EducationNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 07

Rising learning poverty

It was shocking and depressing, though not unexpected, to see students returning to schools in September, totally blank after a six-month closure because of lockdown, imposed by the government authorities over the coronavirus pandemic in the country, said Irfan Saleem, a teacher, when asked to comment on the recently published World Bank report on increasing “learning poverty” in Pakistan.

The report suggested that learning poverty in the country would go up to 79 per cent as a result of school closure in the near past due to the pandemic. Learning poverty means being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. However, the senior teacher at Government Higher Secondary School, Mozang, Lahore, contests the claim.

“Learning poverty among students of public sector schools has already gone beyond the estimated rate of 79pc,” he tells Cutting Edge by telephone. More than 90pc primary class students returning to schools after a long break have forgotten almost everything they had learnt as regular students before the forced closure of educational institutions, claims Irfan Saleem, who’s pursuing his PhD studies at a Lahore university also, along with rendering his services at the government school.

The Annual Status of Education Report 2018 (ASER-2018) had shocked the nation last year by disclosing that almost 50% of Pakistani students enrolled in grade five cannot perform arithmetic and reading tasks, set for the second grade. Nearly 53pc of children cannot read and understand a simple story by the end of their primary school-level education. These poor learning outcomes are not just limited to public schools but also low-cost private schools. As a result, many students are years behind the appropriate learning level for their age group and have weak foundational concepts.

The educationist has reasons explaining the outcome of the ASER survey and the WB report, showing an increase in learning poverty in Pakistani schools. “The education process, especially at the primary level, needs completion of a triangle comprising student, teacher and parents. All three fortify efforts of each other for successful learning of students in an ideal situation. But regrettably, this triangle remains incomplete in more than 90pc cases in government schools, and so is the case with the learning process,” Irfan Saleem says. In most cases, adds the educationist, parents of government school students are uneducated themselves and they do not give importance to education and learning of their children.

In a large number of cases, they send their children to schools to get rid of them for a few hours, and they have no interest in what they study in schools and how much they learn or gain knowledge, believes the senior teacher on the basis of his experience in the field. However, he adds, the case of those studying in private schools may be different. After paying heavy fees, parents of children studying in private schools mostly keep an eye on them; they keep asking their children as well as their teachers about the learning situation and their grades, the educationist says. He admits that in some cases, teachers in government schools also show slackness in imparting education to their students.

The WB report, “Learning Losses in Pakistan due to COVID-19 School Closures”, however, says that the estimates are not cast in stone, and in collaboration with the government, the development partners can influence the numbers by taking appropriate action, particularly now that schools have reopened.

The report suggests the measures, among others, to ensure that dropouts do not materialise, and organise an enrolment drive and leverage cash transfers to encourage enrolment or re-enrolment of children.

According to the report, an estimated 930,000 additional children are expected to drop out from both primary and secondary education. Given that 22 million are already out of school, this represents an increase of almost 4.2pc. Pakistan is globally the country where dropouts are the highest due to the COVID-19 crisis in relative terms.

The estimate is based on the observed income elasticity of education for various socio-economic quintiles and is based on the June 2020 growth estimates for Pakistan which were estimated to be minus 4.4pc. Income elasticity in Pakistan is high for two main reasons: high poverty levels, which lead families to push their children into labour or marriage from an early age; and the cost of private schooling in which 38pc of school-going children aged six to 10 were enrolled before the crisis.

On the dropout issue, however, Irfan Saleem, as well as Ms. Nyla Shabbir, a senior teacher at a famous private school branch, seemed satisfied. The government schoolteacher said the dropout loss was almost negligible, while the class 9th in-charge at the Wahdat Road Lahore branch of a big private school system said that 100pc students had rejoined classes after educational institutions reopened.

Ms. Nyla Shabbir’s estimates about learning losses among students of their school were quite different from Mr. Irfan Saleem’s. She told Cutting Edge by telephone that the tests conducted by them soon after the return of students showed that overall 50pc students had suffered learning losses, and 30pc were the worst cases.

She said special arrangements had been made to keep students engaged in studies during the COVID-19 lockdown days. All class in-charges and teachers had formed WhatsApp groups of their students. They were informed about their lecture timing and online tests on a daily basis through WhatsApp and text messages, and in many cases calls were also made to parents of students for an uninterrupted learning process. Parents were requested to submit tests of their children, conducted online, to school offices on a weekly or fortnightly basis. The tests were assessed by the teachers concerned, and the results were shared with the parents through WhatsApp and text messages on their cell-phones. “This was a real hard task, but it produced good results and their learning losses were curtailed to a large extent,” says Ms. Nyla with satisfaction.

The WB report, however, appreciated efforts of Pakistan for minimising learning losses of students through use of the internet and launch of a television channel for imparting lessons to students through distance or remote learning methods. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pakistan has put in place an impressive infrastructure to support remote learning, added the report.

The 2020 Human Capital Index showed that Pakistan had improved its Learning Adjusted Years of Schooling from 4.8 years to 5.1 years over the last few years. But the gains may have been lost already. The report estimated that school closures during the pandemic will result in a loss of between 0.3 and 0.8 years of learning-adjusted schooling. “We expect that the four months of school closures during the pandemic could reduce learning adjusted years of schooling for Pakistan back to 4.8 years,” added the report.

“If we quantify this loss of learning in terms of labour market returns, the average student will face a reduction between $193 and $445 in yearly earnings once he or she enters the labour market, which represents between 2.8pc and 6.6pc of annual income.

“Aggregated for all students in Pakistan and projected 20 years into the future when all graduates have entered the labour market, this would cost the Pakistan economy between $67 billion and $155bn in GDP at Net Present Value,” said the report.