Out-of-school children can be ignored no more

Children can be brought back by making schools offer missing facilities

When I visited the USA a few months ago to participate in the Teaching Excellence and Achievement (TEA) program, a training program for Pakistani educators, sponsored by the US Department of State, I saw no child of schoolgoing age in a street or at any other place during schooltime. The children there are enrolled in schools and regularly go to schools.

All children in the USA are entitled to a basic public elementary and secondary education regardless of race, colour, or national origin. The school districts there are legally bound not to deny admission even to a child whose parents are not US citizens or who have undocumented immigration status. These provisions of the federal act seem to have been successfully implemented to a considerable extent.

The situation in Pakistan is different. According to Article 25A of the Constitution, it is the state’s responsibility to provide free education to children aged between 5 to 16. The state has failed to effectively fulfil this obligation. Based on UNICEF data, Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children with an estimated 22.8 million ged 5-16 not attending school, representing 44 per cent of this age group. recent reports indicate that the number of OOSC in Pakistan has reached 28 million.  Even in Islamabad, the Federal Capital, A staggering 83,000 OOSC. In a report of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), titled “Primary School Literacy: A Case Study of the Educate a Child Initiative”, released in March 2022, “Pakistan has never provided a chance approximately to 1 in 4 (23.45 percent) children of ever attending school while around seven percent had enrolled and dropped out in every year.”

The urgency is to figure out what are the factors that prevent enrolment of children in school or that make parents or guardians to discontinue the education of their children by making them drop out of the school. The first notable factor is poverty. According to the World Bank 39.4% of the population of Pakistan, that means about 95 million people, live in poverty. The poverty-stricken parents fail to bear the expenditures of education of their children, and hence don’t enrol their children in schools or discontinue their education. A large number of the parents want their children to contribute to the income of their families, and hence involve them in child labour. About 3.3 million children are engaged in child labour in Pakistan.

Inadequate availability of basic facilities in schools is also a considerable cause. Discussing educational infrastructure in Sindh province, a report was released by the Reform Support Unit, a subsidiary institution of the Sindh Education and Literacy Department, in February 2021. The report mentions that out of 49,103 government Schools in Sindh, more than 31,000  don’t have electricity,  19,469 a washroom,   26,260 drinking water and more than 21,000 are without four walls. These missing amenities deter students from going to school.

The patriarchal setup in society, coupled with the lack of awareness in parents, has also a role in keeping girls away from school. Parents mostly in rural areas prefer the education of their sons over that of daughters. This discriminatory approach increases the number of female students in total OOSC in Pakistan. The conservative mindset of people also stops them from enrolling their daughters in schools.

The issue of honour is attached to daughters. For such families sending daughters outside the home becomes a matter of shame in their neighbourhood and among relatives. The security factor can not be overlooked here. Schools being far from homes, lack of transport facilities, perceived unsafe environment outside home especially for girls, and unavailability or shortage of female teachers, drive the parents not to send their daughters to schools.

Natural disasters and influx of migrants, by adding to the higher dropout rates, are also causes of increasing numbers of OOSC in Pakistan. The earthquake of 2005 destroyed 3669 educational institutes in the Hazara division, the floods of 2010 badly affected 16,400 schools in Pakistan and those of 2022 also damaged thousands of schools both in Sindh and Balochistan. The education of students suffered due to these natural calamities and many of them did not return to school when things grew normal.

Introducing early childhood education programmes can provide childcare facilities for working mothers while ensuring early integration into the school system, limiting exposure to the streets, begging, and related activities. Taking measures to eradicate corporal punishment from educational institutions, reducing the burden of school work on children as they have to study eight subjects in a particular class which gives them less time to indulge themselves in fun activities, and training teachers on how to constructively persuade parents to ensure the attendance of their children in school will also help a lot in saving children from becoming OOSC.

Most of the OOSC in Pakistan originate from transient communities that migrate to other areas where they lack food and housing. During the 2008-10 conflict in KP, approximately 3.35 million people were displaced internally, 60 percent children. Most of these IDPs stayed with hosts, and local schools could not accommodate the huge influx of children.

The neglect of early childhood education for children aged three-to-five also forms a major cause. Not enrolling the children of this age group in schools drives them into activities that divert them from education later. They become accustomed to street life and remain unfamiliar with school settings, making bringing them into schools a challenge.

Another important cause is corporal punishment in schools. On remaining absent from school for one or more days, children know they will be punished by their teachers if they go to school. Here the inappropriate attitude of teachers with the parents accompanying students to talk to them about the absence of their children from the school also exacerbates the situation.

The repeated practice of remaining absent from school, reluctance of parents to bring their children to school and bear harsh words from their teacher, and fear of getting corporal punishment in students make children not go to school and ultimately make them leave going to school forever.

There is a need to adopt a comprehensive approach to the issue of OOSC. Enrolling more and more children in schools overlooking the provision of basic facilities in schools, not increasing the number of teachers and schools and certain other things will further worsen the already declining standards of education. So, the solution should not be just enrolling OOSC, rather it should be to prevent them from becoming OOSC in the first place. Students should be provided certain incentives, like some stipend, that prevent them from indulging themselves in child labour and dropping out from the school. With the help of print, electronic and social media and by conducting seminars in rural areas, where school enrollment and retention rates are low, parents should be enlightened of the importance of education, especially of girls’ education. To remove security issues from the minds of parents, especially as regards to their daughters, schools should be established in such areas where students have not to go too far to attend the school and there should be police checkposts in areas where these are not available. Also recruiting more and more female teachers to teach girls will make a difference as parents in some parts hesitate to send their daughters to schools where male teachers teach.

Schools should be sufficiently provided with basic facilities, like electricity, drinking water, washrooms and four walls.  In case of damage caused to educational infrastructure by natural calamities, there should be a rapid disaster management response from the provincial or local government where the calamity occurs in order to timely recover the loss. And new facilities should be developed on priority basis to impart education to the children of IDPs wherever they live.

Introducing early childhood education programmes can provide childcare facilities for working mothers while ensuring early integration into the school system, limiting exposure to the streets, begging, and related activities. Taking measures to eradicate corporal punishment from educational institutions, reducing the burden of school work on children as they have to study eight subjects in a particular class which gives them less time to indulge themselves in fun activities, and training teachers on how to constructively persuade parents to ensure the attendance of their children in school will also help a lot in saving children from becoming OOSC.

M. Ilyas Kalhoro
M. Ilyas Kalhoro
The writer is an educator and an independent educational researcher from Lahori Muhalla, Larkana

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