ISLAMABAD: Despite tall claims made by successive governments to enrol out-of-school children, the number of such kids continues to grow at a rapid pace, zooming past the startling figure of 28 million.

According to a document of the education ministry available with Dawn, there are over 28 million children in the country, who do not go to a school. There was not an exact figure for the out-of-school children (OSC).

According to previous estimates, there were 18.7m kids, then a new figure of 22m was highlighted but now the document states that there are over 28m OSC.

In 2021, the federal cabinet was briefed by then Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood that there were 18.7 million OSC. He had said one in every four children in the country had never attended a school.

Mr Mehmood had also briefed the cabinet that there was “very slow progress on education participation, completion and closing of the gender gap”. The cabinet had approved a roadmap for bringing OSC to schools, but practically no serious steps were taken to handle this crisis.

The rise in this figure has exposed the efficiency of policymakers of the country since Pakistan now has one of the highest numbers of out-of-school children in the world. “The situation is highly alarming and there is a need to launch an education emergency to enrol more kids to schools – this figure is the highest-ever. Earlier, we were a little up than Nigeria but now, we are at the bottom,” said an official.

Official disputes new figure, says only 22.8m children are out of school

The latest information about the OSC was shared in a letter addressed to the Punjab education minister by the federal caretaker education minister, Madad Ali Sindhi.

According to the letter dated October 10, the federal minister requested the provincial minister to attend the said meeting, which was slated to be held on Monday at 3pm (Oct 16), but was postponed for a few days.

According to the letter, the meeting/conference would deliberate on the formulation of a uniform national strategy to cater to the issue of out-of-school children. The letter also asked the provinces to submit a working paper “in order to deliberate upon and to develop a consensus required for sketching a uniform national strategy for handling the critical challenge of 28+ million out-of-school children,” revealed the letter.

The letter said that all provincial education ministers were strongly advised to share a “crisp and meaningful working paper”, detailing related statistics, administrative and financial challenges and concrete recommendations for sustained resolution of the issue.

In the past, several campaigns were launched to enrol these children, but on the ground, their outcomes had remained subpar. A school teacher in Islamabad, wishing not to be named, said that the OSC was one of the major challenges faced by the education sector of the country.

He said poverty and lack of awareness were major factors behind this issue. The teacher said, “In most of the cases, the kids do labour work to help their families and the children will not be able to join schools till this issue is resolved.” Even if the state manages to enrol them, they will soon drop out of school for the same reasons, he added.

An official of the education ministry compared the OSC in Pakistan to the Sub-Saharan countries. He claimed that the figure of 28 million pointed out in the official correspondence was not “correct and as the actual figure is 22.8 million”. “But, yes I do agree, even 22.8m OSC is also alarming for us,” he said.

According to a source, Pakistan only spends 1.7 per cent of GDP on education and the government would need to earmark at least 4 per cent share for the improvement of its education sector.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2023

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