Educating One Million Out of School Children

This is how we did it – lessons learn from the campaign “Educating One Million Out of School Children”

“It always seems impossible until it’s done” said Nelson Mandela and his words very much reflect what has recently been achieved in Pakistan: over 1 million out of school children (OOSC) have been provided with an access to education within last three years through the efforts of an NGO-led initiative.

When the program “Educate a Child” was first conceived and designed in 2018 this number seemed very ambitious – not to say unrealistic – but, as Dr. Tariq Cheema, the country director of Alight, explains: “looking at the size of the problem at that time, which was an estimated 25 million out of school children in Pakistan, we had to set the target that would be a reasonable step forward. It had to be achievable, but at the same time disruptive to the current broken system. Providing education to 1 million kids would mean a nearly 10% improvement in the situation, and that is a significant difference we wanted to see”. “Educate a Child” is not the first initiative for OOSC, but it is certainly the biggest one run by the Third Sector organization and the most successful one so far. But then, huge problem need vast and complex solutions, not small size interventions.

The “Educate a Child” program was led by Alight Pakistan, an NGO headquartered in Islamabad, in collaboration with Qatari-based Education Above All Foundation and was grounded on a partnership with local and federal governments and communities. And this, as Dr. Cheema tells me, was one of the key ingredients of the program’s success. As the projects draws to a closure in June 2021, it’s time to revisit the program strengths and recollect the lessons learnt along the way. How did we manage to achieve the impossible?

No one can do it alone

And we didn’t. Broad and diverse partnership network was key for the success of the project. Educate a Child was designed as a collaborative intervention that required the cooperation of NGOs with provincial and federal governments. But just as important was the inclusion of local communities: villages councils, grassroots organizations and local communities. When it comes to children’s school attendance, especially in case of low-income families from underprivileged communities, much depends on the attitude of the families. If they see school as a worthwhile endeavor, if they feel that it is their decision and that such decision could impact their children’s future they are more likely to get seriously involved. Otherwise, despite efforts of the government and the NGOs, the attendance might pick up only to plummet soon after.

Dr. Cheema pointed out that this attitude of cooperation and openness to learn from others is a reflection of one of Alight’s core values: Find Others. As an organization we humbly admit that we don’t – and we can’t – have all the answers and we can’t do it alone. We believe that each individual is unique and brings valuable knowledge into the conversation, so we seek others and together we co-design and co-create best possible solutions.

Out of the box ideas

Community ownership and partnership is of huge importance, but the meaningful dialogue with the communities that are the ultimate beneficiaries of the project is also crucial as it allows to establish the actual needs and obstacles preventing children in certain areas from attending a school. The prejudices are many, but to find a sustainable solution we had to make sure we get the grasp on the essence of the problem. In doing so we adhered to another of our values, perhaps the most important one: Be Human Centered. We see those we serve as dignified human beings with intrinsic worth and huge untapped potential. And we try to make best use of that potential, leveraging the local communities’ capabilities and helping them build resilience, so that the schools we helped establish can be maintained and managed locally even after the campaign comes to an end.

When it comes to effective – and sustainable – solutions, we learnt that flexibility is vital. Very soon into the project we had to abandon the idea that the standard model of public school is the best option for every child – it is not. Our non-formal schools established all over the country cater to the needs of those kids who would not get admitted to public school. For some it was an issue of time management – and non-formal schools offer flexible timings, or morning and evening shifts to cater for all needs and requirements. We also devised accelerated curriculum to help those students, for whom the age was the major issue, to catch up on the lost years of education and rejoin the mainstream education.

When the COVID19 pandemic hit in, it was the students from the poorest communities and those living in remote settlements that got affected the worst, as they did not have the option of online learning. We had to come up with a solution that would allow them continuous learning during lockdown. We leveraged technology, but did not come up with a brilliant new high-tech solution. Rather, we thought of the brilliant way to use the technology that has been around for over a century and the success of our Muallim radio program for primary years’ students exceeded our expectations. We were originally aiming the project for 2,000 children from the remote mountainous region of Gilgit Baltistan, but we have later found out that our educational radio programme reached 200,000-plus children. We have thus learnt that solutions do not necessarily involve new inventions, but often it is about the smart use of what is already available.

Pulling resources

Because we set ourselves an ambitious target of 1 million children enrolled at school, we had to scale the solutions and make the most of the available financial and human resources. Adhering to our motto: “Be human centered” we strived to do the most with the least, utilizing as much as possible smart and cost-effective implementation approaches. To make sure that every rupee in the program is well spent we used a robust monitoring and quality assurance system. We wanted to make a real difference and have long-lasting impact. Ending up in a “ghost enrollment” situation was not an option for us as an organization.

It’s not all about the numbers

There are reasons to celebrate: we provided access to education to 1 million OOSC. But we realize that numbers are not all that counts. The quality of the education we provide is just as important – if not more – than the number of students on the enrollment list. We also realize that despite the efforts the quality of education in many public schools is also not up to the desired standards. For our non-formal schools, we designed a teachers’ training program and implemented it with the assistance of Oxademy, UK and local Allama Iqbal Open University. The effort was certainly worthwhile as the quality of education affects the numbers: the better the school, the more likely parents are to send their kids in, as they see the positive impacts of education.

It’s not the end, it’s the beginning

So we have done it: we have reached the project target. It is a victory, but not a triumph. There are still some 20 million of out of school children in Pakistan alone and we hope that we will be able to reach them too. Because we are not content with the status quo and we will continue to strive to bravely be better.