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“We need a better understanding of who is out of school and why”

— Interview of Faisal Bari, senior researcher and education economist

“We need a better understanding of who is out of school and why”
Faisal Bari.

The News on Sunday: A consistent figure about out-of-school children in Pakistan that has emerged in recent years is 25million. Some people think it’s too colossal a figure and may discourage any sort of planning. Instead, looking at a breakup of this figure, with around 7 million out-of-school children at the primary level, may be more helpful. How do you think one should look at it? And how effective are the government enrolment drives?

Faisal Bari: A lot of children between 5-16 years are out of school: Alif Ailaan says 25 million, latest Academy of Educational Planning and Management (AEPAM) (government) data says around 22 million. Article 25A has made education for all 5-16 year olds ‘free’ and ‘compulsory’. So, whether the number is large or small, the government needs to guarantee that all children in that age bracket are getting quality education. But, to do it, in practical terms, given that it is not possible to have all these children come to schools at once or over a very short time, and given that children who have missed the first few grades (say aged 10-16) and who have never been to school can not really be started from grade 1 and have regular education, means we will need strategies to address the out-of-school problems.

For the 5-9 cohort, getting everyone into regular primary schools makes sense. For children who have dropped out from a particular grade, giving them a chance to restart from that grade should be looked at. For those who are older and have never ben to school or left at an early stage, accelerated models of education can be looked at (informal education does that already…these facilities need to be more widely available). What in particular does the government focus on…this will depend on government priorities as well as the resource envelope they want to devote to education.

Read also: The question of quality

But, the most important point is, given the inclusion of 25A in the Constitution, provincial governments have to create plans for educating all 5-16 year olds. At least these plans should be made, laws and rules for these plans should be made public and put in place. The plan might state that we will get every child in school in x years, and start from primary level, etc. But a realistic plan needs to be put in place.

TNS: Educationists refer to the structural problem, or the educational landscape in Pakistan where there are a lot more primary schools than high schools. Do the governments need to make the existing high schools more effective and accessible, apart from building more of them? And how?

Government bears ultimate responsibility. They will continue to bear that responsibility. But the mode of provision can change. Instead of providing the service, government can pay for service to be provided by private sector on behalf of the government.

FB: The model government had, and to an extent still has, is that they used to make 3-4 primary schools for every middle/high school. This was fine when you allowed for a certain number of children to drop out. But now, with 25A, we need all children to stay in schools till Matric. Now we need to have every school go up to matric. If that is not possible, and we can only have fewer middle/high schools, we need to make them bigger (more sections) and we need to have transport facilities to allow children to attend the more centrally located middle/high schools. If the number of middle/high schools is less than primary schools, distance to school, for many children, will increase by definition…we need to cater for that through transportation facility if number of schools cannot increase.

TNS: In the short term, does the government need to be more creative by initiating distance learning and second shifts, etc., for children in the agriculture or brick kilns?

FB: We need a better understanding of who is out-of-school and why? There will be a variety of reasons….distance to school, opportunity cost of being in school, quality of education, skill acquisition or lack of it, possible exclusionary dynamics related to gender, income, caste, and so on. All of these will require specific and differentiated responses. This requires a lot of research work to understand reasons for not enrolling or dropping out and then to figure out what would be the right initiatives to address the concerns.

TNS: There is the very important ‘quality’ debate also. People think that if there is quality in education, children and even girls will inevitably be sent to schools, because education would mean employment and improve their life chances. What is your assessment?

FB: Quality and access/enrolment debate are very integrally linked…yes. If you stay 10 years in school and qualify for matric but still cannot read and write and have ability to think and engage critically with what you read, that is a big problem….why would you spend 10 years of your life in a school then? So, quality has to be at a minimum acceptable level to ensure people stay in schools and come out of them with the requisite learning outcomes that the society sets for them.

TNS: What in your opinion is the extent of children dropping out because of ability issues and by that I mean not just mental but also physical disabilities like bad eyesight, for instance?

FB: We do not have good national numbers/data on disability, sadly. But we have some sample-based evidence. We have recently done some work on this. In our data, sample was 300 households each from 3 districts of Punjab, when looking at 8-12 year olds in sample households, we did not find the incidence of physical disability, especially at a level where it limits functioning significantly to be high. We also found that for those who do have a physical challenge, enrollment rates in schools were not significantly different from those who did not have a disability (but do bear in mind the caveat that we have a small sample of challenged children in our sample). So, challenges might well be reasons for drop out…but challenges will be of various kinds (gender, distance, poverty, disability, learning challenges) and each will require, possibly, a different policy response to address them.

TNS: And what about the role of corporal punishment in driving children out of school. What needs to be done regarding that?

FB: Zero tolerance for corporal punishment…there are no two ways about it.

TNS: With the governments increasingly depending on the private sector to educate the children through adopt-the-school programmes, etc., who should we ultimately hold responsible for these 25 million out-of-school children?

FB: Government bears ultimate responsibility. They will continue to bear that responsibility. But the mode of provision can change. Instead of providing the service, government can pay for service to be provided by private sector on behalf of the government. But given 25A, ensuring ‘free’ and ‘compulsory’ education for all will remain a government responsibility.

Ather Naqvi

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