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EDITORIAL: With more than 22 million children out of school Pakistan holds the embarrassing distinction of having the lowest literacy rate in South Asia. As per official figures, for a while the literacy has hovered around 58 percent. Even that seems to be a somewhat exaggerated statistic considering that many of the 'literates' cannot read and write, the quality of education in most schools being as low as it is. If that is not bad enough, a more alarming situation looms on the horizon. A new World Bank report entitled "Learning Losses in Pakistan due to Covid-19 School Closures" says an estimated 930,000 additional children are expected to drop out from both primary and secondary schools, representing an increase of almost 4.2 percent of the student population. Consequently, the learning poverty will go up to 79 percent whereas the level of poor learning in this country has already been high at 75 percent.

To state the obvious, literacy not only helps children acquire basic knowledge and much confidence to prosper as adults it contributes to socio-economic development of societies. The WB report highlights the linkage in a rather disconcerting prognosis. Identifying some factors for fall in school attendance estimates, such as high income inequalities, it refers to a Gallup survey from early in the Covid-19 pandemic that found 27 percent of the families were considering not returning their children to school, the report surmises that if the loss of learning is quantified in terms of labour market returns the average student will face a reduction between $ 193 and $445 in yearly earnings once he or she enters the labour market, which represents between 2.8 percent and 6.6 percent of annual incomes. It goes on to note that aggregated for all students in Pakistan, and projected twenty years into the future when all graduates have entered the labour market, this would cost Pakistan's economy between $ 67 billion in GDP at net present value. These estimates are based on the observed income elasticity of education for various socio-economic quintiles and the June 2020 growth projections for Pakistan, say the authors of the report.

The schools have opened after a hiatus of six months. Although Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood keeps offering the assurance that SOPs are being strictly implemented some parents may still have remained reluctant to send their children to school. Those financially better off can afford to wait another year - till the coronavirus beats a complete retreat - to have their young ones resume education. But loss of employment and surging prices of daily necessities of life may have impelled poor families to push their children into the labour market rather than schools. More may be thinking of following suit. It is imperative therefore that aside from an emphasis on observance of SOPs, poor families are sufficiently incentivized not to pull their children out of school. The Covid-19 challenge should not deter the government from trying to achieve, as far as possible, its avowed target of increasing enrollment from a dismal 58 percent to 70 percent by the end of its term in office.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020