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Out of school - The News

Punjab, the largest province of Pakistan, with nearly 120 million people has a relatively advanced industrial base and better agricultural areas thanks to its water resources. If a province of this size and capacity cannot put all – or at least almost all – its children to school, something has gone very wrong in how we have imagined and conducted governance and education management. According to the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for Punjab, 14 percent of children that are of school age in the rural districts of the province are not attending schools. This shows a five percent increase – in 2019 it was at nine percent. Traditionally, there have been more out-of-school girls than boys in Punjab, but now this trend has changed; for the first time more boys are not attending schools than girls in the rural areas of the province. Regardless of girl or boy, this is an alarming situation and calls for urgent action. Pakistan is celebrating its 75th independence anniversary in 2022 and it should be a matter of great concern for our education managers who have not been able to achieve universal literacy rate, what to talk of universal primary education.

At the turn of the century, numerous initiatives were launched with a view to achieving full literacy by 2010; then the goalpost was extended to 2020. And now we are still not sure when all our children will be enrolled in schools. A major reason for this inability to enroll all our children in schools is increasing poverty. When poor families find it hard to make two square meals available to their children, it is difficult to persuade them to send their children to schools when they can just as easily get them employed. With nearly one-fifth of our population living in extreme poverty and a similar number in poverty, child labour is rampant. The situation has further deteriorated after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic which has sapped the economic potential of many families belonging to the lower socio-economic strata.

There have been various commissions and foundations claiming to be working for the school enrolment of Punjab’s children but somehow the root cause is not addressed, resulting in children working rather than going to school. It is no longer an issue of non-availability of schools or teachers. It is the dire financial situation of the parents that needs attention. Combined with poor teaching quality, which leads to school dropouts, this vicious cycle has been continuing for too long, and needs some serious consideration. Since the budget-making exercise is round the corner – despite the current constitutional crisis in the country – it is time to allocate more resources to incentivize at least primary education by offering stipends or meals at schools so that more children enroll and attend school.

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