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On the learning curve

Not for profit schools strive to pick up the slack in kachi abadis where there is a dearth of government schools

By Klaudia Khan |
PUBLISHED June 19, 2021

On the outskirts of Islamabad, in a kachi abadi far from the main road, children gather inside a mosque. It is nearly 9am and lessons are about to start in an informal school in Sankaryal. The kids – aged from 4 to about 12, sit crossed-legged on a floor mat. They use their backpacks donated by an NGO as desks. There is no assembly, no uniforms. A single teacher is responsible for the group of 20 girls and 15 boys Today’s first class is English. Niaz Muhammad, the teacher, writes the names of body parts in English on a small white board resting against the wall. “Hair,” he reads out loud, and the students repeat after him. “Arm,” he reads and unprompted, they echo him.

The children are all giggly, maybe because of my presence. But their smiles seem to contradict their circumstances. Just about a month ago, the Capital Development Authority razed their village to the ground following complaints from neighbours. Theirs was an illegal settlement. Even though, as Niaz tells me, their families arrived here back in 1986, they remain refugees, not settled here but unable to go back.

The only building left standing among the rubble is the small mosque and this is where the school has moved. There used to be a separate building constructed from cement bricks, with a couple of rooms to accommodate some 250 children of the community. Only a handful now remain, as following the demolition, many families dispersed. But they have plans. Niaz tells me that they have acquired land in another sector of Islamabad and they will build a new school there because they do want to get their children educated. He was the lucky one – his parents put much effort to send him to school and he used to cycle every day for his classes. But many of his peers did not get a chance to get educated. After completing his education, he decided to do something for his community and therefore, established a school for the children.

“We have been here for over 30 years and it has just been two years since we got a school. So many years, and so many children and young people missed out on education altogether.” The school that Niaz is singlehandedly managing was established with the assistance of Alight Pakistan, a local branch of international NGO. For the last three years Alight has been running the ‘Educate a Child’ campaign, under the auspices of Qatari-based Education Above All foundation, striving to find or create a place in the classroom for Pakistani out of school children.

According to UNESCO, only about 38 per cent of Afghan refugee boys and barely 19 per cent of girls attend school. But it is not only a refugee problem. All across Pakistan there are children who miss out on their education or do not complete their primary school for various reasons. One might imagine it was a problem in the countryside or in the remote settlements but there are thousands of out of school children in the cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. We all probably see them as we drive through the cities: some of them working in the streets, selling unneeded merchandise or begging. We see them in fruit and vegetable markets, where they wait with the wheelbarrows ready to carry our shopping. As of 2015, there was an estimated 5.6 million out of school children of primary age in Pakistan, that is about a quarter of all kids aged 5-10. Missing on education is a global problem, but according to UNESCO one third of all out of school children (OOSC) of primary school age live in just six countries: Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Sudan, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

The 2015 report by UNICEF states that the common barriers to children’s education around the world are ongoing conflicts, gender discrimination, child labour, and perhaps most importantly – poverty. Talking to the humanitarian workers from Alight I learn that the reasons why Pakistani children miss on education are many and complex but ultimately it is the question of access. ‘Educate a Child’ Programme Leader Kamran Ifthikar Lone explains that many families don’t send their children to school simply because there are no schools available where they live and the cost of transportation to a public school located a few kilometres away is prohibitive. There are simply not enough government-run schools, and the ones that exist are often overcrowded which has a negative impact on the quality of education and consequently on school retention. Then there are security issues, and this applies mostly to girls, whose parents fear for their safety if they were to travel to a far-away school without a guardian. In some communities the idea of sending a girl to school alone is not acceptable, and girls’ education is generally viewed as non-essential. Girls often get the short end of the stick, because if family cannot afford to educate all their children, they will prioritise boys, as their education seems a better investment in future wages. A teacher from an informal school in Lahore commented: “To some extent, it is the mindset of some community members that they should not invest on girl’s education but most of the community members do not send their girls to schools because of transport and security issues.”

The cost of buying the uniform, books and paying even the nominal fees is beyond the means of many families living below poverty line. Finally, children’s contribution to household earning is also something that must be taken into account. Often, it is not one obstacle that stands in the way of a child’s getting educated but it is a combination of difficulties. It’s a predicament that requires smart and complex solutions, tailor-made for the specific needs of specific communities.

The government of Pakistan acknowledges the problem. The 2018 National Education Policy Framework report concedes that: “The first and foremost education challenge that Pakistan faces is addressing Out of School Children (OOSC) and ensuring that enrolled children complete their education” and just a couple of months ago Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mehmood said that sending out-of-school children to schools is the government's top-most priority. However, Dr Shafqat Ali from National Commission for Human Development, a government-funded agency involved in enrolling out of school children, tells me that “government has been saying so for decades but so far we have failed to develop plans and policies to change the situation. Constitutionally we are bound to provide education to all the students but practically there are millions who miss on school.”

According to Dr Shafqat the issue of out of school children is a symptom of a larger problem. “In terms of quality, Pakistani education system has collapsed,” he says. “Partly, it is a matter of lacking infrastructure, we have pockets where there are no schools, we don’t have sufficient buildings, facilities and equipment. We don’t have enough teachers’ cadre and many teachers are not adequately prepared for the job. It is a problem of quality. We have millions of children in school but no desired learning outcomes. There is no difference between educated and non-educated person, if there was, everyone would push their children to go to school, to learn something and become self-sufficient.”

The importance of quality of education as a key factor contributing to the numbers of children staying at school is also something emphasised by Pakistan Alliance for Girls Education (PAGE) Executive Director Fajer Rabia Pasha. The problem with many public schools, she tells me, is that they lack resources and qualified teachers and as a result children don’t actually learn much. And if parents do not see the results, they do not consider it worthwhile to send their kids to school.

Dr Shafqat Ali believes that we need a comprehensive solution to the problem and it must be a joint of communities that should be empowered through political decisions. But some members of community just decide to take matters into their own hands.

When Sommieh Flower moved to Pakistan from the US, some ten years ago she noticed that whenever she went to the market there was a group of children following her. They were kids from local kachi abadis involved in the recycling business. Sommieh invited few of them home and gifted them with some notebooks and crayons. Soon they became more frequent visitors and Sommieh wanted to do something more for them. She ended up opening a school. Formally started in February 2011 and running on private donations from a small group of donors in the US, Canada and Pakistan. Sitara school in Chatta Bakhtawar nowadays delivers low-cost quality education to over three hundred girls and boys from underprivileged families. There is a co-educational primary school and high schools for girls and boys, as well as the Sitara Mother and Child Center (SMCC). As Kiren, a volunteer at the school tells me, “the school has its non-formal section for children who need more flexibility – SMCC, because these children, regardless of their age, are not ready to join the formal school. They have never been to school even though some of them are 10, 9 or 7 years old. As SMCC they prepare them – it takes around a year or so – and once they are ready to join a formal school they get sent to Sitara School.”


While punctuality and discipline is something we expect from a school, the requirement of strict attendance, the system of reward and punishment, the dress code and language uniformity all act as barriers in certain circumstances. “Very soon into the project we had to abandon the idea that the standard model of public school is the best option for every child – it is not,” said Alight Country Director Dr Tariq Cheema. “Our informal schools established all over the country cater to the needs of those kids who would not get admitted to public school. For some it was an issue of time management – and informal schools offer flexible timings, or morning and evening shifts to cater for all needs and requirements. We also devised accelerated curriculum to help those students, for whom the age was the major issue, to catch up on the lost years of education and rejoin the mainstream education.”

Informal schools have flexible timings, so that even children who need to work for wages can be accommodated; they follow a flexible curriculum – often offering accelerated learning allowing students to catch-up on lost learning and cover the year-long material in six months or less. They have no formal requirement of uniforms and more often than not, they charge no fees. Non-formal schools, also known as community schools are usually established in a building, or just a room donated by a community, placed in the heart of that community, in the centre of the village, or within the boundaries of urban purlieu. What is also of key importance, I learn from the Alight team, is that the teacher is part of the community and the bonds of mutual trust allow parents even from conservative communities to send their daughters to such schools without the threat of public backlash.

“Informal schools are the second-best option after formal schooling,” Kamran Iftikhar Lone tells me. And informal school, by his definition, is any school that offers a certain level of flexibility. “The idea is that informal schools cater to those students who cannot get enrolled in formal schools. The education they receive in informal setting should eventually allow them to get enrolled in formal schools,” he explains.

Interestingly, many of the features of informal education are also characteristics of emancipatory education as advocated by Arjen Wals, Gert Biesta and other progressive pedagogues: both stress the importance of community involvement, collaborative learning process, room for subjectivity and flexibility and lack of formal assessment. And according to C. Khasnabis et al, authors of edited volume ‘Community-Based Rehabilitation: CBR Guidelines’ (published by WHO, 2010) “While informal education is often considered a second-best option to formal education, it should be noted that it can provide higher-quality education than that available in formal schools. Informal education can be preparatory, supplementary or an excellent alternative (where necessary) to formal schooling for all children.”

When it comes to the quality of education offered by informal schools it pretty much depends on the teacher. Niaz Muhammad that I met in Sankaryal settlement has a BA degree in Mass communication, training from Alight team and tons of dedication. But in certain communities finding a qualified teacher is an issue, especially in remote mountainous villages. The basic requirement then is a satisfactory level of literacy and numeracy, so that the teachers basically pass on the students whatever they learnt themselves. But even the little that the kids can learn makes a huge difference to the students and their families.

Smart solutions come from third sector and the most effective intervention happens when NGOs and the government collaborate. This is just how the ‘Educate a Child’ campaign worked, and their results: enrolling one million out of school children is a huge success that deserves a closer look. Dr Cheema points out to several factors contributing to the campaign’s success. “‘Educate a Child’ was designed as a collaborative intervention that required the cooperation of NGOs with provincial and federal governments. But just as important was the inclusion of local communities: village councils, grassroots organizations and local communities. When it comes to children’s school attendance, especially in case of low-income families from underprivileged communities, much depends on the attitude of the families. If they see school as a worthwhile endeavor, if they feel that it is their decision and that such decision could impact their children’s future they are more likely to get seriously involved.”

The success of ‘Educate a Child’ campaign is a huge milestone but there is still much to be done as millions of children still lack access to any education. There are also hundreds of dedicated people doing their best to help those children. Let us hope that their joint efforts will create a momentum that will overturn the current unjust system and put education on top of the priority list.