Forging Alliances for Action on Foundational Learning and ECE in Pakistan  

By Baela Raza Jamil

The Learning Conference: Building Foundations, held on June 21-22, 2023 was a bold call to action for Foundational Learning and Early Childhood Education (ECE) in Pakistan. Targeting children 3-8 years of age, over 200 participants, 47 speakers and influencers, including 10 international experts and committed development partners made a strong pitch for reorienting the education system traditionally focused only on high stakes examinations for grades 8 to 12. The current assessment culture tends to downgrade early years and lower primary grades where actually the foundations for lifelong learning are firmly built as the brain develops with million neurons formed every second at an incredibly furious pace; if learning falters, the tragedy persists throughout life. With high population growth rate 1.9-2.1%, growing number of OOSC, Human Capital Index (HCI) of 0.41, persistent high learning poverty (ASER Pakistan/WB 2019-22)), low productivity, and high stunting at 40+% the urgency for action is palpable. The conference design was influenced by global conversations, rigorous research and what works (Education Commission 2016, 2022; Beharry 2021, RISE 2020-22, GEEAP 2022, WB 2022) and declarations (Transforming Education Summit/ TES 2022, Tashkent Declaration 2022) to explore what is ailing learning within education systems. Given the global COVID-19 debacle and rapid escalation of climate change emergencies in Pakistan as a frontline state, accelerating the learning slide, how can leaders and influencers of education be mobilized for stemming the tide of learning for children? More importantly, how can the country remain on course for SDG 4.  The Learning Conference gathered Pakistan’s education decision makers, leadership, classroom practitioners across all provinces and areas, along with international experts to chisel a pathway for serious course correction.


The conference hosts, the Minister and Secretary for Federal Education & Professional Training (MoFE&PT), both inspired by their intense regional and global engagements in 2022, are firmly committed to reciprocating with action. The engagement in Bangkok (May 2022), Paris (July 2022) and New York (Sept. 2022) for the Transforming Education Summit (TES) culminated in a Call to Action. This was further concretized with the powerful visit to the Sobral municipality in the state of Ceara in Brazil (RISE 2022) by 15 senior civil servants (including the Federal Secretary) and CSO influencers in search of evidence and magic of systemic transformative achievements for foundational learning from the South. Sobral, a severely lagging poor municipality was able to become the top leader in learning, a trailblazer for Brazil and beyond. At the conference Carla Almeida d Vila was present on behalf of the South-South Program and the Lemann Foundation, to speak about the nuts and bolts of Sobral, extending cooperation for the movement in Pakistan. The Tashkent Declaration at the World Congress on Early Childhood Care and Education (WCECCE) was endorsed by the Federal Minister, Rana Tanveer Husain in November 2022, pledging to recalibrate education for equity and inclusion right at the outset with a strong ECE beginning for all children in Pakistan. In a sense, for an optimist like me, the conference could be the beginning of a bold new era for Pakistan to get the foundations right for children 3 to 8 years of age and progressively move forward with strong literacy, numeracy and social-emotional skills. The Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, Professor Ahsan Iqbal, as the chief guest for the closing session gave a bold call for recognizing the urgency for attending to the first 1000 days of the child, wired for learning, creativity and critical thinking. He announced the national support to Foundational Learning, Early Years and Out of School Children with a fund of PKR 25 billion established for OOSC, with a significant portion allocated for Early Childhood Education (ECE).

A strong message of solidarity from the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mian Shabaz Sharif was shared affirming the government’s commitment to the outcomes of the conference.


The conference was designed to result in a bi-partisan and collective call for action towards  systems’ reorientation amidst the crisis of learning, workforce challenges, measurement/assessment and financing, given the current state of political uncertainity.


The voice of the teachers in plenaries and technical panels as classroom leaders and practitioners was a welcome addition, symbolic of great hope, courage and solidarity above all.  Each one of the teachers from Sindh, Balochistan, South Punjab, Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa , Gilgit Baltistan and Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) shared their positive experiences of turning around challenges into opportunities for innovative learning solutions in ECE and lower primary learning, creating space for extending skills, autonomy and confidence to children’s expression.  Teachers’ presence was a strong element of the conference; it ran solidly for both days enabling them to showcase what works at the ground level inside classrooms. This is a much-needed shift to highlight the status of teachers as positive catalysts in Pakistan’s education system. I sincerely hope it will become the norm in conferences and not simply be a one-off symbolic act.  Can one imagine if the teachers, almost 2 million in the country, the largest workforce were enabled with capabilities, flexibility and space to test their learning solutions with students whom they know best?  Moreover, teachers sitting alongside Ministers, Secretaries and experts, speaking confidently about their powerful solutions that worked with support of headteachers and school teams was refreshing, a precursor to the phase when teachers would be ‘licensed’ in Pakistan, beginning from Sindh where the Teachers’ License  Policy 2023 has been approved. There are 1000s of teachers in the country doing just that perhaps 100s of thousands.  The Schools 2030 program with 300 teachers in the last mile government schools of Chitral and Gilgit Baltistan are doing just that with a holistic human centered design approach invoking and nurturing both academic and non-academic skills in students of ECE, primary and secondary years, boldly addressing challenges of reading/literacy, disability, edtech skills, students’ voice as leaders, skilling and climate change.  Not only are the teachers learning the rich methodology iteratively, they are co-creating the solutions with students, parents and communities with the backing of the departments of education in KP and GB. The Schools2030 create a hypothesis, a theory of change, work on solutions, building evidence and documenting the journey to showcase, not just in Pakistan but also at the annual Global Forum! Such initiatives must be nurtured and promoted across Pakistan, where teachers led interventions including Recovery for Foundational Learning in Emergencies, setting up of child friendly open libraries for reading and literacy such as the Pakistan Literacy Project (PLP) and catch up summer learning camps like Transformation in Access, Learning, Equity and Education Management (TALEEM) are being robustly practiced.


The conference was a bespoke curation for ECE and FL with high level policy makers sharing progress and challenges. These included initiatives for a dedicated ECE cadre like in Sindh, backed by core progressive resources, PPPs in vogue for ECE and FL exploring innovative financing models to mobilize the required resources for an under-financed sector (1.75% GDP expenditure; Economic Survey 2022-23), enabling structures, and ensuring right to education and learning at scale. The two days were packed with discussions on content, pedagogy, classroom implementation, edtech solutions, systematic evidence for improvement as done in Teaching at the Right Level (TARL) programs beyond age and grade programs and urgency for finalizing the Common Core National Assessment tools to measure FL for comparability and consolidation


Secretaries education from Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa unequivocally shared their conviction and commitment to ECE and Foundational learning in core provincial initiatives such as sector plans, projects (ASPIRE, SELECT, HCP) and the Compact Partnerships with GPE for priority gender wired reforms to spur system transformation.

For ECE the need for cross sectoral collaboration was highlighted to address the issues of health, nutrition and protection that extend to lower primary and primary levels as well; experts from Harvard and ARNEC gave a call for holistic engagement of LHWs, promoting large scale parenting behavior change, nurturing care and engaging with the impact of climate change on ECE. The global lead from the World Bank on ECE shared the most recent data on trends in access and quality for the fledgling sector in Pakistan that needs a nationwide boost across sectors. Cambridge International Assessment and the Pakistan Alliance for Early Childhood (PAFEC) spoke about assessments for ECE including social emotional learning whilst Director National Curriculum Council (NCC) agreed to review the transitions from ECE to lower primary forming the bedrock of Foundational Learning, which are currently extremely steep, causing stress for both students and teachers. Longstanding partners in active schools, language and leadership reform, the British Council and RTI shared best practices about works in FL.


Jo Moir from FCDO and Gailius Draugeli representing the World Bank group mobilized the core action steps from the audience present for : a) creating an ECE cadre; b) nutrition support c) one hour of literacy reading in classrooms using TARL like methodologies, in both Govt. schools and NFE centres for  improved learning outcomes’,  easy access to lively libraries and books to develop a reading culture in schools and communities to ensure children are learning to read and reading to learn inclusively!


Secretary Education MofE&PT, Waseem Ajmal Chaudhary gave a call to national action by upgrading the gathering into a movement mode as the a) Pakistan Learning Movement (PLM); b) ensuring a powerful communications and social media campaign; c) the creation of the Rs. 250 billion fund for OOSC and FL; d) integration of ECE and FL in major nationwide and provincial programs in Pakistan; e) holding a special Inter-Provincial Education Ministerial Conference (IPEM-C) for an open and full concurrence on the next steps including f) setting up of a Foundational Learning Hub not just at federal level but across provinces for easy access and g) expanding the National Coalition for FL and ECE with links to coalitions in country and beyond. The Federal Secretary MOFEPT invited all provincial and area partners to create an educational landscape that empowers the children, equips them with essential skills, nurtures their curiosity and love for lifelong learning.


The conference ended on a high note for Forging Alliances for Action on Foundational Learning & ECE in Pakistan not at the expense of other sub-sectors of education, but where FL/ECE are the clasps of a necklace of education in a learning society.


Post Script: The School Education & Literacy Department (SELD) Govt of Sindh, is hosting a National Conference on ECE and FL in Emergencies on July 11-12, 2023 to further reinforce the key messages and raise a call for integrating the two areas in emergencies escalating in Pakistan.


The writer is the CEO of ITA and the founder of the Pakistan Learning Festival. He can be reached at [email protected]

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