Learning poverty in Pakistan may rise to 79pc due to Covid

Published October 26, 2020
Girls attend class at a school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. — AFP/file
Girls attend class at a school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. — AFP/file

ISLAMABAD: A new World Bank report suggests that learning poverty in Pakistan will go up to 79 per cent as a result of school closure during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Learning poverty means being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. Currently, 53pc of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple story by the end of their primary school-level education. It is calculated as the simple addition of the share of children out of school and the share of children who do not learn to read by the age 10, even if they are attending school.

In Pakistan, the level of learning poverty is already high at 75pc, based on the official government data.

The report, “Learning Losses in Pakistan due to Covid-19 School Closures”, however, in its conclusion says that these estimates are not cast in stone, and in collaboration with the government, the development partners can influence these numbers by taking appropriate action, particularly now that schools have reopened.

Among the measures are to make sure that dropouts do not materialise, and organise an enrollment drive and leverage cash transfers to encourage enrollment or re-enrollment of children; use student assessments to gauge the true size of the problem, help teachers strengthen teaching to the level of the student and to facilitate planning.

The level of learning poverty in the country is already high at 75pc

Also, improve access to remote learning by expanding connectivity, device ownership and by ensuring families know when programming is available. The quality of remote learning should be improved by further developing the content, its sequencing and by making the content more interactive.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pakistan has put in place an impressive infrastructure to support remote learning. Despite its universal appeal, remote learning is not accessible to everyone. In Pakistan, television is available in the majority of households, but far from universally accessible. Even low-tech tools such as radios are not regularly used.

An estimated 930,000 additional children are expected to drop out from both primary and secondary education. Given that 22 million are already out of school, this represents an increase of almost 4.2pc. Pakistan is globally the country where dropouts are the highest due to the Covid-19 crisis in relative terms.

This estimate is based on the observed income elasticity of education for various socio-economic quintiles and is based on the June 2020 growth estimates for Pakistan which were estimated to be minus 4.4pc.

Income elasticity in Pakistan is high for two main reasons: high poverty levels, which lead families to push their children into labour or marriage from an early age; and the cost of private schooling in which 38pc of school-going children aged six to ten were enrolled before the crisis.

The report estimates that school closures during the pandemic will result in a loss of a between 0.3 and 0.8 years of learning-adjusted schooling.

The report says the Covid-19 pandemic is not just a health crisis, it is poised to translate into a substantial economic cost in the long run. “If we quantify this loss of learning in terms of labour market returns, the average student will face a reduction between $193 and $445 in yearly earnings once he or she enters the labour market, which represents between 2.8pc and 6.6pc of annual income.

Aggregated for all students in Pakistan and projected 20 years into the future when all graduates have entered the labour market, this would cost the Pakistan economy between $67 billion and $155bn in GDP at Net Present Value.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2020

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