Getting to school by FAISAL BARI

IN a village just one kilometre from Sheikhupura city girls cannot go to schools or colleges and cannot look for work as they do not have access to safe and secure means of transport. They cannot walk to the city, there is no reliable public transport and there are no dedicated school buses. The village has a high school but then most girls don’t continue with their education post matriculation. The most common complaint, from mothers, is that ‘girls spend the entire day doing nothing’.

In the past month, I have visited girls’ schools across three provinces and many cities and districts. These have included the most developed districts of the country and the least developed, rural as well as urban ones, large cities as well as small ones. Across the board, the absence of secure transport facilities raises a significant barrier to school access. The distance to primary school might be shorter, though in many cases it is still not a walkable one. Meanwhile, distances to secondary schools are longer. Mechanised transport is needed for a lot of children, and especially for girls, to reach their school. Lack of such transport limits the number of girls who can go to school and it is an important cause of girls dropping out of school when they transition from primary to middle or high school.

All provincial governments have been following the structure where they have tried to place a primary school within a certain distance of a population. And the plan was to put a middle/high school over a cluster of four to five primary schools. The plan has not been followed through in all places, especially for girls’ schools but this structure, even by definition means that a) we expect a certain number of children to drop out of school when transitioning from primary to middle or high school, and b) the mean distance for a typical child will increase substantially when they move to middle or high school.

With the adoption of Article 25A, and the state’s promise of ‘free and compulsory’ education to all five- to 16-year-olds in Pakistan, the aforementioned structure needs to be thought through. Now, we want all children to go up to matriculation. How can clustering, with one middle/high school over four to five primary schools, work unless the school is geared to run multiple sections? But irrespective of this, the challenge of distance remains.

Unaffordable transport costs continue to deprive girls of an education.

In the grade 10 classes that I visited in Peshawar, Kohat, Mansehra and Swat, almost half the girls in each class said they came to school in private commercial transport. They reported that they spent in the range of Rs600-1,500 per month for this kind of transport. I did not have the opportunity of meeting those girls whose parents had not been able to afford transport expenditure and had dropped out of school. But even for girls in school, this expenditure clearly put a lot of financial burden on their household budgets.

Government schools, across Pakistan, and up to matriculation at least, do not charge tuition fees anymore. Provincial governments are also distributing free textbooks in government schools. The main expenditure of sending a child to government school is now down to stationery, school supplies, uniforms, and transport cost where applicable. Stationery and school uniform costs are not prohibitive or formidable. Transport costs are. If we want every child to be educated up to matriculation level, we have to address the issue of transport. The promise of ‘free and compulsory’ education would be empty if large numbers of our children are not able to come to school due to unaffordable transport costs.

At the moment, none of the provincial governments seems to be thinking of a way to address the issue. But even if they were to think about it, the solution is not going to be simple. In some places, we will need to look into the possibility of upgrading primary schools to middle or high schools. In others, we might have to convert boys’ schools, given they are more in number in almost all districts across the country, into coeducational institutions or use them as girls’ schools during the evening shift. Even currently, though this is not standard practice, there are many places where we do not have girls’ schools and girls are attending boys’ schools.

The state does not have the money to buy buses to provide for every child needing transport to get to school, but in some places, where distances are considerable and private options not available, the state has to step in. This option should be explored in districts and areas that are particularly challenging. I visited Shangla district recently. With a population of almost 700,000 people, there are only about 4,000 girls enrolled in government schools across grades 6-10 in the entire district. The district is quite underdeveloped and there is no private transport market there. In places where private providers are present, the state has to work out ways of leveraging private-sector networks for transport to school or pay the girls or their parents so that they can afford private transport.

Local conditions will have to determine which option is the best for an area. The transport issue cannot be handled from Islamabad or even the provincial capitals. These levels can make resources available, but optimal solutions will have to come from the district or sub-district levels of government.

Do we want to give ‘free and compulsory’ education to all our children as we have promised in Article 25A of the Constitution? If so, we have to look at the cost of education more carefully, and within that transport costs will have to be a major area of focus for us. Without addressing the transport issue, we will never be able to get our children, especially girls, to school.

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

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