FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 41

Out-of-school children: A growing challenge

Among the many challenges that Pakistan faces in the education field, a major one is the growing number of out-of-school children. According to UNICEF, Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children (OOSC) with an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 not attending school. This constitutes 44 per cent of the total population in this age group. In the 5-9 age group, 5 million children are not enrolled in schools and after primary-school age, the number of the children doubles, with 11.4 million adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14 not receiving formal education.

According to a recent research report of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) titled “Primary School Literacy: A Case Study of The Educate A Child Initiative’, the proportion of children out-of-school between the ages 5 and 16 stood at a whopping 30pc nationwide in 2018-19, with Balochistan, the worst performing province, where approximately 2 out of 3 children are deprived of basic education, followed by Sindh with 42pc percent out-of-school children. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the merged areas there are 31pc out-of-school children.

A major issue is that of gender disparity. Disparity based on gender, socio-economic status, and geography significantly affect children. In Sindh, 52 percent of the poorest children (58 percent girls) are out of school, and in Balochistan, 78 percent of girls are out of school. At the primary level, nearly 10.7 million boys and 8.6 million girls are enrolled but this figure drops to 3.6 million boys and 2.8 million girls at the lower secondary level.

The PIDE report states that according to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM)’s survey conducted during 2018-19, approximately 51 percent of the population of Pakistan has successfully completed their primary level education which rose 2pc from 2013-14. Balochistan was the worst performing province in this regard, with figures actually declining from 33pc in 2013-14 to 31 percent in 2018-19 as the COVID-19 pandemic has likely caused further damage.

This depressing situation is explained by the gaps in service delivery at all levels of education. Socio-cultural constraints combined with economic factors and supply-related issues prevent access and retention of marginalized groups, in particular adolescent girls. Further, inadequate financing, limited enforcement of policy commitments and challenges in equitable implementation affect the most disadvantaged. Experts say that the solution lies in increasing the education budget from the current 2.8 percent of the GDP to at least 4 percent.

In order to accelerate progress and ensure the equitable expansion of quality education, UNICEF is playing an important supportive role. It is addressing the issue of out-of-school children through studies, supporting provincial sector plan development, development or review of informal education policy and direct programme implementation

UNICEF’s education programme is focusing on Early Childhood Education (ECE) to improve school readiness; expansion of equitable and quality alternative learning pathways (ALP) at basic education levels; and nurturing of school-community linkages to increase on-time enrolment, reduce drop-outs, and ensure completion and transition for all students. At systems levels, it is contributing to more equity-focused provincial sector planning and budgeting; strengthening data and assessment systems; and evidence-based policy advocacy.

Experience has shown that investment in quality early learning/pre-primary education so that young children are ‘ready for school’ has high positive impacts on primary school enrolment, survival and learning, and is cost-effective. It is good that Pakistan is increasingly recognizing early learning as a policy priority, and several provinces have already developed ECCE policies, plans, and standards.

School-community linkages have been found to be an effective way of breaking down socio-cultural demand-side barriers which cause education deprivation for certain groups of children, particularly girls. These barriers are further exacerbated by a lack of parental awareness of early learning, importance of on-time enrolment, and lack of social protection schemes. UNICEF is focusing more closely on the obstacles to on-time enrolment, retention, completion and transition.

It is also strategically engaged in sector planning to capitalise on opportunities to influence decision-making on equity issues. UNICEF’s growing technical capacity and focus on assessment of learning, and international expertise also provides an opportunity to add value to Pakistan’s efforts to improve assessment systems. System reforms help in improving accountability and evidence-based decision making. It supports healthy dialogue on education budgeting and public financing, to highlight areas of improvement for better planning and improvement in the education sector.

While UNICEF is playing its role, it is important that the government too accelerates its efforts to ginger up the education administration which is malfunctioning and riddled with corruption. School funds are embezzled and teacher absenteeism is common. The problem of ghost schools has not yet been fully tackled. Until these shortcomings are removed, a majority of children in Pakistan will remain deprived of their basic right to education.