Assessing Covid-19’s Impact On Education, Through Pakistan's Largest Survey Of Its Kind

Assessing Covid-19’s Impact On Education, Through Pakistan's Largest Survey Of Its Kind
The global endeavour to ensure that all children obtain a good education has been seriously hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic and Pakistan is no different. Closures of educational Institutions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have harmed an estimated 40 million students, from pre-primary to higher education – in an environment where school enrolment, completion and learning quality is already low, particularly amongst girls in Pakistan.

UNICEF Pakistan has supported a study on "Measuring the Impact of COVID-19 on Education in Pakistan," which primarily focuses on learning losses owing to school closures and the measures taken to support learning for school-aged children, in order to better understand the scope of the problem and build a body of evidence to inform future policy directions. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in Pakistan, conducted by Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), aims to provide frequent, credible estimates of the education status and learning outcomes of children aged 5–16 years in rural regions of Pakistan. The ASER research in 2021 was designed to examine the impacts of COVID-19 after the unprecedented school closures of 2020 and early 2021.

The survey was carried out in 16 Pakistani rural districts (four each in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh provinces). A total of 9,392 homes with a total of 25,448 children aged 3–16 years, including 21,589 children aged 5–16 years, were surveyed (43 % of girls, 57 % of boys). Learning assessments for language (English and Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto) and arithmetic competencies were completed for children aged 5–16 years using ASER instruments matched to sustainable development goal 4.1.1.a.

In addition, 457 government schools and 198 private schools were surveyed to determine their capacity and readiness to follow government standards for restarting schools safely. Quetta, Bolan, Gwadar and Awaran in Balochistan; Peshawar, Chitral, South Waziristan and Torghar in KP; Muzaffargarh, Sheikhupura, Bhakkar and Jhelum in Punjab; and Karachi-Malir, Sukkur, Tharparkar and Dadu in Sindh are among the districts surveyed. The epidemic of COVID-19 has altered society and worsened social and economic disparities. Governments around the world have banned face-to-face teaching in schools as a part of measures to halt its spread, affecting 95% of the world's student population—the greatest disruption to education in history.

According to UNESCO data from April 2020, COVID-19 caused school closures for 1.6 billion students worldwide, with 188 countries closing schools. As a result of COVID-19, Pakistan was one of the first countries in the world to implement widespread school closures. Schools in Sindh province were closed on February 27, 2020, and the rest of the country followed suit on March 14, 2020. Classes 9–12 were reopened on September 15, 2020, followed by Classes 6–8 on September 23, and nursery to Class 5 on September 30, 2020 respectively. Following the third wave of the pandemic (from April to May 2021), all learners, whether in private or public schools, began attending classes on alternating days. Even before the epidemic, Pakistan's education system was in crisis, with 32 % of children aged 5 to 16 years out of school and dismal learning outcomes for those who were enrolled.
Enrolment in the age groups 6 to 16 has decreased marginally, but dramatically in the age groups 3 to 5. COVID-19 caused financial difficulty for many families, resulting in an increase in dropouts

The closure of educational institutions as a result of COVID-19 has had a direct impact on 40 million school-aged children, ranging from pre-primary to secondary school, amplifying the dangers and vulnerabilities of an already weakened educational system. Concerns have been raised about the impact of the suspension of face-to-face education on student learning. There is a scarcity of data on this topic, and proof of learning loss under lockdown has taken a long time to surface. School systems, unlike other sectors such as business or health, do not often provide data at regular intervals. Online solutions for instruction, much less assessment and accountability, have proven difficult for schools and instructors to implement. Previous crises have demonstrated that the impacts of school closures can last for years. And so, for instance, four years after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, an entire cohort of learners aged 3–15 had worse academic results, despite extensive remediation efforts.

While school closures have been beneficial in aiding social distancing measures, they may have major implications for education and learning. While past research from other nations has looked at the effects of summer recess on learning, as well as disruptions caused by events like extreme weather or teacher strikes, COVID-19 offers a unique issue. Parents are less able to provide learning support as a result of its concomitant economic repercussions, the pandemic's health and mortality risks, as well as the toll of social isolation – all of which impose additional psychological expenses. The prevalence of family violence is expected to climb, putting already vulnerable students in danger.

When schools disappear, there is no new learning, and what has already been learnt is likely to be forgotten. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Pakistan, produced by Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), is Pakistan's largest citizen-led household-based survey, conducted on a regular basis to provide reliable assessment-based estimates of education status and learning outcomes for children aged 5–16 years living in rural districts. Due to the emergence of COVID-19 in 2020, a large-scale survey could not be undertaken, so it was agreed, in cooperation with UNICEF, to conduct a restricted survey to analyse the pandemic's effects on learning. The UNICEF-funded study is one of the first to measure COVID-19 learning loss using the ASER approach, in which children were examined in three basic competencies: Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto reading, English and Arithmetic, across 16 districts using a representative sample.


Measuring the Impact of COVID-19 on Education in Pakistan, Annual Status of Education Report, 2021

The ASER 2021 is the world's largest citizen-led household-based learning survey, undertaken mostly in rural and urban areas. It is led by Idarae-Taleemo-Aagahi in collaboration with other stakeholders (ITA). ASER launched a research project to analyse the impact of COVID-19 on Pakistani education after a series of unusual school closures in 2020 and early 2021. The survey sample includes a total of 12 rural districts (4 in Punjab, 4 in Sindh and 4 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Language and arithmetic skills were assessed in 7,176 families, 18,838 children aged 3-16 years, and 16,058 children aged 5-16 years (41 % females and 59 % boys) from 345 government and 184 private schools.


Summary of Key Findings & Comparison between ASER 2019 and 2021

Enrolment (National Rural)
In 2019, 86% of children aged 6 to 16 were enrolled in school in these 12 rural districts (14% of out-of-school children).67 % of those enrolled were in government schools, while 33 % were in non-state institutions (private schools and madrasas). In 2019, 40% of children aged 3 to 5 years old enrolled in pre-school. In 2021, 84 % of children aged 6 to 16 were enrolled in school, while 16 % were not (6 % were drop-outs). 20 % of the 6% who dropped out said they did so because of financial difficulties during COVID-19. 79 % of those enrolled were in government institutions, while 21% were in non-government institutions (private schools and madrasa). In 2021, 35% of children aged 3 to 5 years were enrolled in pre-school.

Enrolment in the age groups 6 to 16 has decreased marginally, but dramatically in the age groups 3 to 5. COVID-19 caused financial difficulty for many families, resulting in an increase in dropouts. Furthermore, compared to boys, a larger number of girls were discovered to have dropped out.


Key Findings

  1. Punjab has the highest levels of learning, followed by KP and Sindh, and Balochistan has the lowest levels of learning, with Balochistan having the highest learning losses, followed by Punjab, Sindh and KP. The learning losses were largest in low-performing and high-performing districts on the Alif Ailaan rating from 2017. 2. Across nearly all abilities and classes, girls lost more learning than boys during the COVID-19 school closures. This helped to prevent or even reverse an upward trend in learning outcomes for girls, who had been outperforming boys in some circumstances.

  2. During the period when schools were closed, children who attended government schools showed a higher decline in learning than those who attended private schools. These decreases are more pronounced in the lower classes (Classes 1 and 3).

  3. Learning outcomes improve with maternal education and household affluence.

  4. During school closures, almost 60% of youngsters currently enrolled in school spend less than an hour every day on their academics.

  5. While 40% of children who had cell phones at home used them for studying, younger children had less access to them than older children. If school closures occur again, 55% of children do not feel confident in their ability to study on their own.

  6. Approximately 32% of children said they watched educational broadcasts on PTV's Tele-School programmes. While Tele-School has a significant reach, its impact is unknown. The study also discovered that 54.5 % of households with television access have not used PTV Teleschool as a learning aid for their children. This highlights the disparities that exist between individuals and social groups not just in terms of access to technology, but also in terms of their ability to benefit from it, with low "digital literacy" and/or "digital motivation."

  7. Through the BISP, Ehsaas, Punjab Social Protection Authority (PSPA), and Akhuwat initiatives, social protection outreach to HHs grew from 10.4 % to 11.4 % in the sixteen districts from 2019 to 2021. Given the expansion of targeted social protection instruments for education over the COVID-19 period, from early childhood to primary, secondary, and post-secondary, this could be an important linkage to offset learning and access deprivation for those most in need (ensuring at least 50% are girls) through a lifelong approach.


Conclusions and Recommendations

Primary school students are experiencing a learning crisis as a result of school closures. Learning losses are more common in younger children who have not yet established a solid basis for learning. Pakistan's learning crisis is embedded in a deeper crisis of fairness, with girls, children from low-income families, and children from certain geographic regions suffering the biggest learning deficits.

Therefore, it is recommended that: Policies and programmes must be developed to support all children's learning, with a focus on young children and girls. The factors that contribute to educational inequity must be addressed, such as through social protection programmes for girls' education and targeted low-tech and no-tech support for children in the poorest homes. To jointly promote children's education, a new social compact for learning is needed to develop linkages between families, communities, and schools; where Education Technology (EdTech) should be investigated for its potential to create innovative learning solutions.

The author is a researcher, writer and analyst in the field of cyber security. He holds LLB and an M.Phil in Cyber Crimes and is currently pursuing his Ph.D in CS