OUR educational outcomes have never been great. All examination results, sample-based testing of children and other outcome indicators, show that clearly. And this has been the case for most of our history in Pakistan.

The Annual Status of Education Reports have been documenting learning outcomes for at least a decade. Each report shows the dismal state of education in Pakistan. Even more depressingly, they show there is no improvement trend in learning outcomes.

We have been somewhat successful in increasing enrolments — more at the primary level than at the middle and high school level, but there has been some improvement. The data on learning outcomes, though, is more static.

And then two and a half years ago, we were hit by Covid-19. There were lockdowns for a period of some months but even when these became more sporadic, schools remained closed for months more. Schools have had to be closed down a number of times over these two years.

Read: The Covid generation goes to school

There is a lot of evidence that has now been gathered that these two years have set us back substantially in terms of educational outcomes. Many students did not come back to school when schools reopened. A lot of families experienced income and employment shocks due to Covid-19; many responded by pulling their children out of school. Even for those who have been able to come back, there is substantial ‘learning loss’ and many children have forgotten what they had learnt before the crisis hit.

Though there was some effort to cover older ground before going forward, this effort was not very systematic, organised and widespread. The effects of learning losses will be with us for some time.

The losses sustained during school closures and disruption are not recouped easily.

If children have problems in understanding basic concepts, if the latter have not been covered properly and/or if the children have forgotten concepts, the students will have problems learning advanced concepts, with early problems being compounded. So the impact of the learning loss stays with children for a long time.

This summer we have been hit by the floods as well. Thousands of schools have been inundated and many damaged. It is not clear when these schools will be able to start the education process again.

We have evidence from the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake that school closures have a long-term impact on children’s education. The losses sustained during closure and disruption are not recouped easily.

The struggle right now is to provide relief to the millions who have been impacted by the floods, and rightly so as food, clothing and shelter needs are of paramount importance. But when the monsoons are over and the waters recede, the conversation will need to go to rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Getting infrastructure back is hard. It requires a lot of resources and time. The schools that have been damaged will need expenditure in terms of both money and time. But this is not the only issue at stake here.

How are we going to get children back to school? Many families have been wiped out financially by the floods. Relief and rehabilitation/ reconstruction is going to be their first priority. Will they be able to send their children back to school? When will that happen if they can?

If the children do come back to school, will schools be able to ensure they are able to repeat some of the work that was done before the floods forced closures? Will learning losses be removed before children are taught new things? As mentioned, we do not have a good record of addressing learning losses. Will it be different this time?

There has been some talk that the Prime Minister’s Office is mulling over a relief package for students of the flood-affected areas. This package might include reducing tuition fees for college-going students in the area and scholarships as well. But what is being talked about is a) at college and university level, and b) about making the cost of education less. There has not been, as of now, any thinking about what will need to happen at the school level.

What is needed is a detailed plan about how the damaged schools are going to be rehabilitated or reconstructed. We need cost estimates for this and we need to figure out where the budgeted amount is going to come from and how long it would take to rehabilitate schools.

Read: Education disrupted

We need to figure out how we are going to get all the children back in school. Will this require conditional cash transfers or similar incentives or will public campaigns suffice? The provincial departments of education need to start work on what the closure will imply for what should be taught when children do get back to school. Which learning objectives will need repetition and/or reinforcement, how much of the course would need to be repeated, and when we move forward which learning objectives might have to be dropped? What should be the pace of teaching for the first few months?

There is already some literature that suggests that one of the reasons for the low quality of education is that we try to teach too much to students and too fast. Teachers worry more about covering the syllabus than about what students learn. If we try to do all the course work that was being planned before the floods came, we are going to compound the problem. We hope the departments of education will start work on the issue now so that we are ready with optimal plans by the time schools start again.

Access to quality education has been an issue for us throughout. Covid-19 made the problem a lot worse and now we have been hit by floods as well. This is going to create a whole cohort of children who will be lost to education. To minimise the negative impact, we have to plan now.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2022

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