Who is to blame for out-of-school children?

Vast differences are due to disparities in gender, socio-economic status, geography and quality of education

Fiza Farhan June 30, 2021
The writer is an independent consultant and chairperson to chief minister of Punjab’s Task Force on Women Empowerment. She tweets @Fiza_Farhan

Pakistan has the world’s second highest number of out-of-school children (OOSC) with approximately 22.8 million in the age bracket of five to 16 years old. Almost 10.7 million boys and 8.6 million girls are enrolled at the primary level and the numbers drop to 3.6 and 2.8 million, respectively, at the lower secondary level. In the five to nine age bracket, five million children are not enrolled in schools and after primary school-age, the number of OOSC doubles. Even though education budgets have increased, accounting for 2.8% of the total GDP, it still does not make it to the 4% target. The vast differences are due to disparities in gender, socio-economic status, geography and availability of quality education.

Examining the factors outlined above, most OOSC are in Balochistan, including 78% girls. In Sindh, 52% of the poorest are OOSC, of which 58% are girls. Inaccessibility to a primary school in remote areas has a significant impact on enrolment and attendance. In terms of geographical factors, this plays a huge role as provision of educational services is tough in mountainous areas. Moreover, communities affected by natural disasters and influx of migrants experience higher dropout rates. The conflict in K-P between 2008-10 led to almost 3.35 million people being internally displaced, of which 60% were children. Most IDPs stayed with host communities where local schools were unable to accommodate the huge influx of children. In 2010, floods affected 16,400 schools in Pakistan and the 2005 earthquake destroyed 3,669 educational institutes in the Hazara division. These findings indicate how geographical factors, poor transportation, natural calamities and poor communication facilities are important causes of dropping out at the primary level and hinder access to education. With these prevalent conditions and the future generation at stake, how can we expect the country to progress and prosper?

The problems associated with Pakistan’s education system can be attributed to socio-cultural demand side barriers too. At the systems level, we lack adequate finances, policy implementation, competent faculty, and a conducive teaching environment. The brunt of this is borne by marginalised groups, particularly girls. Gender wise, boys outnumber girls at every stage of education (and hence the economic journey). Moreover, owing to the pandemic, the figures have worsened globally. When the lockdown began in March 2020, about 26.1 million students dropped out of school in Pakistan. In September, schools were allowed to reopen and about 13 million children remained unenrolled, of which 60% are girls. A major reason of dropping out amongst girls is the patriarchal setup. Amidst Covid, there are economic considerations too. Children may be used as labour to generate additional income. Low-income families have been hit hardest by the pandemic. But if their children are not educated properly how will this viscous circle of poverty ever end?

Some possible solutions to these could be subsidised school fees, interest-free loans, education grants and scholarships to sustain and revive Pakistan’s education sector. Financial institutions can play a vital role by providing fee loans with flexible repayment schedules aligned with cash flows of parents’ business activities. Moreover, special scholarship programmes or quotas for girls would prove fruitful in increasing re-enrolment rates. Additionally, adoption of public schools by the private sector for a high-quality education system must be considered by the government to utilise the barren infrastructure and enable access to much-needed quality education for all.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2021.

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