EDUCATION is a child’s basic right. Even in times of conflict, war or disaster, temporary learning opportunities are set up as part of emergency relief to provide continued learning support.
Pakistan has an estimated 22.8 million children from five to 16 outside school. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and consequent school closures have resulted in millions more deprived of learning opportunities.
The disparity in education in Pakistan rears its ugly head again as millions of students face learning losses. Major barriers like the digital divide and the weakness of education systems threaten to increase further the vastly unequal learning opportunities available to the economically, geographically or politically disadvantaged.
According to data from the PTA website, 31.19 per cent of Pakistanis have access to the internet. For children belonging to the 68.8pc population without internet access, this pandemic means losing not just the only thing that provides routine — school — but also being deprived of their right to learn.
Low-income households in Pakistan do not have computer hardware. Out of the 78pc population that has mobile subscriptions, 35.9pc is online. Children from families that make up the 42pc not using 3G/4G — or the 22pc that do not have mobile subscriptions — have limited learning opportunities.
While we may have budding tech start-ups with millions of dollars of funding directed towards them, technology access, affordability and internet penetration are still out of the reach of millions.
Who will be held responsible for the students’ losses?
There are also areas where the digital divide is essentially caused in the name of political gains or matters of ‘national security’. These areas, even in today’s ‘digital Pakistan’, are not connected to the rest of this country or the global world because they lack basic internet connections and at times even mobile networks. Schoolchildren in these regions are deprived of every learning opportunity right now. University students suffer the same fate. Lockdowns forced students to return to their hometowns but then classes were shifted online with mandatory attendance requirements. Students of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir are frustrated because they do not have the internet access required to attend online classes. Who will take responsibility for the losses incurred by these students? Will the telecom network that has monopolised internet provision in the region be held responsible?
Most schoolchildren facing this digital divide come from marginalised households and are enrolled in public schools. They are already a part of the learning crisis. Not all school-going children learn, struggling with weak reading and writing skills, insufficient teachers and sub-par quality of teaching. With a dropout rate of 73pc for middle school, one of the world’s highest, Pakistan faces the risk of an increase in the rate. This sudden disengagement in learning will result in many students never returning to school.
The hardest hit will be young girls who take the burden of economic losses and are obliged to take care of household chores and younger siblings at the cost of learning. A recent data study by Malala Fund using data from the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic in several African countries, projects that around 10m secondary schoolgirls will not return to school after the pandemic.
While maximising access through alternative learning options is essential during the crisis, the quality of content and diversity of mediums will be the deciding factor for learning outcomes or engagement. Another important factor is support at home. In economically disadvantaged segments, most parents lack basic skills, time or interest to help their children learn at home. Our education systems often do not equip a child with skills like time management or independent learning. Mass parent awareness campaigns may improve the outcome of alternate learning options by providing support at home.
However, we have to admit that millions of children in this country will not have access to any learning in this period. To prevent these children from greater learning losses we must prepare for the challenges when schools resume. We must take help from those with expertise to design accelerated learning programmes to support students left behind and create strategies to reintegrate dropouts. We must design training programmes for teachers to give them the confidence to meet the needs of learners.
To come out of this pandemic stronger we must engage in discussions that go beyond the educational budget and school enrollment numbers. We must take into account the disparities that rob young children from marginalised communities of their right to education. It is time to open our eyes and understand that without quality education for all, we as a nation will always lag behind, regardless of the ‘potential’ we may have.
The writer is the founder of Innovate Educate & Inspire Pakistan, a nonprofit volunteer organisation.
Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2020