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Community involvement: Back to school

January 12, 2014

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An ASER baithak.
An ASER baithak.

The current year has been ushered in with another girl’s school being blown up in Charsadda. Over the past few years, more than a thousand schools, especially girls’, have been targeted and destroyed by militants.

Destroying schools is meant to pull apart the fabric of society, as a community can build and integrate literacy into its environment through a school. The damage is immense as a school anywhere benefits the community and vice versa.

All this is happening when Pakistan is under pressure to meet its Millennium Development Goals to achieve universal primary literacy in the country. Yet, more than 25 million children are still out of school and the literacy rate continues to be static. The population explosion has not helped and Pakistan has acquired a ‘youth bulge’ which cannot be left unschooled and illiterate. The prospects of social and economic advancement seem distant in the face of unaddressed poverty levels and a sharp decline in standards of quality learning.

A school carries substantial weight to influence the life and literacy of a community. Wherever a school is situated, communities or people ensure that their children enrol in it to become useful and productive members who then give back to a village, town or city. In turn the country benefits because more and more of its citizens are able to attain a respectable living and contribute to its well-being by gaining good governance at both the grassroots’ level and state level.

However, a recent report The Right to Learn by Save the Children Organisation disseminates information on Millennium Development Goals especially in countries like India, Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mali and Senegal. While 45m children across the world have been enrolled in schools and gender equality improved under the MDG deadline, a substantial number will still remain out of school by 2015. What is more worrying in the report is the fact that 250m of the world’s primary school children can barely read, write or do basic arithmetic by grade four. This global crisis in learning means that 40 per cent of primary school children in the world are learning very little in school.

This global crisis is manifested most in underdeveloped countries in Africa and South Asia. India’s citizen led household survey Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has successfully reported poor learning gains at the primary level and its findings at state and district levels have brought the issue of children’s learning to the centre of educational debate in the country.

Moreover, ASER India has initiated accountability by parents and communities of schools where learning outcomes of their children are below standard. This citizen-led assessment of learning in schools has been replicated in other countries to pressurise governments to act and improve the learning gains of school children.

In Pakistan, ASER was initiated by Baela Reza Jamil in 2009 and has successfully completed a number of assessments so far. It has managed to cover 142 districts in its 2012 Report where learning outcomes of children give a dismal picture. The survey concluded that 23pc of children aged six to 16 are out of school; 50pc children in grade five cannot read properly and are unable to do basic arithmetic.

Apart from data concerning learning levels, ASER Pakistan encourages the community to take ownership of the survey in their village or town by arranging a baithak with parents and community members. They are initiated into the process of conducting the survey and the findings are shared with them in the baithak. Whether literate or not, the message is understood that their child might be learning very little in the school of their choice. Awareness of their entitlement to a quality education and the realisation of Article 25-A (free and compulsory education for their children in the five to 16 age group by the state) will help engender the push for sound learning in schools.

Community building through schools is essential for literacy to flourish in Pakistan. The learning curve and inclusion of the community can greatly help people in rural and urban areas to realise the importance of learning and schooling and be able to use their voice to ensure quality education for their children particularly for those who are disadvantaged. The more information is disseminated to the people on education through media and radio, the more its benefits will be manifested in creating awareness for monitoring and upgrading learning levels in schools.

Despite efforts by civil society and NGOs to fill in the gap by providing schooling to disadvantaged and under privileged children, the enormity of the problem continues as numbers far exceed the infrastructure on ground. So, should there be more schools available across the length and breadth of Pakistan for all children that are not being schooled? The answer to that is in the affirmative but the solution has eluded policy makers and government officials for far too long.

What is needed is a solid, simple and practical plan which covers all four provinces to ensure that most children above the age of five years are in school and their learning is standardised and qualitative.

The writer is an educational consultant based in Lahore.

ismatriaz70@gmail.com