Who learns and who doesn’t?

Who is in school and who isn’t are questions that point toward the challenges of equity and inclusion in education

Who learns and who doesn’t?


akistan’s education system continues to be plagued by these burning questions: who is in school and who is not? Who learns and who does not? These questions address not just deep challenges of access and quality, but are in turn subsumed under the overarching principles of equity and inclusion; who is included and who is not, and why? Governments come and go; policy frameworks and plans of action are made diligently; statements are issued from parliaments, standing and special committees on education and local education groups (LEGs) at the provincial and federal levels, but the outcomes are painfully slow. Every effort made to bridge the out of school children (OOSC) and low learning gaps is diluted by a population growth rate of 2.4 percent. Tragedies in education keep mounting. The evidence is available in data collected by the government (DHS, labour force statistics and the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics) as well as by citizen-led organisations like the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) and the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Pakistan. The ASER reveals information on in-school and out-of-school children and learning levels in various provinces and regions.

ASER Pakistan 2021 (rural) is the first dataset at scale since March 2020, covering 152 districts as a National Education Survey during an unprecedented emergency caused by Covid-19. It reached 247,978 children aged 3-16 in 87,415 households, 4,420 villages and 5,698 schools (4,096 government) through 11,000 volunteers and 20 civil society organisations. This survey is unique in that it was conducted during a rare window of relative stability when schools remained more or less open between September and November 2021.

The proportion of out-of-school children increased to 19 percent in 2021 compared to 17 percent in 2019. More boys were out of school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Punjab and the ICT. Where were they? In child labour?

The report highlights the learning losses for children (aged 5-16) in 2021. The learning levels of children are assessed through specific language and arithmetic tools. The literacy and numeracy assessments cover Grade 2 level competencies mapped to the Single National Curriculum. Learning levels of children (in Grade 5 and Grade 3) mapped to Grade 2 competencies have declined especially in Urdu/ Sindhi and Pashto by 3-4 percent compared to 2019. In ASER 2021, 15 percent of Grade 3 children could read a story in Urdu/ Sindhi/ Pashto compared to 18 percent in 2019. For Grade 5, 55 percent of children could read a Grade 2 level story in Urdu/ Sindhi/ Pashto compared to 59 percent in 2019.

Similarly, in ASER 2021, 74 percent of Grade 8 children could read story in Urdu/ Sindhi/ Pashto while 86 percent of children were able to do the same in 2019. Moreover, for arithmetic learning, the learning losses were exhibited by children in Grades 3, 5 and 8. In ASER 2021, 20 percent of Grade 3 children were able to solve Grade 2 level division as compared to 21 percent in 2019. Moreover, in 2021, 51 percent of Grade 5 children were proficient in division compared to 57 percent in 2019. In 2021, 63 percent of Grade 8 children were able to solve division problems as compared to 65 percent in 2019.

The learning crisis during Covid-19 is pointing towards the making of a lost generation. Urgent actions are needed at scale to bridge these gaps.

There is a silver lining, however. Reasons to transform our education system are illustrated from the responses (ASER 2021) by children on where they received the best learning support from during the pandemic. The highest support came from family members (68 percent) followed by TeleSchool (57 percent), smartphones (37 percent) and computers (29 percent). 27 percent of it came from paid tuitions and 14 percent from digital resources.

Two years of the pandemic have witnessed extraordinary challenges. Myths about passive homes have been challenged as well as the possibility of support from school to home. Emergencies, especially prolonged ones, teach many lessons. The data speaks volumes to inform and design actionable reforms and transformation for education. Six recommendations follow:

Create a contract between teachers, children and parents; between schools and homes as bridges for collective reinforced actions committed to every child learning well and strong.

Out-of-school children (never enrolled, drop outs and at risk) 5-16-year-olds must be provided alternative pathways and second chance programmes through accelerated learning at primary, middle and secondary levels with life skills.

Let union councils be earmarked as education delivery hubs. Collect good gender disaggregated inclusive demographic data on who is in school or not; who learns or not, to design and roll out all solutions from kindergarten to Grade 12. The UCs must work in partnership with industry, BISP/ Ehsaas conditional cash transfers, CSOs and development partners. The UCs must be selected along CPEC infrastructure/ districts for school-industry-HR links. These edu-learning hubs can share workforce support for career counselling, disabilities and mental health challenges and libraries as well. Learning must focus on STEM, climate change, language and creativity in schools.

Invest 10 percent of budgets in early childhood education (3-8 years) to lower primary to strengthen foundational learning (literacy and numeracy) embedded in play-based parenting and cross sectoral health/ nutrition/ protection services.

Scale up and support the EdTech solutions, which were accelerated from K-12 due to the Covid-19 dividend.

Build upstream school-industry technical education and vocational training enterprise with skilling, enterprise and financial inclusion and livelihoods.

Let’s make our lost generation a learning generation.

The writer is the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi CEO, the Pakistan Learning Festival founder and the Education Commission commissioner. She can be reached at baela.jamil@itacec.org

Who learns and who doesn’t?