Header photo by Mahrukh Mansoor.

The Analytical Angle: Covid-19 and the looming education crisis

Prolonged closures without innovative alternatives will hurt the vulnerable, exacerbating existing inequalities.
Updated 16 May, 2020 06:00pm

Covid-19 has forced schools to close and thrown education systems around the world into an unprecedented crisis: how can students learn if they cannot access the classroom? In Pakistan, already suffering from a severe learning crisis, an extended shutdown of schools will deeply impact the national education ecosystem in three distinct ways: it will cause large learning losses, exacerbating the existing learning crisis; it may have a devastating impact on the low-cost private school sector; and it may lead to a higher dropout rate, especially amongst older children and girls.

How Covid-19 will make the learning crisis worse

Pakistan’s learning crisis is grave and well-documented: Aser reports that only 27% of third-grade children in rural Pakistan can read a sentence in a local language, and only 22% can perform simple arithmetic operations. The pandemic will drag these numbers farther down. Tahir Andrabi, Benjamin Daniels and Jishnu Das’ study after the earthquake of 2005 found large learning losses among all children. More surprisingly, schools were closed for only an average of 14 weeks, but the impact on children exposed to the earthquake four years later was a loss of 1.5 to 2 full years of learning. Given that schools across Pakistan will remain closed for longer than 14 weeks due to the current crisis, this has huge implications: Students will be affected immediately and also in the long run. Education experts hypothesise that learning losses accumulate over time when children go back to school after a gap and teachers start the next level of curriculum without assessing how much students know or taking any remedial measures.

Also read: Covid-19 — A wakeup call for higher education

Imagine this: a first-grade student was not able to attend the last three months of school, so she misses out on key foundational lessons. Because school is closed for so long, she forgets some things she did learn. When school resumes, she has been promoted to grade 2. If her teacher begins the grade 2 curriculum without first assessing how much of the grade 1 curriculum his students know/remember, he might cause long-term harm. Unless conscious remedial action is taken, gaps in foundational skills will only worsen. This will not be an easy task for teachers, made more difficult because children in the same classroom already have enormous variation in how much they know. Teachers will need effective testing tools and help with how to adapt curricula for the post-Covid school years.

What will happen to private schools?

We also fear for the future of more than 100,000 low-cost private schools in Pakistan, which are often overlooked, undervalued and even villainised. In reality, they provide an essential service to the nation. Monthly fees range from Rs.300 to Rs.5,000 and they are spread out in both urban and rural areas, catering to over 40% of the nation’s primary school going population. They employ more than 900,000 (primarily female) teachers, making them the largest employer of women in Pakistan. They fill gaps in access (helping take Pakistan’s Gross Enrollment Rate to 97%) and test scores for children in these schools are higher.

Unfortunately, they are also particularly vulnerable to financial shocks and at risk of bankruptcy in the current crisis. For students in these schools, learning is at a standstill, with no existing mechanisms for remote education. These schools have started seeing declining or halted fee payments as parents (mostly farmers, labourers, and blue-collar workers) are unable or unwilling to pay. Without income flows, these schools can no longer pay staff — which means that a large number of teachers are at risk of losing their jobs and sources of income.

Explore | The Analytical Angle: Why haven’t past education reforms had more effect?

What happens if a large number of these low cost private schools shut down permanently, and the entrepreneurs who run them decide to move to different industries? Where will their students and teachers go? How will we as a country bridge the gap in access, given that many public schools are operating at capacity?

Great dropouts?

Lastly, school shutdowns may lead to a higher dropout rate, and many previously enrolled students may not return to the classroom. Suffering from limited income flows and multiple dependents, parents may involve older children in household work, agriculture or other income-generating activities, increasing the opportunity cost of returning to school. Girls may be especially at risk, facing increased prospects of early marriage driven by economic necessity.

Prolonged closures without innovative alternatives will especially hurt vulnerable populations, exacerbating existing social inequalities. Many elite private institutions have shifted instruction online through various digital platforms. Although the quality and efficacy of these measures have been questioned, they do provide a mechanism for continued learning. They also highlight the digital divide, since most schools in Pakistan do not have the capability for online instruction and many students do not have internet connectivity, digital literacy or household support required for online instruction at home.

Read further: Why online education?

We need to think deeply about alternatives to the traditional classroom while schools are closed, and remedial measures when they reopen. The silver lining to this crisis has been an explosion of innovation in distance learning and a greater willingness of schools and parents to experiment with education technology. The new national and provincial education television channels are one such experiment in distance learning. Our team at the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan has partnered with leading EdTech providers like Muse by Sabaq and EdKasa to launch Ilm Exchange, a digital education platform that allows even low-cost schools to help children continue learning from home. But more thought will be needed on how to integrate these initiatives with mainstream curricula and remedial learning when children return to school.

These initiatives will help us assess the strengths and limitations of education technology and contribute towards evidence-based education policies that serve Pakistan beyond the current crisis. But, in the meantime, we need to put our heads together and figure out how to avert a looming learning crisis, permanent school closures, and a higher dropout rate.

The Analytical Angle is a monthly column where top researchers bring rigorous evidence to policy debates in Pakistan. The series is a collaboration between the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan and Dawn.com. The views expressed are the authors’ alone.

Header photo by Mahrukh Mansoor.


Author Image

Surayya Masood is a Research Associate on the LEAPS Programme at the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP). As a research team member on the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) programme in Pakistan, she has been involved in executing evidence-generating studies aimed at evaluating learning outcomes and returns to education in Pakistan. She holds a BA in Economics from Mount Holyoke College. She tweets at @SurayyaMasood

Author Image

Zainab Qureshi is the Director of the LEAPS Programme at Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard University. She oversees implementation of the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme in Pakistan. She has previously worked for various organisations across the education sector in Pakistan, implementing low-cost education delivery programmes and developing alternative models of education for low-income schools. She holds a Master’s in Education (Ed.M.) from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a BA in Economics and International Development from McGill University. She tweets at @zqures

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (16) Closed

May 15, 2020 02:35am
Another pre-existing crisis and compounding effect is digital inequality between Punjab & provinces. We need to incorporate digital access to deprivate areas and prioritise them on emergency basis, so to avoid frustration and sense of alienation of under-developed areas of Pakistan. Moreover, now is high time to launch sustainable learning paradigms at all levels and overhaul our education sector to avoid social conflict, digital inequality and sense of alienation all across neglected masses of Pakistan. Re-strategize to new norms, new paradigms of post covid-19 world in education and emerge as resilient and adaptable education models all across public and private schools.
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Saqlan Naqvi
May 15, 2020 05:09am
The closure matters where quality teaching is being given. If we accept that quality of education in Pakistan is pathetic, then closure for few months may no matter.
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May 15, 2020 07:03am
Looming? How about the existing crises in education, still not free or available to all and illiteracy still being high among females?
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May 15, 2020 07:43am
Looming crisis? Its history; there is no hope for improvement!
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May 15, 2020 07:56am
How the education was happening during world war. Were they rushing to get back to schools An elite class can enjoy online learning where as poor suffer from this. Schools will open from July . Do you think schools associations will allow school closures after July. Then there will be so many extra things like buying mask from school on daily basis. Poor won't be able to afford this. It is better they are closed for small period of time.
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May 15, 2020 07:59am
Pakistan has to invest heavily in education otherwise they will fall behind Bangladesh
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May 15, 2020 08:00am
It’s long as IK is our pm we have no worries
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Abdul Razaque
May 15, 2020 09:09am
Education crisis is what will cost us heavily as a nation.
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May 15, 2020 11:00am
Just like the health system needs upgrading, so does the "brick, morter, and rote-learning torture"education system. These dismal outcomes were already there so even if they are opened up, we're not gaining much. We need to think about other non-formal education systems and other innovations which have actual outcomes. There has never been a better time than this, to start making a change.
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May 15, 2020 12:43pm
Nice bios, photos, but where is the analyses of the analytical angle?
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May 15, 2020 12:48pm
Looming crisis? It appears the authors reside outside the country and not aware of the ground realities!
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Aafiyat Nazar
May 15, 2020 01:08pm
Great write up...Zainab Qureshi and co author Surayya Masood, I remember during your (Zainab's ) brief association with Aga Khan Education Service and your excellent inputs on different programmatic areas. Indeed the issue of private schools which you have referred to, in this analysis is crucial. As they enroll significant number of students. Parents perceptions indicate that they prefer these schools for relatively better quality. Now many private and even community assisted schools are in great crises as parents have stopped to pay the fees. The government needs to give such schools assistance in order to continue their contribution and also save hundreds of thousands from joblessness.
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May 16, 2020 04:59am
@Aafiyat Nazar, if government funds private schools than why they are private! Private schools has to prepare to do business of education and ensure that they provide quality for which rich can pay! Competition between private and government managed schools should be fair!
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Jai Moolchandani
May 16, 2020 03:40pm
Great angle and declining aspects of education are shown by writters . These all are facts and yet we have time to vanish these bitter facts and set our proper educational goal . Might higher authorities will take consideration on these aspects . Thanks to writters .
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May 17, 2020 08:46am
No need to worry. It's only education. It's not as if mosques have been closed. That would have been catastrophic. But the great PM has taken care of everything including salary hike for armed forces. Pakistan is in safe hands. So sleep peacefully, don't worry about trivial matters like schools.
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Mohsin Khan
May 17, 2020 12:47pm
Great analysis. What I feel is that we are divided as a nation as every province has its own syllabus that is changed every year for benefiting a class of people. Another reason, that it is quite evident that our leaders and the concerned department in particular is completely incompetent. If only the education department sits to find a solution, they will. I feel the number teachers that have come under the crises is enormous. They cannot beg and cannot ask someone for help. They must be helped immediately.
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