KARACHI: There are some 23 million children in Pakistan, who are out of school. Who are these children and what can be done for them?

The Aga Khan University Institute for Educational Development (AKU-IED) on Wednesday hosted an online discussion with educational experts titled ‘Out-of-school children: Who are they? What are their rights? What should we do?’ to examine root causes of the issue of out-of-school children and ways forward.

Trustee, Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability, Sadiqa Salahuddin, who has designed and implemented many educational programmes for out-of-school children and founded the Indus Resource Centre, explained that there were basically two nuances of out-of-school children.

“Those who never enrolled in a school and those who dropped out. But in government schools, you see a third group, too. There you find students who have not attended school for months though their names are still there in the school registers. Are they in school or out of school? There is a huge number of such out-of-school children in urban as well as rural government schools,” she pointed out.

‘Children whose mothers are not educated are the most affected’

“In 1990, a total of 155 countries signed a declaration followed by the Millennium Development Goals that promised education for all. We have seen declarations and commitments that have followed, too. The number of ... out-of-school children comes from surveys based on enrolment and attendance,” Ms Salahuddin added.

Sharing her own experience, she said that in the 1990s, when she was visiting schools in villages as part of her research, she found out that most girls there were not going to school beyond class five. There were no female teachers in villages and most children’s parents, especially parents of girls, wanted them to be taught by female teachers.

“We also noticed that children whose mothers were not educated are the most affected as after they worked in agriculture lands during summer vacations, they had forgotten everything they had learned in school and returned blank. So we hired all local female teachers in our schools. They were all matriculated teachers at the time because that was the highest that they had been educated. Thus it was a compromise on our part. But now they have all done their masters,” she said.

‘Money cannot solve everything’

“We are running 330 non-formal centres for girls and young women who missed out on their education. Unicef is bringing the financing here. But money cannot solve everything. As far as girls’ education in rural areas is concerned, political will is important, too. In 2014, an opportunity came when the government started a local education group for policymaking. We raised questions about mainstreaming problems, curriculum problems, etc. You see, one education model or design does not suit all as these students in the villages hailing from different backgrounds and religions, so innovation and flexibility in addressing their educational requirements is needed, too,” she said.

Among some suggestions that she made in educating the masses was controlling the dropout rate.

“Otherwise all that we do will be an unending exercise,” she said, also adding that around 18,000 children are born every day, and with such kind of population growth, you cannot educate all. “We need to control the population growth as more and more children will be demanding schools, which we cannot provide them so fast. So there is an issue of demand and supply that will also need to be taken care of,” she concluded.

Deputy chief adviser, Advancing Quality Alternative Learning (AQAL) Project, Abid Gill, who has diverse experiences of working with Unicef, Unesco, JICA and Federal Ministry of Education and Professional Training in various capacities, made a presentation in which he shared some broader reasons for students being out of school, one of which was many students being overage.

“Most schools are not willing to admit them. Then the students themselves are also hesitant to sit with younger children. Also, in poor homes, parents are looking for incentives to send their children to school. Disability and child labour also keeps children away from schools as our system is not flexible in addressing the needs of all and accepting all,” he said.

“There is an infrastructure, too, that needs to be in place in order to accommodate all students. The system should recognise the needs of all students,” he said. “A training system for teachers, a monitoring system, an assessment system, etc, is also very much needed,” he added.

As comparison, he talked about far more accommodating learning systems of countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines that have alternative learning systems and need-based options for students.

Associate professor and head, Graduate Programmes, AKU-IED, Dr Dilshad Ashraf, whose areas of research are curriculum, gender and non-formal education with a critical optic of equity, equality, and quality, shared a video A second chance at school, about her team’s experience of teaching while using alternative learning programmes in some of the most disadvantaged areas. It was heartening to watch the example of reaching out to 460 learners in 16 centres that they had set up in Korangi.

“We had various age students in a single classroom but the teachers divided personal spaces, creating a learning environments for all those children in a world so away from the amenities that we are so used to because these urban slums had issues such as no electricity, no access to clean water, flooding, disease, etc,” she said.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2021

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