What does a literacy crisis mean for the citizens of Pakistan?

September 10, 2023

What does a literacy crisis mean for the citizens of Pakistan?

What does a literacy crisis mean for the citizens of Pakistan?


earning poverty in Pakistan increased from 75 percent in 2019 to 79 percent in 2022; Covid-19 and the apocalyptic floods in 2022 exacerbated the literacy crisis. What does this translate into? Four out of 5 children aged 10, both in and out of school, are unable to read with comprehension a simple text. It is tragic to see millions of children struggling with basic reading even after five years of schooling. What does it all add up to? What is the headline for action? In any society, when children get stuck at the foundational level or in Grade 3 or 4, they cannot read with understanding.

The literacy black hole is likely to stay and get bigger, severely interrupting lifelong learning pathways. With extreme constraints for financing of education in Pakistan (1.77 percent of the GDP), a punishing annual population growth rate (2.55 percent) and recurrent emergencies, there is acknowledgement at the highest forums of seriously being off-track for all SDG 4 targets, where foundational learning is a ‘gateway skill’ that lies at the heart of the right to education. This realisation has been boldly confronted in a series of nationwide consensus building meetings and conferences (January-July 2023) across the federation to acknowledge not just the scale of the problem but to work together for action. Foundational learning means “basic literacy, numeracy, and socio-emotional skills that provide the fundamental building blocks for all other learning, knowledge and higher order skills.”

On September 7, ahead of the International Day of Literacy 2023, the Pakistan Foundational Learning Hub was launched by the Ministry of Education and Professional Training (MoFE and PT) in partnership with the Global Coalition for Foundational Learning. The PFL Hub’s core mandate is to map and undertake evidence-based diagnosis, create solutions, designed, crowdsourced and rolled out as provincial roadmaps for quality FL interventions. The PFL Hub is committed to nationwide implementation of a School Reading Hour with appropriate teaching learning materials, training support, assessments and remedial actions for positive learning outcomes in Pakistan, scaling up Teaching at the Right Level (TARL) and active literacy promoting libraries.

The International Literacy Day 2023 in Pakistan is thus a dhoop-chaon day (sunny/ overcast) for the 240 million people of the fifth most populated country that is ranked fifth on the Global Climate Change Risk Index. Compared to the overall literacy rate of 62.8 percent (female 52 percent), the urban literacy rate is 77.3 percent (female 71 percent). Youth literacy – 15-24 years – is 72 percent (78 percent in the Punjab vs 57 percent in Balochistan). Literacy rate for those 10 years and older is 60 percent. For 15 years and older, it is 57 percent. In South Asia, Bangladesh’s Literacy Assessment Survey (2023) reports functional literacy for multiple age groups and classifications viz. 7 years and above 62.92 percent; 11-45 years 73.69 percent; 7-14 years 72.97 percent and 15 years and above 60.77 percent. There is strategic merit in targeting specific age groups, especially adolescents and youth, for acceleration in literacy growth actions. The newly created PFL Hub may consider such options. Furthermore, geographical disaggregation of rural and urban must factor in 40 percent of the population in urban areas living in slums comprising migrants, refugees living in churning poverty in South Asia’s fastest urbanising country (by 2025, 50 percent of the population in Pakistan will be residing in urban areas). The ASER surveys 2021-2022 unmask precariously low FL in urban slums compared to rural and other urban areas.

Neither the parents nor the system is kind to all children; there is an urgency to unmask literacy for all children in the country; those who go to school and those who do not, absolutely and inclusively. ASER 2021-2022 Foundational Learning by Grade and Rural (R) Urban (U) Urban Slums (US)

Sadly, severely unmet demand for services in urban slums is nobody’s business, especially when slums are not regularised. Impoverished city governments must bear social and economic costs of instability, rising crime, health, violence against women and climate change crises. When urban slums data is disaggregated by gender, disability and wealth, the challenges of literacy are intense needing action for SDG 4 and SDG 11 to ensure safe and resilient cities. Right to education, under Article 25-A is a fundamental entitlement of all children/ adolescents.

There are serious caveats for how inclusive literacy and learning needs to be unmasked in Pakistan. Will the PLF Hub be inclusive in how it measures, diagnoses and takes action for FL? Disability, when measured through the WHO-UNICEF child functioning module with 13 functions, highlights that approximately 11.2-15.5 percent children in Pakistan suffer from disabilities. Out of these, more than 70 percent are enrolled in some learning facility. Yet, they remain invisible and are rarely provided with any enabling support.

When Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi first launched the ASER movement in Pakistan in 2008, I was learning the art of knocking on doors in survey villages to assess children’s basic learning. A mother responded, “I have six children, but only four will participate; two children, aged 8 and 12, are disabled, they will not be surveyed.” I was struck to see the level of self-screening by the mother; her children with disabilities were made inaccessible and invisible. This is a rampant societal norm. Little did she know that the ASER survey revealed appallingly low learning levels at her home; those considered normal suffered from severe learning gaps; all her children needed action to be on the pathway for lifelong learning. Sadly, the parents and the system are not equally kind to all children; there is an urgency to unmask literacy for all children in the country; those who go to school and those who do not, absolutely and inclusively. An ongoing collaboration among SightSavers, ITA and the Pakistan Institute of Education, MoFE and PT, is ensuring that globally recognised foundational literacy and numeracy tools are inclusive through braille and sign language.

A contemporary definition of literacy is a departure from the traditional passive definitions, comprising literacy, numeracy and transversal or social emotional skills that propel lifelong learning within each individual. At the heart of lifelong learning lie notions of individual voluntary ‘agency’ and motivation for personal and professional growth, beyond formal education contributing to intellectual, mental and emotional well-being and self-esteem. Lifelong learning is sustained by life skills or “the abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the challenges of everyday life.“ Life skills carry attributes of “collaboration; communication; creativity; critical thinking; character; citizenship and computational thinking.” These, in turn, build social inclusion, interpersonal and active citizenship skills, executive autonomous functioning, self-awareness and empathy; assertiveness; resilience; and stress coping. Thus, FL and literacy are a holistic spectrum including academic and non-academic skills

In spite of complex layered challenges, Pakistan is blessed with a large young population with higher literacy rates in rural and urban areas. There are mushrooming innovations in foundational learning: gender empowerment through teaching at the right level (TARL), active libraries, STEM, EdTech, leadership and public-private partnerships that need system and coalition-based ownership and equity. The Pakistan Foundational Learning Hub is a bold response by the federation to the call for action pledged by the prime minister at the Transforming Education Summit at the UN General Assembly. We must now embark on a national alliance for foundational and lifelong learning.

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 baela.jamil@itadec.org

What does a literacy crisis mean for the citizens of Pakistan?