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The myth of universal primary education

Sept 24: ALL roads point to the need for quality education to save Pakistan from extremism and unsustainable growth. The paradox of high growth rates and low social sector indicators continues to plague the country.

The public articulation of $925 per capita income almost sounds indecent when juxtaposed against a literacy rate of 54 per cent and poverty rate of 24 per cent.

More than half the children of five to nine years are not enrolled in school. Many of them drop out before gaining any enduring learning experiences at the primary level.

To meet the challenges of Education for All (EFA) goals and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and to address the shortfalls of the formal education system, non-formal education is being touted as a pragmatic option. The federal ministry of education through the National Education Foundation and the Punjab government have allocated huge resources for launching over 30,000 NFE centres in the next three years.

Non-formal education is "any organised educational activity outside the established formal system; the audience includes children and youth". The key characteristic of NFE is diversity in educational/learning content, the target group, timings and organisational modalities.

Some critical questions that need to be asked are: should there be a potential linkage between NFE and formal education as a policy option? Is there merit in persisting with UPE alone through formal and non-formal delivery modes knowing that it is not sufficient for the 21st century on its own? Does the pursuit of UPE alone not undermine learning and the constitutional rights of children?

What are the target groups who could be potentially supported through the non-formal bridge programmes? There are three categories who emerge:

NES: those who Never Enrolled in Schools at all.

Dropouts: those who entered school but left without completing a particular level of education at any stage of that education cycle. The dropouts estimated at the primary level are 31.3 per cent (NEC, 2005) and those who make it to grade 10 are only 23 per cent of the target population of 37.5 million.

Under Primary or Under Middle or Under Matric are the students who manage to enter school/education programmes, persist up to the last stage of that particular level, but withdraw or fail prior to the completion of the particular cycle at grades five, eight or 10.

Category I can be immediately supported for readiness programmes in non-formal centres and then mainstreamed into formal or equivalent schools. Category II who dropped out of schools and are of school-going age can also be helped through catch-up programmes. Category III of under primary, middle and secondary can be helped through focused accelerated programmes.

What is clear is that the non-formal approach is seen as a bridging, transitional programme for building social capital and ensuring mainstreaming with the formal systems of education and training. It is no substitute for formal education.

Yet we have a fallacious obsession with Universal Primary Education (UPE) which is officially seen as a critical milestone for basic education.

Despite contradictory evidence, the myth of UPE promoted furiously by the World Bank continues to hold sway. It needs to be purged as a policy dogma by national and international stakeholders. Statistics from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2004-05 in Pakistan indicate that the number of children of 10 to 14 years entering the labour force has increased dramatically. Many of these new entrants are primary graduates, whose only option with low education and skills is child labour, thus exacerbating poverty.

Seen against this backdrop, the stark denial of opportunities for transition beyond primary is a reminder to policymakers that the need to redefine basic education in Pakistan is long and urgently overdue. The concept of basic education, in terms of content and the number of years of schooling, varies across countries. In some, the primary level is considered basic education, while in others eight years of schooling is considered to be mandatory. Pakistan has moved towards a sector wide approach in its education policy since 2001 but it is still stuck in the UPE 'official' doublespeak.

Analysis and evidence over the years has proved that the flawed universal primary education (UPE) approach is not cost-effective and even after completion of the primary level children are still vulnerable to exploitation. This undermines investment in primary schooling, with high internal inefficiencies that we can ill afford.

Under the sheer social and quantitative challenge, formal and non-formal service delivery modes cannot afford to remain isolated. Non-formal programmes tend to operate in isolation. Some programmes have successfully experimented with linkages between the two streams for effective and early mainstreaming. The government is open to use of public sector schools in the afternoons for non-formal centres making monitoring and transition to the formal easy.

At the policy level, the guiding agenda should shift from UPE to UEE or Universal Elementary Education, defining basic education as at least eight years of schooling until 2015, and then progressing to 10 or 12 years by 2025. It is important that all programmes of school improvement or NFE bridging 'catch-up' programmes are encompassed under the umbrella of Quality Basic Education (QBE).

Non-formal education or QBE should be seen primarily as a bridging programme towards the mainstream for children between the ages of five to 14/15 years from the primary to secondary levels. Where possible, NFE interventions should be located in formal schools (public and private) to support improvement in formal education as well.

In order to ensure that students enrolled in QBE programmes are mainstreamed successfully and perform well in regular/formal schools, the curriculum for NFE must be aligned to the national curriculum without compromises on condensed versions. This must be supported by a regular assessment using national/provincial standards to acquaint students with assessment formats and expectations.

All compensatory programmes eligible for formal schools and the poor such as free textbooks, uniforms, stipends/social safety nets, free meals should also be eligible for children and households in QBE programmes.

It is, therefore, essential that all NFE options must explore linkages with the national and provincial technical and vocational initiatives appropriate to local contexts.

Many myths need to be debunked in the face of hard evidence. Milestones such as UPE have negligible influences on households' decisions to move out of poverty or illiteracy. The reason for an apparently low demand for education in Pakistan must be found in the supply deficit, where poor quality primary education is not perceived as being productive.

The country needs to move closer to Article 37 (b) of the Constitution that requires the state to provide compulsory secondary education to its citizens. This is essential if it wants to create peace within and ensure the fulfillment of fundamental rights.
By Baela Jamil (Dawn)
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