Pakistan has close to 60 million children in the age bracket of 5-16 years. This represents 30 percent of its total population. These children are an important asset and, if properly utilised, can become an important source of human capital for the country’s future growth and development. However, data from the nationally representative Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement Survey 2014-15 shows that as many as 18 million children between the ages of five and 16 years are out of school in the country, making up 30 percent of all children in this age bracket.
While this figure itself depicts an alarming situation, what is a more serious cause of concern is that nearly 14 million of these out-of-children have never set foot in a school during their entire life. The provincial breakup of this figure indicates that about 40 percent of these children are in Punjab, 36 percent in Sindh, 15 percent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 10 percent in Balochistan. When seen through a gender lens, it is observed that the majority of the children who have never attended school are female – 58 percent (8.1 million). The regional divide shows that majority of these children – 84 percent (12 million) – reside in the rural areas of the country.
This dismal state of affairs persists in spite of the fact that the government of Pakistan is a signatory to various international conventions on education, including the Education For All (EFA) 1990, the MDGs Joint Declaration on Education and the Dakar Framework for Action (April 2000). It has also agreed to the commitments with regard to education made in the SDGs. These conventions make it binding on the state to guarantee the fundamental right to education to its citizens without fail or discrimination.
While the above statistics clearly highlight the magnitude and scale of this issue, they do not give us a very good idea about the various demand and supply factors at work. These are needed so that more focused policy recommendations can by generated. Fortunately, the PSLM 2014-15 dataset also provides qualitative information on different reasons for children never attending schools in life. The sample households are asked to identify important factors due to which their children have never gone to school and their responses give clues to the role that different demand and supply side constraints play in determining this outcome.
The analysis of these reasons indicates, that at the national level, the highest share of households at 20.2 percent reported that their ‘children were not willing to attend school’. This was followed by another 17.6 percent of parents stating that their ‘children were too young to attend school’, while 15.5 percent of the households reported that ‘parents did not allow children to go to school’. In the case of boys, the highest share of households indicated that their ‘children were not willing to attend school’, while in case of girls, the highest proportion of households reported ‘parents not allowing’ their children to attend schools.
A provincial analysis of the reasons for children never attending school shows some variations across the federating units of the country. In the case of Punjab, ‘education being expensive’ and ‘children too young’ were reported as the two most equally important reasons, followed by ‘children not willing to attend’ and ‘parents not allowing them to attend’. In Sindh, ‘children not willing to attend’, followed by ‘children too young’ and ‘schools too far away’, were seen to be the most important factors for children never attending schools.
In KP, ‘parents do not allow children to attend school’ ranks as the first reason, followed by ‘children too young’ and ‘children not willing to attend’. In the case of Balochistan, it is observed that the highest share of households reported ‘schools too far’ as the main reason, followed by an equal proportion indicating ‘children too young’ and ‘children not willing to attend’ as the primary reasons. Across all provinces, the main reason reported by the majority of households for girls never attending school in life was ‘parents not allowing’ them to do so.
The above analysis clearly highlights that demand-side factors mainly help explain why children across the country have never attended schools – in a majority of cases either the child is not willing to attend school or is considered too young by parents, while in the case of girls, parents do not permit them to enrol at schools. However, in terms of a policy response to this issue, it is seen that most of the provincial governments are focusing on supply-side interventions like the construction of new schools, the hiring of more teachers, the provision of free books and uniforms. Can this strategy really work when children in a large share of households are not willing to go to schools and parents prevent their daughters from enrolling at schools?
These are some pertinent questions which the provincial governments need to ponder upon. As this phenomenon of children never attending schools is mainly a rural one, a change in the prevailing mindsets is imperative. This may be achieved through launching mass awareness campaigns as well as strict enforcement of compulsory education laws. Engaging community-based social workers as well religious leaders at the local level can be a useful strategy in convincing parents to send their children to schools, especially girls.
The writer is a development professional.