The plight of out of school children in Pakistan remains a deeply concerning, unresolved issue in Pakistan. Appalling reports indicate that approximately 23 million children are still deprived of an education, with a staggering 83,000 of them residing in the Federal Capital, Islamabad, alone. These numbers are particularly distressing in a country with a total population of 241.49 million this year.
According to a research report by PIDE, Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out of school children (OOSC), summing up to 23 million children between the ages of five to sixteen years who are not attending.
While these figures are disturbing, the 23 million OOSC may be a significant underestimate, as it doesn’t account for unregistered births and families lacking National Identity Cards (CNICs). This oversight not only denies them access to essential government services but also distorts our policies and welfare projects, as they primarily cater to the reported OOSC population.
With an annual population growth rate of 2.55%, eradicating the OOSC issue completely is indeed an uphill challenge. Nonetheless, pragmatic and strategic planning can help mitigate its dire consequences.
Out of School Children in Pakistan’s Urban Population
In this article, I focus on Urban OOSC, a pressing issue with severe implications for Pakistan’s sustainability and poverty alleviation policies. While multiple initiatives have been taken to bring OOSC back to school, their impact is still in question.
The recent launch of the Zero Out-of-School Campaign in Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) raises questions about its long-term impact. While this campaign brings all the organizations working for OOSC under one roof and has a referral system too, there may still be factors at play. If the solution to out of school children in Pakistan were as simple as “enrolling them in schools and establishing schools, Non-Formal Education (NFEs) or Learning Centers (LCs) in remote areas,” we would have achieved this goal long ago.
The current trajectory perpetuates the cycle of out of school children in Pakistan’s urban areas and, consequently, the cycle of poverty.
To address the OOSC problem effectively, a substantial policy shift is needed, beyond short-term enrollment-focused projects. While these programs have their merits, they should be viewed as remedial measures because they address children who are already Out-of-School, but less focus is given to those who might fall into this category in the future. The true focus should be on seamlessly integrating these new generations into society to secure their long-term well-being and ensure their contribution to the nation’s development.
When designing policies and projects, our foremost question should be, “Why do we have OOSC, and where do they primarily reside?” Understanding the context is paramount because the reasons for OOSC vary significantly between different settings. While commonalities exist, it is crucial to address urban OOSC separately.
Contrary to the notion of “urban advantage,” families migrating to cities often face even greater marginalization than their rural counterparts. They are deprived of basic facilities, and despite initiatives to address urban OOSC, the predominant focus remains on enrollment. However, success should be measured beyond mere access to schools, as numerous underlying factors must be addressed earlier in the process. Have we ever taken a minute to question why children in cities do not have access to schools when almost every sector of Islamabad has separate schools for girls and boys? In the same capital territory, we find children deprived of education, engaged in child labor, or wandering around.
There are several on-ground realities that contribute to this persistent problem:
Land Security and Shelter
The majority of out of school children in Pakistan originates from transient communities that migrate to cities for livelihoods but lack land or housing security. They dwell in irregular settlements that are temporary, and if there is an operation by CDA, they have to leave the place. Consequently, they are either left homeless or forced to go back to their village. So, even if these children are enrolled, their schooling is again disrupted, and they drop out eventually.
Addressing this issue entails regularizing slums by relevant authorities like the Capital Development Authority (CDA) to provide land security. Simultaneously, measures must be taken to prevent the demolition of their dwellings, which only worsens their situation. Among these, the majority are Afghan refugees, who suffer greatly due to their minority status.
Deregulated Informal Economy
The second major factor that comes into play is job security. Many OOSC often come from families where their parents are low-skilled workers. While programs like Ehsaas/BISP offer support, they are not long-term solutions, nor can a heavily indebted country rely on such programs to alleviate poverty. To break the cycle, we must integrate these families into the formal economy by creating or regulating job opportunities. Stable employment reduces the financial pressure that forces children into labor. Instead of cash transfers, they should be provided with jobs so that they are relieved of the worry of finding sustainable means of livelihood.
Strict Enrollment Policies and Documentation
Despite the presence of government schools in most sectors of Islamabad, a significant population of children roams the streets because of strict enrollment requirements, such as ID cards or birth certificates. Hence, even those children who fall within the age bracket are at risk of becoming out of school children in Pakistan. Government policies should facilitate such students, with NADRA having a dedicated section in schools during the admission season to ensure immediate enrollment. Secondly, since the OOSC could also be overage, there should be age relaxation, or the government should incorporate Accelerated Learning Programs within the formal schools.
Lack of Early Childhood Education
Another major reason is the neglect of early childhood education for children aged 3-5. While we count OOSC from ages 5–16, this oversight lays the foundation for the OOSC issue, as children aged 3-5 are often directed into activities that divert their focus from studies. They become accustomed to street life and unfamiliar with school settings, making bringing them back to school a challenge. Introducing early childhood education programs can provide childcare facilities for working mothers while ensuring early integration into the school system, limiting exposure to streets, begging, and related activities.
Solving the OOSC issue requires a comprehensive approach, including urban planning improvements and family planning initiatives.
These challenges represent only a fraction of the real difficulties these children encounter. Given these challenges, can we genuinely achieve the Zero OOSC target in ICT? Can we ensure that children from families without land and job security, lacking basic documentation, are enrolled and retained in schools? Our government must implement multifaceted measures. These should also encompass family planning initiatives, urban planning improvements, policies addressing inter-city migration, and a range of other strategies. Otherwise, all the efforts directed towards it by NGOs and local communities may go in vain.
Unfortunately, the current trajectory perpetuates the cycle of out of school children in Pakistan’s urban areas and, consequently, the cycle of poverty. The solution isn’t just enrolling OOSC; it’s about preventing them from becoming OOSC in the first place.
It’s time for us to reconsider our strategies, reassess our policies, and take decisive actions to break the cycle of out of school children in Pakistan, particularly in urban settings. The future of our nation hinges on the education and well-being of all its children, and it’s our shared responsibility to ensure that no child is left behind.