THE prime minister, in the terms of reference that have been given to the task force on education, has given top priority to the issue of out-of-school children. He wants every five- to 16-year-old in Pakistan to be enrolled in an educational institution. This is indeed the right we have given all children in Pakistan through Article 25-A of the Constitution. An estimated 23 million children in this age group are currently out of school.
Getting every five- to 16-year-old into school is not an easy task. We have not been able to universalise education even at the primary level to date; to think about universalisation up to matriculation (10 years of education) is indeed quite an ask.
As the committee deliberates on plans for educational expansion and universalisation, there are certain things that should be kept in mind. First, we do not, as of now, actually know the exact number of five- to16-year-olds who are out of school. We do not know who these children are; we do not know their age-wise distribution; and we do not know their location. The 23m figure, from all the publications that I have seen, is an estimate. The estimates for the total number of children in the relevant cohort are based on growth projections from the 1998 census. The out-of-school children estimate is then based on subtracting the number of children who are in school, based on data we have for private and public school enrolments, from the total.
The problem with these estimates is not only that they are fairly rough; it is also the case that we do not have a good idea of how rough these estimates are. In other words, we do not have error bounds for the estimates. The number of children who are actually out of school could be a lot less or more than 23m.
We need nuanced policies based on detailed analyses of why many children are out of school.
If we are going to make policies for enrolling millions of children in schools, we need better numbers. If the 2017 census could be made available to researchers, we could find out: a) how many five- to 16-year-olds we have in Pakistan, b) what is their age-wise and/or cohort-wise distribution, and c) how they are distributed geographically, by gender and other important variables. This should be the first step before we think of actual policy interventions.
Second, out-of-school children are not a homogenous group. They differ in age, they are distributed across Pakistan; some of them went to school for a few years and then dropped out, but the dropout happened across different grades, and some have never been to school. This has very important implications for how we think about policies for their schooling.
If a child has never been to school and is now in the 10-16 age group, do we want this child to start schooling, in the regular stream, from grade one and spend 10 years getting to grade 10? If a child dropped out of grade five some years back, does she have to join in grade six or will we test her before putting her in a knowledge-appropriate grade? Do we develop the stream of informal education for children who are older and have missed many years? Clearly, a single policy, whatever its nature, will not suffice in addressing the situation of every child. Appropriate polices will have to be local and will have to be based on much better and much more detailed analysis of evidence and ground realities.
We also have to understand why these children have been out of school. Again, the reasons are going to be many. Poverty is definitely a major factor. But there will be many others related to issues around school availability, distance to school, poor quality of education given in government and low-fee schools, opportunity cost of being in school, exclusion based on caste, religion, gender, or ethnicity, and/or lack of facilitation for children who face even mild physical, learning or cognitive challenges. To address each of the above we need nuanced policies that are based on local level analysis of why children in the area are out of school. We are not even close to that level of understanding in our work. The committee working on this issue should keep this very much in mind.
Third, enrolling 23m or so children in school, whichever way we do it, is going to cost quite a lot. The government currently spends roughly about Rs2,000 per child per month in government schools. Where is this money going to come from? The fiscal situation of the country is being portrayed as quite dire. We are looking for funds to run the government, manage debt payments, fiscal deficits and our urgent expenses. We have just cut down development expenditure significantly. Where is the money for educational expansion going to come from?
Clearly, the cost of keeping children uneducated and out of school, for the country and in the medium to long run, is much higher than the cost of educating them. The importance of universalising educational access is not being questioned at all. We just have to plan for where we are going to find the resources to be able to fund education expansion.
Five- to16-year-olds who are out of school should have access to quality education. This is their basic right as per our Constitution. But we need much more work on the issue to figure out what the right policies for attempting and doing this successfully are going to be. These policies will have to take into account the nuances mentioned in this article and more, and will have to provide relevant solutions at the local level.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2018