Delayed enrollment and out-of-school adolescents – the missing link

1 October

Huma Zia Faran


In Pakistan, 26% of children in the 5-16 age cohort have never been to a school. This translates into 16 million children (out of a total of 20 million children who are out of school) as reported in The Missing Third released by the Pak Alliance for Maths and Science earlier this month, and based on analyses of Pakistan.

While the report details the reasons for children not going to school nationally and provincially, it also picks up on less discussed topics. One of these is late enrolment of children in primary schools.

Despite decades of enrollment campaigns aimed at bringing school-going-age children to an educational institution – especially at the primary level - 100% of children at age 5 who are out of school have yet to step into one. This drops by only one percent for ages 6 and 7 i.e. 99% of out-of-school children at these ages have never been to a school. The proportion of children enrolled in schools at age 5 is 44%, which peaks at age 9 to 82% before dropping down to 52% at age 16.

This not only highlights the inability of the system to retain children in schools but draws attention to the issue of significantly low enrolment in schools in early years. In Pakistan, on average, children are enrolled 1-2 years late in primary grades (PSLM 20019/20, MICS 2018/19). Subsequently, children who start school at an older age have a higher probability of dropping out of school sooner when compared to their peers who started school at the appropriate age. The former, therefore, remain at risk throughout their academic journey, either as repeaters or potential dropouts (if not actual ones).

In addition to delayed enrolments in school resulting in a higher proportion of never-enrolled children in early years, 53% of the total out-of-school children are within the age bracket of 11 to 16 years who have never been to a school. The treatment of children who have not enrolled in a school during primary-school-age years versus adolescent population which has never attended school has to be significantly different. Hence the issue at hand requires attention to the following:

  • late enrolments attributing to higher proportions of never-enrolled children in early grades
  • lack of a customised approach to enrolling ‘never enrolled’ children in different age cohorts
  • absence of a system-level strategy for alternate paths for illiterate adolescents

Pakistan continues to struggle with significantly low completion rates (67% primary; 47% lower secondary; and only 23% upper secondary). We have to be addressing the issue of never-enrolled children from a 360-degree lens to have a fighting chance at upholding Article 25-A of the Constitution, which tasks the state with the provision of free and compulsory education to children aged 5-16 years.

Policy implications

Early childhood education & child registration as an instrument to encourage age-appropriate enrollments

Research shows that children start developing their language and cognitive skills as early as 0-3 years of age (Lancet, 2017). UNESCO identifies early childhood care and education as one of the best investments possible in human development and a useful tool for primary school readiness to improve students’ scores in primary school as well as attendance (UNESCO, 2015). Early Childhood Education (ECE) could possibly be one of the ways to address late enrolment in the system. Punjab rolled out a state-funded ECE program in 2015 (sample in 36 districts), and was the only province in 2019/20 to have 58% of children at age 5 enrolled in school. Balochistan (19%), Sindh (31%) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (32%) all lagged significantly behind in enrolling children by age 5.

Another significant hurdle in enrolling children in schools is the documentation required at the time of child’s enrolment in a school (B-Form to be specific). The state has made it compulsory for the parents to submit B-Form (acquired from NADRA), and rightly so. What can help further is the mandatory registration of B-Form at the time of childbirth, thereby not only removing a significant administrative hurdle for parents (especially for households belonging to marginalised communities) at the time of enrolment in school, but also to facilitate the state in projecting the number of schools/seats needed in the next three years for each administrative unit.

Age-appropriate accelerated learning programs

Currently, there is no national-level strategy and/or guidelines which set minimum standards or pathways for accelerated learning programs to enroll out of school children (never enrolled and dropped out). Sporadically designed donor-funded projects and/or pilots in each of the provinces have only managed to address the issue at a very small scale. However, what we need is a coherent effort at developing precise pathways to enroll out-of-school children. For instance, children in an adolescent age cohort cannot undergo 5 years of primary, 3 years of middle and then high school to sit for matriculation exams. So there exists a need to develop guidelines for accelerated learning programs (similar to the nature of mainstream schools/programs), which allow adolescents to enroll in 3-5 year accelerated learning program to later become part of mainstream education.

We are in dire need of a comprehensive ‘Accelerated Learning System (ALS)’ which operates in parallel to mainstream schools, such as daily school time, regular classes, pre-designed curriculum (specific for different age-groups and difficulty-levels), teachers trained to deliver the ALS curriculum (teaching at the right level) and designated ALS schools.

Without formalising Accelerated Learning System, there is very little to no hope for the 20 million children who are not in school.

Large-scale literacy program for adolescent youth

Based on the numbers reported in The Missing Third, 9.2 million of the 20 million children are in the age bracket 11-16 years (46% of the total OOSC), out of which 5.5 million belong to the 14-16-year age bracket. Based on the number of years it takes for policies to be proposed, approved (in an ideal scenario), and forwarded to the Planning and Development Department for any actionable output, there is a minimum lag of 2-3 years, by which these 5.5 million children would have moved on to becoming illiterate adults, further stressing our stagnant adult literacy rate.

Our planning and policies need to take into account this older age group, in which not all children will be either capable or available to be enrolled in accelerated learning programs. We need short literacy program/courses for these individuals to become literate citizens who are able to contribute positively to the economy of the country.

Asynchronous alternatives to school-leaving certification

The issue of out of school children is not only restricted to developing countries. While the quantum differs significantly, the challenge has existed in developed countries too. This allows us to learn from what worked in their context and customise it to our needs. The United States has a system of high school equivalence. This is an alternate route which children can take in case they were not able to pursue formal schooling (i.e. enroll in a high school) for any reason. Children/young adults have the option of completing a course in ‘General Education Development (GED)’, which serves as an equivalent to their K-12 degree, and allows children who did not have the opportunity to otherwise enroll in a formal school (financial constraints or any other) to pursue jobs or higher education. GED does not require applicants to attend school or classes, but is a combination of 5 exams evaluating the candidate’s basic level of knowledge as compared to a high school graduate (foundational aspects only).

The proposed ‘Accelerated Learning System’ should allow OOSC to pursue both paths: attending regular classes in an ALS school/program to re-enter the mainstream education system; or allow an applicant to sit through an equivalence exam rather than appearing for matriculation privately. The equivalence exam is set on basic knowledge of the applicant rather than having them rote-memorise the content of a mainstream exam (in our case Matriculation).

Huma Zia Faran, Programme Lead, Pakistan Alliance for Maths and Science