At all costs and risks

September 3, 2023

Safe access to education continues to be undermined across Pakistan

At all costs  and risks


et us not undermine the resilience and grit of our children committed to the pursuit of education in spite of all odds. In fact, the same attributes must extend to their teachers and parents who provide and demand education at all costs and risks.

According to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Elementary and Secondary Education Department, there are 33,330 government schools in the province. Of these, 81 percent are primary schools (26,925). The remaining 19 percent cater to middle and secondary grades. Pakistan has a 33 percent children out of school rate in the 5-16 age bracket. The trend is rising with a punishing annual population growth rate of 2.55 percent (2.88 percent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

Six of the eight survivors in Allai, Battagram, were students at Government High School, Battangi Pashto Allai. The school has an enrolment of 326 students. As we rally around our young survivors (all male), let us not forget the deprivation of the girls of Allai for whom there is no high schools. There is only one girls’ primary school in the union council. Even for those who enroll, completing primary education is no guarantee that they will not succumb to early child marriages, family poverty or child domestic labour.

Our six exceptional boys were staking their lives for a precious and scarce resource in Pakistan – education. They did not want to be counted among out of school children. The fundamental right to education under Article 25-A (for all 5 to 16-year-olds) is reflected in the short and unimplemented Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Free Compulsory Primary and Secondary Education Act, 2017. The entire country prayed for and saluted the courage of the students and their teachers. Citizens and armed forces rallied and rescued them one by one. Can we blame the survivors for risking their daily commute across the gushing river and mountains of Battagram?

Another 150 boys undertake a similar hazardous journey to school from Jangri village to Batangi. This was the first incident of the kind in eight years since the cable car was installed to fill the service gap. Sadly, free school transport is a fringe and rare reality in Pakistan’s school system, even in such areas.

The more important ‘access’ question is: why is there no school in Jangri village where 150 children reside; why must they go to Batangi? Surely, the demography and topography demand different criteria for school placement in hilly areas? A full high school in Jangri could have two shifts, for both girls and boys of the village(s). We need to urgently interrogate the criteria and standards for planning and placement of schools for collaborative solutions by the Education, Planning and Development, Communications and Works and the Finance Departments.

The notification by the Elementary and Secondary Education Department in KP titled Planning Criteria 2015 (dated September 14, 2015) provides the official framework for establishment and upgrade of schools from primary to middle, secondary and higher secondary in plains and hilly areas. It is driven by population, geography (rural/ urban), terrain, land availability, size and acquisition across areas, construction (vertical/ horizontal), by level of schooling, distance from home and minimum enrollment for establishment and upgrade.

The anchor facility for education conceived in a linear trajectory is the primary school, beyond which the upgrade criteria apply for feeder and cluster feeder schools to pool for a middle or secondary school establishment/ upgrade. From 1.5 kilometres standard for establishing a primary school, it jumps to 5 kilometres for a high school. Citizens must ask: is 5 kilometres across a river or 5 kilometres covered on-foot reasonable? Is there a gender consideration? What about children with some special needs? How will girls ever get to a high school? How might they be permitted to travel privately such complex distances with high costs and high risk? The document is gender neutral and blind. This needs urgent rectification; the notification does allow room for discretion and waivers by the Divisional Development Working Party (DDWP) and the Provincial Development Working Party (PDWP).

At all costs  and risks

The KP Education Sector Plan (2020-2025) acknowledges the lopsided provision of primary, middle and secondary schools: “while students may have access to primary education near their homes, the distance between school and home is likely to significantly increase for students at post-primary level as the overall number of schools available at secondary level decreases, especially for girls. This is a strong supply-side factor in explaining significant levels of student drop-out/ push-out at post-primary levels.”

Coincidently, over the Allai-Battagram debacle period, I had participated in two back-to-back Joint Education Sector Reviews (JESR) as a member of the provincial Local Education Group (LEG) in the Punjab and the KP. The focus of the reviews is on priority areas of access, quality and governance. In the Punjab, I was assigned the access, retention and equity group, targeting children from pre-primary to secondary, including the marginalised and children with special needs, for promoting quality education in a safe, inclusive and conducive learning environment for children. Safety is seen as a key attribute. In the KP, in the JESR for the same thematic area, the goal is to “ensure access to inclusive and equitable education and lifelong learning opportunities for all children, youth and adults.” This goal in the KP is to be achieved through “equitable and free access from pre-primary to secondary education in formal and non-formal programmes; provide functional literacy and life skills for all youth and adults; and provide incentivised education to enhance enrolment and ensure retention of children from marginalised groups.” The safe schools element is missing; perhaps, safe passage to schools needs to be included as a critical priority.

How often do we witness overcrowded commercial school pickup vans and buses with eager-to-learn students dangling in their crisp uniforms? Every time the sight gives one goosebumps knowing full well how unprotected and fragile they are in such compromised conditions and how desperate they are for education and learning. Education is not a demand side, but an overwhelmingly supply side challenge in Pakistan. This fact needs bold and innovative solutions.

Access continues to be undermined across Pakistan, which ranks 8th in the global climate change risk index. There is little planning on climate change, education and safety. Our schools, especially in riverine and coastal areas and in the majestic mountainous glacier zones lie in the line of fire. Many need to be relocated, made safer with new construction standards and regular preparatory drills for emergencies.

I have seen hundreds of unsafe and vulnerable schools. But schools, students and staff are all proverbial elephants in the room. What will it take to make the invisible, visible? What will it take to upgrade access as equity, quality and entitlement? While there is an awakening, the response is slow at the systems level with dwindling resources.

The writer is the CEO of Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi, a Pakistan Learning Festival founder and an Education Commission commissioner. She can be reached at

At all costs and risks