Challenges and headway for Pakistan Education System amid Pandemic

By: Archita Srivastava

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected lives and institutions around the world. From global disruptions in production to supply chains to a new era of work and study from home, our lives are shifting to a new unknown.

The education sector is no different, having been one of the most severely impacted by schools and universities around the world shutting their doors in line with social distances as recommended by WHO. 

In the sense of global school closures, it has become painfully apparent that children at risk of falling out and those likely to suffer the most severe learning losses are those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Poverty, ethnicity and place converge with the exclusion of pre-marginalized children. Current data sources help to assess the size and complexity of the challenge. 

Then comes the key role of governments to alleviate the disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the delivery and outcomes of education. Effective government response guidelines are to stress the need to plan long-term disruptions and strategic adaptation, and to coordinate, communicate and support the education workforce, including, and in particular, the academic staff and faculty. 

Pakistan’s emergency education figures indicate that 25 million children do not attend school. While introducing these children into the formal education system must be a priority, and even greater priority is to ensure that those children who attend school receive a quality education. 

The low quality of public education in Pakistan, corruption in exam boards, and widespread cheating have contributed greatly to our nation’s decline. The central challenge that cannot be ignored at the time of pandemic is of education reform in Pakistan, that has to improve education quality — measured by ‘student learning outcomes’, or what students are expected to know or be able to do — rapidly, affordably, and at large scale. 

The Digital School: A Challenge 

“ROTI, kapra, makaan — aur internet,” is how former Google executive Tania Aidrus underscored her vision for Digital Pakistan: a tech-driven society in which all citizens are connected. However, it will take many years for that dream to become a reality. The internet continues to remain a luxury accessible to a relatively small percentage of the total population, with even fewer able to access good-quality connections, particularly in the periphery regions of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, and former Fata as well as Balochistan. 

Accessing opportunities and initiatives at this time becomes more complex and unequal if priced technologies such as cable channels or internet and smartphones are used: Less than 1% of the poorest households sampled for Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) 2017 owned a computer, and while 82% of them owned a cell phone, only 4% had access to the internet. 

Children further away from cities are much less likely to have access to instructional content sent through smartphones and internet access. Officials distinguish between parents who own smartphones and those who do not, a divide that is significant because many government school teachers in Punjab are relying on WhatsApp for communicating with parents. Parental occupations directly impact the opportunities children can take advantage of; during the crop-cutting season, many in rural areas are likely to be helping their parents harvest crops. 

Higher percentage inequality inhabits where access to education or primary right is worsening for girls in rural areas and those in the poorest households. The increased burden of care in the households during the pandemic is much more likely to have hit girls the hardest, making it much more likely that they are effectively excluded from accessing COVID-response measures around education. As COVID-associated health and economic shocks threaten to push millions into extreme poverty, girls are more at risk of dropping out of schools. 

Pakistan already has a high dropout rate from both primary and secondary schools, while millions of others have never even stepped inside a classroom. Prolonged breaks and disruptions in education may lead to even more dropouts. And how many Pakistanis can even afford to make it to higher education in the first place? 

The Headway

Being in school is a matter of learning. Research on teaching and learning in rural government schools in Pakistan shows 10% of the year-on-year learning gains for children in grades 3, 4 and 5. These advances are challenged by school closures for the reasons set out above.

The World Bank has outlined three scenarios of learning losses that governments should prepare for when schools reopen:

  1. There is a loss of learning for all students due to school disruptions;
  2. The lowest-performing children fall further behind while the well-performing children move ahead – this is predicted based on the ability of the families to support children in keeping up with reading and writing and access to assets such as televisions and a good internet or cable connection;
  3. There is a sudden and large increase in the numbers of children for whom learning falls because of an increase in numbers of dropouts.

Government schools in Pakistan are likely to find themselves facing the second or the third scenario. Furthermore, provinces stand at various levels of capability for testing and also delivering learning gains. Pre-pandemic learning data show much less variation in children’s ability to read in local languages in the early grades across provinces (between 72 and 80% in grade 1 were able to read letters); there is much higher variation in skills in higher grades (68% children in rural Punjab could read a story in the local language, while only 40% in Sindh could do so). This is true for Maths and English literacy as well.

It will be imperative to assess children when they return to school to establish learning losses, which are likely to vary for children given differential access to home support, technologies and differential exposure to health and economic shocks.

In view of the scale and extent of the disruption, teachers and school leaders must be supported by a dedicated, large-scale, coordinated public awareness campaign when schools reopen after the COVID closures. This can be combined with targeted text messaging and personalized visits for children living in locations or households identified as high-risk.

Decision-makers also need to strategically utilize and allocate resources in a manner that allows smaller institutes to utilize expertise from larger universities. As Pakistan moves on from its deadliest day yet of the novel Coronavirus pandemic, there exists a genuine opportunity for the higher education sector to turn a new leaf and use this opportunity to move forward towards a sustainable future.

Of course, nobody has foreseen the pandemic, and both students and teachers are trying their best to do what they can under difficult circumstances, but authorities will need to chalk out a long-term plan if the current situation continues beyond the winter starts. Otherwise, the health emergency may just turn into an education emergency, which will bring its own host of problems, from a higher number of early marriages to more children working to support their families. 

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