5 questions with Pakistan's Unicef education chief on the International Day of Education

The day is an annual reminder to prioritise education and progress for children, their families and communities.
Published January 24, 2019

Ellen Van Kalmthout has been chief of education at Unicef Pakistan since 2016. She has over 30 years of experience in international education, most of it with Unicef. She has worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia as well as at the Unicef headquarters in New York and Geneva. Her focus has been on education system development, girls’ education, education in emergencies and quality.



What is the significance of the International Day of Education?


Education is a right, recognised by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (ICRC) signed by all countries of the world but regrettably it is not realised for too many young people across the globe.

Currently, there are 262 million children in the world who are out of school and for Pakistan the number is about 23 million for children between the ages of 5-16.

In December last year, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly agreed that each year January 24 will be marked as the International Day of Education as a reminder of the importance of education and the transformative role education can play in the overall Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda.

Education is key to the achievement of other SDGs. For instance, research shows that if all people were education up to the secondary level, 420 million people could be lifted out of poverty through the increased number of opportunities for employability.

Our research also shows that across the world, on average, each additional year of education can increase an individual’s income by up to 10 per cent.

Education can even contribute towards a reduction in infant mortality as there is evidence that a child born to a mother who can read is 50pc more likely to live past the each of five.

So, girls’ education can have a significant impact on under-five infant mortality. Similarly, children born to educated mothers are more likely to be vaccinated and are less likely to be stunted.

The International Day of Education will serve as a reminder for all countries, on an annual basis, to do more and prioritise education for children, their families, communities and to achieve progress, as education has major economic and social impact.


What is the current situation in Pakistan like with regards to out-of-school children? Has there been any significant progress in the last few years?


According to government estimates, 40pc of all Pakistani children are out of school, 49pc of all girls and 40pc of boys are currently out of school.

The number of out-of-school children becomes higher at middle and secondary school levels. So very few children in Pakistan have an opportunity to complete matric and FA/F Sc.

However, Pakistan has managed to, on a gradual and continuous basis, reduce the total number of out-of-school children, which is a significant achievement considering the population growth.

This means that primary school education expansion has not only kept up with population growth but has gone beyond it.

For a country such as Pakistan, where population growth rates are high, the challenge is not only bringing existing out-of-school children into the education system, but each year there are greater numbers of children who need to be enrolled into primary school.

In the last three years that I have been in Pakistan, I have observed that there is a lot more attention and discussion on the number of out-of-school children, and education has emerged on top of policy agendas.

Efforts by successive provincial and federal governments, who have prioritised out-of-school children, have resulted in significant achievements.

The new government, in its national education policy framework has similarly identified the provision of equitable access to education as the top priority which is encouraging.

Accelerated learning programmes are also very important in countries such as Pakistan, where a large number of Pakistani children have never attended school, but are beyond the age where they can be enrolled in primary schools.

This is high on the new government’s agenda as well and we are heartened by this. All provinces are working on this model, and there are alternative programmes looking at how technology can support accelerated learning programmes.

In Punjab, there is a specific department to address these programmes. In Balochistan and Sindh, the provincial governments are making greater financial allocations which is very reassuring.

We are working with all governments to make multi-year sector plans because these are budgeted for and Unicef is providing technical support for this.


Is it enough to get children in school? What can be done to improve quality of education and learning outcomes?


Quality of education is equally important. Across the world, 617 million children and adolescents who do attend school cannot read or do basic math. This also a serious issue in Pakistan.

The World Bank’s latest research shows that, on average, a Pakistani child will go to school for 8.8 years, but in terms of learning, it only translates to 4.8 years.

This is a significant gap, even in comparison to other countries in South Asia, so a lot needs to be done.

Many countries are struggling to find ways to improve the quality of education in public schools. However, there are some approaches which do work.

For example, in Punjab, there have been some good experiences with the provision of scripted lessons, which support teachers in delivering lessons. This means that rather than reliance on training, scripted lessons followed by monitoring can ensure that the students are really learning.

Even beyond quality, a lot of work still needs to be done to incorporate critical thinking skills and creativity because there is still a lot of rote learning in Pakistani schools.

Investment in early years and ensuring early childhood development is also important in improving learning outcomes. It must be ensured that children have adequate nutrition, are safe and protected and their minds are stimulated — for example, by parents talking to children and playing with them.

A very high percentage of children in Pakistan are stunted and when they do not have a good start in life, their ability to succeed in school is negatively impacted.

Similarly, early education can contribute towards higher educational attainment in later years. This is an opportunity for Pakistan because a very large number of children are of pre-primary age or are enrolled in katchi class.

However, the challenge is that these katchi classes often do not provide a child-friendly environment.

This is also now a priority for provincial governments. Punjab has done a lot in promoting early childhood education, equipping classrooms with early childhood equipment and play materials, creating learning corners and training teachers.

Evidence shows that investment in early education can help children be better prepared for formal school and do better in life.


We see a lot of girls in Pakistan dropping out once they graduate from primary schools. What are some of the reasons?


There are fewer middle schools available for girls, so often girls drop out because there may not be a school for girls beyond the primary level. There is a greater number of primary schools available and they are usually closer to home.

For girls, distance is often an important factor because parents are usually more concerned about their daughters’ safety. Boys will often have more independent mobility.

This means that a lot more can be done on the supply side, because if there were more schools available, it is very likely that a lot more girls would study beyond the primary level.

Similarly, there are families who are concerned about sending adolescent girls to school because they are of what is considered marriageable age.

Unicef is also working with provinces to improve menstrual hygiene management, because girls will often miss school while on their period. They may be ashamed, worried or lack the means to manage menstrual hygiene, so we talk to teachers, mothers and the girls themselves to raise awareness and support them through the provision of menstrual hygiene kits.


It is often claimed that Pakistani parents do not wish to send their children to school, especially girls. Is there any evidence to support this?


In many countries, where there were a lot of out-of-school children it was assumed that parents do not wish to send their children, particularly girls, to school. However, research shows that this is not true.

Some years back, there was a study done among Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) beneficiaries, who are among the poorest in the country, which found that the percentage of parents who not wish to send their children to school was miniscule.

This shows that parents do want to send their children, both boys and girls, to school but in some cases, they have some specific concerns which must be addressed.

For instance, in Pakistan parents may be concerned about safety if the school is far away, they may prefer women to teach their girls or they may hesitate because there is no girls-only school.

Quality is — again — relevant here because in some cases, parents may wish to send their child to school but may make another decision based on what is on offer.

Rural schools may have low teacher attendance, corporal punishment or lack sanitation facilities, which is discouraging for parents.

Provincial governments in Pakistan are making investments to improve accountability and address these concerns.

Better data collection, real-time monitoring systems which make use of technology and independent monitoring systems are being used to ensure teacher attendance which results in better student attendance.

In Balochistan, the government used these data systems to identify non-functioning schools and is currently in the process of making these schools functional again.

Similarly, establishment of school management committees can ensure that facilities are available and schools are functional.

Unicef is also providing provincial and federal governments with technical support to make multi-year sector plans which are budgeted.