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Post-Covid-19 education crisis: what next?

In most countries the academic year was fast approaching its tail-end and many countries adopted different strategies to address this crisis. In Pakistan, students from grade 1-8 were auto promoted and a unanimous decision was made through the Inter Provincial Education Ministers Conference (IPEMC) for promotion of secondary and higher secondary students based on the recommendations of the IBCC. So what’s next?

Education systems in Pakistan and around the world are working to respond to the unexpected outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Globally, 188 countries closed education institutions, leading to an estimated 1.60 billion students unable to attend schools. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the education system of Pakistan encompasses over 317,000 schools with enrolment of almost 50.3 million students and over 1.83 million teachers. The system is further composed of almost 197,000 public schools and over 120,000 private schools. The public sector provides access to about 28.68 million students to complete their education while the remaining 21.60 million students are catered by the private sector of education.

According to an ASER report, private schooling in Pakistan has significant presence (around 40 percent, according to both number of schools and student enrolment) both in urban and rural areas with several tiers in terms of quality standards. The majority of the private schools in Pakistan are low-cost affordable private schools catering to the middle class and poor families who pay very low fees.

These low-cost private schools have been seen to produce better academic outcomes than public-sector schools in Pakistan. Several studies show that in public schools almost 50 percent of grade 5 students cannot read or write basic sentences of English or Urdu of grade 2 level. This continues to lead to low parental confidence in public sector schools; therefore, Pakistan has witnessed massive growth in low-cost private schooling.

During the current pandemic, over 50.0 million schoolgoing children have been unable to attend school for the past four months as the government continues to keep schools closed to ensure the health and safety of students and teachers. We already have over 22.5 million children that are out of school.

The post-COVID impact due to the prolong closure of school will have a massive impact on Pakistan’s already fragile education system, such as learning gaps, and social/emotional/mental well-being. This could also lead to no promotion next year, ultimately leading to a halt in continuity of education.

The prolonged closure of schools has put the entire private education system into a deeper crisis. In private schools, the operational cost is dependent on revenue generated through school tuition fee with no financial support available from the government. Since the lockdown, the government has enforced a 20 percent discount in private school fee while many parents have refused to pay school fee at all.

According to the chairman of the Private Schools Association, on average, only 25-30 percent of the fee is being recovered, leading to extreme situations including closing of schools by the owners for good. Over a thousand schools have already been closed and many are planning to close-down as they are unable to meet their expenses such as rent, salaries, maintenance etc.

It is likely that hundreds more private schools will also close down their business leading to a high number of students’ dropout, and unemployment of teaching and non-teaching staff. The government institutions do not have the capacity to absorb these students within their system. In contrast, public schools’ operational cost is covered through taxpayer money; therefore, the response from the public-sector towards closure of schools remains neutral as compared to the private sector.

In mid-March 2020 for the majority of the schools the academic year was approaching its conclusion when the government announced to close down schools. An immediate response from both public and private schools was to shut down for a while. All academic activities came to a complete halt in the public sector; however, the private schools (majority schools with high fee structure) continued the learning process using online systems such as Google classroom, lectures via Zoom and even WhatsApp.

While some may argue that private schools continued the process of learning via basic or un-structured online system in order to collect school fee, some applauded the seriousness of private schools towards the importance of education. Both arguments could be true, however, we prefer to lean towards the latter and appreciate the positive attitude of the school leadership towards education.

There is a high potential that some schools will be able to provide access to education via online education or blended learning and maintain social distancing. Since the closure of schools, public and many private schools are in the process of preparing alternative system to continue academics and the process of learning. Some ed-tech companies, have already entered into partnership with public and private schools to provide a structured teaching and learning solution in the form of Learning Management Systems (LMS) along with content aligned to the national curriculum. However, many students from rural areas (public and private sectors) and low-cost schools in urban area may not be able to meet the demand of on-line education (IT literacy, access to internet and hardware within and outside etc), therefore the issue of accessibility and affordability may continue to be a challenge, but this could be addressed in the next phase when the on-line education system matures in Pakistan.

The Covid-19 pandemic is expected to impact us for a long time. Millions of children have no access to school and for our already fragile education system this is indeed an unprecedented situation in the history of education. However, we must embrace this unexpected change and apply an alternate approach to ensure continuity in education.

The government should encourage and support private schools and revive this effective system of education. Parents also must not forget the positive role played by private schools for many years by delivering better quality education. It was primarily this deliverance of quality education that led to parents’ trust and confidence in private sector schools. Abandoning them now will only harm the future of our children. If private schools cease operation, it will create a huge void in the education sector of the country as the public sector is already running beyond capacity.

The writers are from the Aga Khan University Examination Board. Any opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.