RECENTLY, on the International Day of Education, UN Secretary General António Guterres commended students and teachers for their resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has disrupted education and learning for countless students around the world. However, an estimated 44pc of all Pakistani children between the ages of five and 16 were not even going to school in the first place, and the figure is noticeably higher for girls than boys. On Wednesday, the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development conducted an online discussion on out-of-school children in Pakistan, looking into some of the reasons why such a large percentage of the population has never stepped foot inside a classroom, or has dropped out before completing their studies. Even though Article 25-A of the Constitution directs that the state provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and 16, an estimated 22.8m children are not in school — the second highest figure in the world for that age bracket, according to Unicef. Furthermore, as noted in the IED discussion, Pakistan’s population rate is rising at an alarming rate, and the number of out-of-school children will only grow in the near future, as the distance between demand and supply increases.

The reasons behind low attendance and high dropout rates is manifold, but primarily connected to poverty and accessibility issues. There are simply not enough schools in the country — particularly for secondary and higher studies, and especially in rural areas — and transport expenses remain a major concern for parents, along with all the other expenses. Children have to walk long distances, often with heavy schoolbags, and if there is no one to accompany them, parents may opt to take them out and put them to work — inside the home or outside. Additionally, if there is a gap in their studies, as there will be with the pandemic, children or their families are often reluctant to return to class. The state must wake up to this aspect of the challenge.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2021

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