The challenge of “learning poverty”

The government should invest in devising strategies that can prevent dropouts before students reach high school

In Pakistan, school-age children make up 30-34 percent of the population. Amongst the 65 million school-age children, 22.8 million are out of school (OOSC). The high number of OOSC pose numerous challenges, ranging from weakening of the economy to making social cohesion fragile.

According to a World Bank research in 2020, learning losses may contribute up to $67-155 billion losses to Pakistan’s economy. The unschooled children are more likely to join the unskilled labour-pool, implying an increase in unemployment.

A majority of OOSC belong to the poor and vulnerable communities, i.e, migrants, daily wage labourers and beggars, which furthers economic inequality and social stratification.

The pool of out-of-school children (OOSC) includes children who have never enrolled in a school and those who have attended school but left before completing high school. Educationists have studied the causes and consequences of the phenomenon and proposed a raft of measures to remedy the situation.

The most noticeable causes of poor schooling outcomes are extreme poverty, early marriages, unemployment of adult working family members, and parents’ disinterest in education. The reforms have aimed at increasing school enrolment through informal education, flexible school timing, provision of stipends and school meals.

The prime focus of current policies seems to be children who have never attended school. They include full-time workers at workshops, domestic help and beggars.

In education sector planning, little attention has been given to address retention and school dropout issues. According to the Annual Status of Education Report-Pakistan (ASER 2019), 26 percent of the children aged 11-16 in a rural region dropped out before completing school, while 16 percent in the same age group never attended school.

The report shows higher dropout rates among girls (9 percent) than boys (7 percent). A greater number of girl dropouts can have severe implications for the economy, for instance, lower female labour-force participation, early-age-marriages and higher fertility rates.

Academic researchers should ponder on why children leave school before completion and if they leave mainly due to school-related factors, would any effort to bring them back in school be successful unless schooling system is overhauled?

Pakistan has a highly polarised schooling system, including government schools, elite private school, low-cost private schools, seminary schools or madrassas, and NGO-run schools. The ASER 2019 showed that 2.1 percent children were enrolled in madrassa, and 20.6 percent in private schools. Only 0.5 percent children were found in other schools.

More than three-fourth of school-age children are enrolled in government schools. Therefore, the need is to assess the government school preparedness in improving retention rates. School readiness depends on a host of factors, including school physical infrastructure, structured school activities, parents’ engagement, community-school linkages and learning methods.

After the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the curriculum, policy, syllabus, planning, and the standard of education fall under the domain of provincial governments. According to Wilson Report 2016, provincial governments spend 17-28 percent of their budget on education. Interestingly, the amount spent on education by provinces far exceeds the UNESCO-recommended 15 percent of budget spending on education by the countries.

Despite significant provincial budgetary allocations, the dilapidated conditions of public sector schools raise concerns about the effectiveness of the utilisation of education budget. According to ASER 2019, only 56 percent of schools have electricity connections, 61 percent have safe drinking water, and 59 percent have toilet facility in rural government schools.

There is a need is to consolidate primary, middle, and high schools to maximise the benefits of existing infrastructure and provide catalytic funds to support implementation of early childhood care and education reforms in provinces.

These figures do not shed light on the quality of basic facilities available in government schools. Most schools in rural areas frequently experience an interruption in water supply and long power outages. Furthermore, as per ASER 2019, there are noticeable regional disparities in school infrastructure. Schools (primary, middle and high) in Balochistan, for example, have 3-5 rooms, 25-59 percent schools have electricity, and only 4 percent an internet connection, while in rural Punjab government schools have 5-12 rooms on average, 95-98 percent of schools have safe drinking water, and 12-63 percent have an internet connection.

The irony is that most high schools have better infrastructure as compared to primary and middle schools. The need is to consolidate the primary, middle, and high schools to maximise the benefits of existing infrastructure and provide catalytic funds to support implementation of early childhood care and education reforms in provinces, particularly in disadvantaged areas. This will help improve the retention rate of children at school, especially for girl students who drop out after primary school for lack of access to a middle school in their village.

The teacher absenteeism, under-qualified teachers, and surplus non-teaching staff are common in government schools. According to the Wilson Centre report 2016, 70-80 percent of provincial education budget is spent on teachers’ salaries. When teachers do not show up (20 percent in the Punjab and 30 percent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), these expenditures represent inefficient utilisation.

In consequence of recently initiated early childhood care and education reforms (ECCE), the Punjab and the KPK have strengthened monitoring mechanisms for public schools through assistant education officers (AEOs) stationed at the district level. Further, the learning data is being collected through a monitoring application based on MELQO, developed by the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) and Programme Monitoring, and Implementation Unit (PMIU).

The constant monitoring and installation of biometric system have improved teachers’ attendance in public sector schools. Sindh and Balochistan need to invest in workforce training, district-level delivery, and governance structures to avert the deepening learning crises. In both provinces, as per ASER 2019, school dropout ranges between 30 and-51 percent among children aged 11-16.

The current schooling system relies on the traditional method (knowledge-based-abilities) of teaching, which, unfortunately, fails to inculcate employable skills among students. Moreover, the overstructured school system lays stress on completing a pre-defined syllabus without instilling the knack for exploration, and assessments are generally based on reproducing the material memorised by the students, usually without any understanding.

According to the World Bank Report 2019, 74 percent of children in Pakistan are unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. The children who do not learn at primary school fail to deal with the curriculum as they progress to higher levels. These children either leave school before completing education or accomplish eight or 10 years of schooling without basic knowledge and skills, whether they be formal skills (reading and writing), cognitive skills, technical skills, reasoning or critical thinking.

The World Bank has coined the term “learning poverty” to refer to this problem. Compared to Pakistan, several countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh have almost eliminated learning poverty at the same level of economic development. Pakistan needs policies specific to acquired skills, job market placement and learning outcomes, rather than a focus on inputs like curricula, school hours and funding.

There are currently many social protection programmes, such as Waseela-i-Taleem, to improve enrolment of the children of low-income families, particularly girls. These demand-side interventions are useful to address the affordability-related constraints. However, it is the school quality that determines the retention rate and learning outcomes of children.

The government needs to invest in devising strategies that can prevent dropouts before students reach high school and set up early warning systems to detect students who are more likely to drop out. The academicians need to investigate types of school dropout and pathways to dropping out and suggest doable measures to avert learning crises in Pakistan.

School attainment should not be taken only to promote productivity, and subsequently output or income. Education has social value. In this respect, it is an end in itself rather than a means for achieving other ends.

The writer is Assistant    Professor at the Department of Economics, University of Karachi. She can be reached at

The challenge of “learning poverty”