A long way to go

July 06, 2011


ALTHOUGH many of the world’s poorest countries have demonstrated a significant progress towards achieving the UN goal of universal primary education (UPE); the pace of progress has been slow and uneven.

It is crucial that we in Pakistan direct our efforts immediately towards not only increasing enrolment but also initiating preventive strategies and developing coping mechanisms to deal with the dropout rate in order to retain children in schools in the attempt to achieve the UPE goal by 2015.

The Education For All Global Monitoring Report for 2011 asserts that; “there is evidence that progress towards UPE is slowing. Data analysis carried out for this year’s EFA Global Monitoring Report considers two scenarios. The first assumes a continuation to 2015 of the trend established over the past decade; the second projects forward to 2015 the trend since 2004.

The results are not highly optimistic. They indicate that the more recent trend would leave the 2015 out-of school population 50 per cent larger than the longer-term trend scenario”.

The report also reveals that half the world’s out-of-school children live in just 15 countries. Pakistan, unfortunately, is number two, with a population of 7.3 million out-of-school children. Such depressing statistics lead one to wonder if our government can answer the question of how close we are to achieving the target of universal primary education by 2015. In Pakistan, the number of out-of-school children declined by an annual average of 351,000 from 2001-2004, but only 102,000 from 2004 to 2008. Progress has slowed down and there is a dire need to increase our speed in order to achieve the targets.

It is quite clear that changing the picture requires far more effort at different levels. It is not enough to ensure that children are enrolled in schools; the real challenge is to make sure they remain there and complete their primary-level education.

Unfortunately, our education policies and plans do not put much emphasis on or give enough priority to introducing strategies and systematic mechanisms to address the dropout problem in our schools. They usually emphasise increasing enrolment and improving quality rather than strengthening progress.

Overlooking the sensitivity of the problem and its social implications, they assume that the dropout problem will be resolved automatically. They ignore the socio-economic impact of dropping out of school. As the report says, “The school dropout crisis can diminish the life chances of highly vulnerable children, closing down a potential escape route from poverty and reducing education’s power to strengthen social mobility.”

A high figure for school dropouts can result in economic wastage and increase the number of unskilled human capital in the market. The government does not appear to have devised any strategy to utilise the unskilled labour force in today’s highly competitive market and information-based society. The socio-economic consequences of this problem are akin to slow poison for society if not addressed in a timely manner.

It is unfortunate that Pakistan’s national education policy has addressed this issue in a superficial manner. It has emphasised the level of enrolment, and the only strategy offered is the promulgation and enforcement of a compulsory primary education act in a phased manner to lower the dropout rate. The policy focus has been on superficial strategies and does not offer alternative measures. It has overlooked the importance of strategies to reach out to children currently out of school. It is crucial for the government to gain more insight for devising and implementing effective policy measures through developing a comprehensive understanding of the profile of out-of-school children.

Identifying the patterns and causes of why children drop out is vital to addressing the overall issue. Patterns of dropout can vary from region to region within the country; however the economic factor plays a major role. For many families, the cost of sending their children to school and low incomes that cause them to send their offspring to work instead make it difficult for their young ones to complete all primary grades.

A greater analysis as well as understanding of these trends is required for Pakistan’s policymakers to develop more effective and practical coping mechanisms and preventive strategies to tackle the issue.

The scale of the dropout problem and its implications need to be better recognised. The increasing number of people living below the poverty line, child labour, gender disparity, poor human rights, religious extremism, the government’s giving little priority to education, the poor quality of education, the rural-urban divide, under-qualified teachers and the poor motivation levels of parents and communities all contribute towards worsening the problem.

The policy focus should be on each of these dynamics. Different sections of the policy can deal with each dynamic separately.

Each section must be properly researched and addressed with a clear understanding of all aspects of the problem in different regions and sectors of the country.

The involvement of local experts who are better positioned to understand the root causes of the problem can make a difference. People living and coping with these problems on a daily basis have a far better understanding of the problem and a grip on the solutions as well. We cannot address the root cause of the issues by merely enforcing imported coping mechanisms and strategies. Policy inputs are valuable only when they involve those for whom the policy is created in the first place.

The writer works for the Indus Resource Centre.