Keeping children in school

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

UNESCO recently released its annual Education for All: Monitoring Report and in it Pakistan unfortunately doesn’t emerge in a very good light. The six millennium goals laid down at the education forum in Dakar in 2000 were 1) the attainment of universal primary education; 2) gender equality; 3) improvement in literacy rate; 4) boosting quality of education; 5) increasing life skills; and 6) introducing early childhood learning programmes. The deadline for these goals was set for 2015.

Governments deemed it important to strive for these goals because they have now come to recognize the significance of education for the development of an individual in terms of training for economically-productive skills, improved quality of life, better health and personal self-fulfilment.

It has also been recognized that education serves no purpose if it lacks quality and relevance and is not imparted for a reasonable length of time. Five years of primary schooling is generally considered enough to impart the basic education necessary to serve as the foundation for building technical skills and knowledge — whether it is for further education or improving economic productivity.

What has emerged clearly from the various exercises that Unesco has undertaken in this field is that the length of time a child spends in school determines the benefit he actually derives from his education. A few years ago the key yardstick of progress in the field of education was the school enrolment ratio. The higher the proportion of children in the primary age bracket (5-9 years) who were actually admitted to school the more impressive was a country’s performance deemed to be. It was supposed to ensure a greater spread of education and literacy.

But it was soon realized that children who were enrolled but failed to complete five years of schooling did not benefit from their exposure to education. Some experts even believe that children who have learnt to read and write in school but remain there for less than five years lapse into illiteracy. In fact enrolling children in school and failing to retain them there makes the entire exercise not only futile but also expensive. The child gains nothing from his brief stint in school while the government virtually throws its money down the drain by opening schools which are under-utilized.

Therefore, Unesco has developed the concepts of ‘survival’ and ‘completion’ rates. These are actually sophisticated terms put more positively for what was described in the good old days as the drop-out rate. A country’s education system is said to be functioning well if a large proportion of the children enrolled in school complete their primary classes.

The problem with Pakistan’s public sector education is that it is unable to retain the children who are enrolled at the entry level. The Unesco report gives some interesting information while it also fails to disclose some basic statistics which are indicative of the malaise in the system here. The gross intake rate in primary education (that is, admission to class I) in the year 2000 was 80.5 per cent. The gross enrolment ratio in the five classes of primary school was 70.5 per cent while the net enrolment ratio (that is after calculating the drop-out rate) was only 60.1 per cent. Since the figures for ‘school life expectancy’ for Pakistan are not shown — probably they are not available — one can only guess the drop-out rates from the declining ratios at every level.

With 7.7 million children out of school, one can safely infer that quite a substantial number of children who are enrolled do not remain for long in school. The highly publicized campaigns undertaken every year on universal literacy day on September 8 are obviously a publicity stunt. Probably most of the children brought into the school system on such occasions are not retained there.

It would therefore be wiser if the education authorities were to concentrate their energies on analyzing why these children who are brought in cannot be persuaded to stay on. The challenge is not so much to enrol the children as it is to retain them. In India the World Bank funded a field study to determine the factors that contribute towards or impede successful primary school completion among children living in diverse poverty conditions.

The most significant aspect of this research was that it adopted an integrated approach and focused on physical development as well as the psycho-social factors which impact on the children’s ability to complete their education. The study which was of an exploratory nature studied not just the child but also the family, the community, and the local health and education services which had a direct bearing on the child.

The findings of the researchers, Vimala Ramachandran, Kameshwari Jandhyala and Aarti Sairjee (as published in the Economic and Political Weekly of Bombay (Nov 23, 2003) are extremely instructive. First of all, it is clear that poverty affects the health status of children. They lack nutrition and clean water, which accounts for their poor health and acts as impediments to their schooling. Chronic illness and malnutrition keep children away from school or affect their capacity to learn. It is also important that the community is mobilized to send its children to school. Once it becomes the norm, most families want their children to be enrolled in schools. Peer pressure also becomes a factor for parents to send their children to school.

But in the final analysis it is the quality of education that is offered, which makes a decisive difference. Teacher absenteeism, curricula that are irrelevant to the life of the children, inadequate physical facilities in school staffed by teachers who are not motivated and are callous cumulatively create an environment which drives the children out of school.

It is not poverty per se which keeps children out of the education system, especially when schooling, textbooks and uniforms are free. All these factors combine to affect school enrolment. It is important that the government should take note of these in planning for universal primary education which is its aim under the Dakar millennium goals.

It requires a holistic approach to health and education to achieve this aim. A small but significant example of how the two interact with each other is the case of the Garage School run by Shabina in Karachi. It is a small venture with 80 children on its rolls. It began four years ago with 15 children from low income families. What is important is the fact that only nine out of eighty have dropped out of the school. Five left when their families moved out of the neighbourhood where the garage is located which houses the school. They joined other schools nearer home. Four were asked to leave because they could not adjust to the school discipline. Even the children who have been admitted to regular schools continue to keep their link with the Garage School.

How has Shabina managed to keep such a high ‘survival’ rate? Because she provides the children with other facilities which they could otherwise never dream of. They receive excellent medical care if they fall ill. Two had surgery for ruptured ear-drums, a girl was operated for her tonsils, another had her gall bladder removed. A child was treated for his detached retina. Moreover the children also receive nutrition in the shape of milk and eggs.

In India, it has been found that in schools where children are served a hot meal at lunch time everyday, their drop-out rate is relatively low. It is important that such incentives are provided in public sector schools to attract students and retain them there.