Multigrade teaching is a situation where a single teacher is responsible for teaching more than one grade level at a time in one classroom. In multigrade classrooms in Pakistan, children of varying ages sit together in one classroom and are simultaneously taught the same subject material from one textbook, irrespective of the different learning capacities of children of each age group.

Multigrade teaching can be contrasted with its more familiar counterpart — monograde teaching — where classrooms are organised grade-wise such that all children in one classroom are of the same grade-level. For those unfamiliar with the concept of multigrade teaching, it may be surprising to hear that, in fact, multigrade classrooms are far more prevalent than monograde classrooms in most areas of Pakistan, particularly in the rural areas. Due to a lack of sound statistical surveying, it is difficult to accurately assess the number of schools, but rough estimates suggest that approximately 66 per cent of schools in Sindh and 50pc in Balochistan are multigrade schools.

The higher prevalence in rural areas is due to scarce resources, both human and financial. Multigrade teaching remains inadequately recognised also because it is generally considered an aberration from the “normal” monograde teaching style. Multigrade teaching is therefore perceived as a secondary, less-valued alternative, which can be replaced with its monograde counterpart if more resources are readily available.

However, multigrade teaching should be seen as a viable and economically feasible teaching style, rather than dismissed as an inconvenient reality due to the demographic and economic contexts of the country. In remote areas where the population density is too low to warrant multiple schools or grade-wise specific teachers, multigrade schools offer an opportunity for all children in the vicinity, rather than children up to a cutoff age limit, to attend school.

Effective multigrade teaching should be fully encouraged and supported, since it also helps ensure that Pakistan meets its Education for All (EFA) commitment and reach its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) targets by increasing access to children, especially girls, and those in remote areas. According to UN statistics, 6.5 million Pakistani children are not enrolled at the primary level. At the primary age level, 38.9pc of girls and 30.2pc of boys are not attending school. Overall, Pakistan has the second highest rate of out-of-school children in the world.

Training teachers to properly manage multigrade situations is a strategy with immediate applicability and is readily implementable to increase children’s access and participation in education. The unfortunate fact is that it may take years if not decades for Pakistan government to strengthen its governance and its institutions. In the meanwhile, waiting for more money, more efficient and effective use of money, and better checks and balances and internal monitoring is an unproductive endeavor. Resources are far too scarce and resource management is too poor to anticipate any drastic changes anytime soon.

Multigrade teaching not only economises on scarce resources, but has added value benefits of allowing children of varying age groups to learn from one another and stimulates social interaction. In small villages in remote areas, the multigrade school can also function as a means of strengthening communal relations since all the children will inevitably attend the same school. Stronger ties between the school and community, as research indicates, ensures regular student attendance, increased participation, and better learning outcomes.

In addition, in Pakistan grade-level repetition, prolonged absenteeism, and late enrolment in schools are frequent occurrences. Though six years is the average starting age for class one, oftentimes parents enroll their children many years later. The result is multi-aged children in multigrade contexts.

In Pakistan, where multigrade teaching is a must because there are no other options, teachers require training on how to adapt their teaching for the multigrade setting. In addition, education government officials play a critical role in supporting teachers and schools, and thus should have a strong grasp of multigrade teaching and its constituent management strategies and approaches for resource utilisation.

Though there are various programmes that offer professional development training for multigrade teaching, there still persists a lack of recognition and understanding of the contexts, the challenges and the possibilities for multigrade teaching.

Increasing access and participation for Pakistan’s children will require incorporating multipronged approaches towards teaching and learning. Multigrade teaching is one such strategy that works with the given limitations of finances, resources and manpower. With proper training, teachers will have the capacity to manage the multigrade classroom and ensure that teaching is tailored to each student’s learning needs.

The writer is a researcher at Aga Khan University-Institute for Educational Development.