 12.8m girls remain out of school compared to 11.2m boys.

A major reason why children drop out of school is lack of basic facilities. Some improvements have been made in school infrastructure lately, but many schools do not have buildings, or the buildings are in a dilapidated condition. In a large number of schools, facilities like toilets, drinking water and electricity are missing. The problem is most acute in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, where 31pc of government schools and an additional 29pc of single-classroom schools operate without a building. Poor quality of teaching is said to be one of the main reasons for the high dropout rates in schools. But data reveals that 51pc of government school teachers have at least a Bachelor’s degree in education. Of the 49pc who don’t have university-level degrees, 30pc have a PTC qualification, while 8pc are communal teachers. The average student-teacher ratio in Pakistan is estimated to be 33:1.

As against the rising mountain of problems in the sector, Pakistan’s expenditure on education is one of the lowest in the world – just 2.4 percent of GDP. The comparative figures for other countries in the region range between 4 and 7 percent.  At the national level, 89% education expenditure comprises current expenses such as teachers’ salaries, while only 11% is devoted to development expenditure which is insufficient to raise the quality of education. What is worse, there is no mechanism to ensure efficient utilization of the allocated funds. Besides widespread wastage and leakage, in many cases funds lapse for lack of use.