Out of school, out of sight

Updated July 26, 2019

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

AROUND 22 million five- to 16-year-olds do not attend schools in Pakistan. Although there has been some progress in getting more children to enrol in primary schools in the past 10-odd years, the dent in the number of out-of-school children has been marginal at best.

How many more years will it be before we have all five- to 16-year-olds in schools? Will it be 10 years or 20, or even more? At the rate at which we are progressing, will we ever have all children attending school? There are two separate issues here. The current stock of children who are out of school will, in all probability, now enter adulthood without receiving an education. This is the stock problem we have, and it will have to be dealt with through adult literacy and other such programmes.

Then there is the flow issue. We are still not enrolling all five-year-olds in schools. This means we keep adding to the number of five- to 16-year-olds who are out of school. This issue can only be resolved if all young children start going to school by the age of five.

But all of the above, given the numbers, require a lot of work and resources. Twenty-two million out-of-school children — do keep the number in mind. This is more than the population of Karachi. This is more than the combined populations of Lahore and Faisalabad. If you want the entire population of Lahore and Faisalabad to attend school, in addition to the children who are already going to school, it will require a lot of commitment, planning and resources to be able to do so.

What will it cost the government to get all children to go to school?

And, whatever the nature of the plans, this change will not happen in a day or a year. It will require a plan that is spread over five to 10 years.

The key here though, is that a plan is needed; a plan that the federal and provincial governments need to conceive, and then stick to. Currently, no government has any such plans. All governments are aware of the issue. They keep talking of small initiatives to show their apparent resolve for addressing the issue, but none of the governments have worked out a financial plan for enrolling all children or an action plan for how this is going to be achieved. What will it cost the government to get all children to go to school? How will this be done? Where will this money come from?

Current education budgets are not enough to bring out-of-school children into classrooms. If there is little or no space for increasing education budgets — which seems to be the accepted fiscal reality at the moment — there is not a whole lot that can be done about out-of-school children. This is just the reality we will have to accept.

But if we do find some resources, equally importantly, we need to make plans and figure out how they will be implemented. How many children will be enrolled in existing schools? How many new schools will be needed? How many teachers will need to be recruited? In what existing schools can double shifts be started? How many children will go to private schools? Will governments pay for these children to attend private schools under some sort of public-private partnership arrangement?

It is relatively easy to figure out, conceptually speaking, what to do with children in the five-to-10 age bracket. We can always enrol them in regular schools and/ or offer slightly accelerated programmes of learning to them so that they can eventually be integrated into the regular system.

The issues for out-of-school children aged 10 and above are different. Some of them are already working and contributing to their families’ income. To bring them back to mainstream schools is going to be very difficult. To have a 10-year-old in a class where the rest of the children are five years old is difficult anyway. If the child in question was earning for the family and already has some vocational skill, to expect the child to start from grade one and have the patience for years to go through the regular education cycle is also unrealistic. We need different programmes for such children. These programmes will need to give these children literacy and numeracy skills for sure — and some might also pursue their education further than that — but for others, vocational skill programmes would need to be added to their education.

We will need to experiment with a lot of different kinds of incentive and regulatory schemes as well as programmes to figure out what will work for out-of-school children aged 10 and older. These programmes might vary with geography and gender too. Currently, there is little or no thinking on such specific programming in any of our governments. At most, there is talk of double-shift schools and the need to experiment, but there is no experimentation taking place anywhere as yet. When will such programming be developed? Implementation will take years. We need to move forward from the initial thinking on this if we want to implement any major initiatives over the next few years.

The issue of out-of-school children issue keeps coming up in various conversations. However, none of the governments have started to think about this issue seriously. There is no work being done on any actual plans to address it. There is no thinking on where the resources to address it will come from, and what sort of programming is required. We are, in fact, not even in a position to ensure all five-year-olds get to go to school. Issues related to illiteracy will remain with us for a very long time to come.

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, July 26th, 2019