A recent World Bank report has revealed that the ratio of learning poverty in Pakistan could rise up to as high as 79% from the current 75% due to the school’s closure in the post Corona era. Because of the sudden shutdown of schools in March 2020 due to Corona virus, the learning poverty in Pakistan is at a high risk of increasing substantially. Although the schools did start opening phase wise across the country in September 2020 after six months of closure, it does not reduce the risks of higher learning poverty.

People often confuse the word learning poverty by literally the word learning about poverty but it does not mean exactly that. Learning poverty actually means the ability to read and properly understand a short and age-appropriate text or prose by the age of 10. The learning poverty is measured by indicators which bring together schooling and learning. It starts with the share of children who haven’t achieved minimum reading proficiency and adjusts it by the proportion of children who are out of school. The data used to calculate Learning Poverty has been made possible thanks to the work of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning led by UNESCO that enables countries to benchmark learning across different cross-national and national assessments.

In November 2019, the World Bank’s president David Malpass pointed out in a meeting that Pakistan was at the lowest after Afghanistan at learning poverty scale in the region. He had urged the Pakistani government to improve coordination between the federal and provincial governments as well as optimal utilization of funds to achieve learning target. He had also urged at the importance of increased cooperation with provincial governments for achieving the learning targets.

The Minister for Education Shafqat Mehmood had given certain quality assurances to World Bank last year in the same meeting about measures against the rising learning poverty. He had ensured that the government is ensuring equality of opportunities geographically and across various streams of education. He had also said that the government was trying its best for a uniform national curriculum. The federal minister also mentioned that plans are underway to set up a Policy and Research Unit to analyze information on students learning outcomes, school data and education financing.

However, in the waves of Corona virus which struck Pakistan like the whole world, the education system also aggravated. Imran Khan has always stressed upon the importance of education and providing quality education to all but his actions don’t seem like so. The level of learning poverty is already pretty high at a 75% and now indicators have alarmed that it might rise up.

The report Learning Losses in Pakistan Due to Covid-19 School Closures stated that an estimated 930,000 students are expected to dropout from both primary and secondary schools. 22 million children are already out of school in Pakistan so this would give an increase of 4.2% in primary and secondary school dropouts. The report also stated that Pakistan is the country who has had the highest number of school dropouts due to Covid-19 in the world.

These fresh pandemic school dropouts can mean that almost half of Pakistan’s child population will not have access to education. Eventually, the half of Pakistan’s child population will not be able to learn, grow and become constructive and useful citizens for Pakistan. The reports also said that if the learning poverty damage is not timely overcome, the country could suffer a loss in GDP from its current value of $155 billion to $67 billion.

The predictions and estimates given by the World Bank are no surprise though. Pakistan’s public education system is quite disorganized and has been so from the beginning. The school dropouts will happen and have happened due to logistical issues which have been part of Pakistan’s education system from a long time. These issues may involve the sporadic presence and poor teaching methods of teachers in schools, devastated school buildings and lack of clean water and bathroom facilities. One may usually see the public schools turned into agricultural lands casually.

However, in the conclusion of the report, it has been stated that these estimates are not rock solid. The development partners along with the government can reduce the learning poverty by taking proper measures now that the schools have reopened. The government needs to assure that school dropouts do not materialize. The government should organize an enrollment drive and leverage cash transfers to encourage enrollment or re-enrollment of children.

The government can also use student assessments to gauge the true size of the problem, help teachers strengthen teaching to the level of the student and to facilitate planning. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pakistan’s government has tried its best to put in place an effective infrastructure to encourage remote learning. Despite its global requirement, remote learning and online education has not been conveniently available to everyone in Pakistan.

The government should improve access to online education by extending connectivity, device ownership and by ensuring the availability of programming to families. The quality of online learning can further be improved by developing the educational content, making proper sequences for it and making the content more interactive and engaging.

This report by World Bank was based on the apparent income elasticity of education for various socio-economic quintiles and is based on the June 2020 growth estimates for Pakistan which were estimated to be minus 4.4%. The income elasticity is high in Pakistan due to high poverty, child labor and early marriages. The report had also stated that the Covid-19 pandemic is not just a health crisis but it might turn into a huge economic loss in the long run.

If Pakistan is to drag itself out of the economic and educational crises, it will have to pay attention to the suggestions given in the World Bank report. Lest it will get hit by an education crisis while it has still not recovered from the economic chaos caused by Covid-19 pandemic.

By Mariam Zameer

Author is doing BS in International Relation from Lahore College for Women University. She is a freelance writer. Previously worked with The Frontier Post, Dawn and Express Tribune.

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