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05 Feb 2015

ASER 2014: Engaging Citizens to Measure Learning Outcomes and Spark Change in Pakistan

By Sehar Saeed, Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), Pakistan.

ASER cover picOver the past fifteen years, thanks in large part to the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on universal primary education, major advances have been made in enrolling millions of children worldwide. However, despite significant progress, those gains have been uneven, and learning levels remain unacceptably low. At least 250 million primary-school-age children around the world are not able to read, write or count well enough to meet minimum learning standards, including girls and boys who have spent at least four years in school. Worse still, we may not know the full scale of the crisis as these figures are likely to be an underestimate because measure­ment of learning outcomes among children and youth is limited. Relative to the measurement of access, learning outcomes are more difficult to assess at the global level.

“Are our children learning?”

Every country has strategies that try to ensure all children are enrolled in schools; families, communities and schools have been working towards universal enrolment. But an equally pressing question that faces all of us is “are our children learning”? To answer this question, a growing family of civil society organizations introduced large-scale, household-based assessments of children’s basic reading and arithmetic skills, proving that it is possible to engage citizens to measure learning outcomes and to use those results to spark change.

This innovative approach to learning assessment has been implemented in several Asian, African, and Latin American countries. Armed with easy to administer tools for assessing children’s basic reading and arithmetic skills, groups of citizens are systematically measuring what their children are able to do and sharing what they discover with other citizens, educators, and leaders while mobilizing large coalitions. This grassroots effort began in India in 2005 and has been adapted for use by civil society groups in Pakistan (2008), Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda (2009), Mali (2011), Senegal (2012) and Mexico (2013).

ASER Pakistan, as a part of this South-South initiative since 2008, has collected evidence from 144 rural districts and 21 urban centres in 2014 reaching over 93,000 households and almost 280,000 children (3-16 years) with the help of 10,000 volunteers coming together to address quality, accountability and governance. Being one of the largest annual household based surveys of children learning, each year ASER covers a representative sample covering children who are both in and out of school.

Findings of ASER 2014 state that the private sector is performing better than the government sector as far as the learning levels of children, student and teacher attendance are concerned; but the nature of state and non-state provision is very complex and no easy comparison of private and public can be made. The survey reveals a clear urban-rural divide, whereby urban areas perform better in terms of access (94% children in schools in urban areas vs. 79% in rural areas) and infrastructure facilities. An interesting trend has continued to be observed – whereby a considerable number of children are found to be going to non-state schools compared to public schools; 30% children of age 6-16 were enrolled in non-state schools in 2014 compared to 26% in 2013.

According to the ASER 2014 report, student competencies in learning English, Arithmetic, and Language are deplorable. Over half (54%) of the children from grade 5 cannot read grade 2 level text in Urdu/Sindhi/ Pashto. In English, only 42% of the surveyed grade 5 students could read sentences which should ideally be read by students from the second grade. A similar trend has been observed in Arithmetic capabilities of children where only 40% of grade 5 children could do a two-digit division respectively, something that is expected in second grade curriculum.

In addition to the assessment of children, the report also highlights school functioning across every district in Pakistan. The ASER rural survey shows that overall teachers’ attendance in government schools stood at 88% compared to 93% in private schools on the day of the survey. Private teachers were reported to have better qualifications; for example, 39% teachers in private schools are graduates in comparison to only 33% in government schools, however the reverse is the case for MA/MSC or post-graduate qualifications, whereby larger percentages of public sector teachers have a higher qualification than their private sector counterparts.

Despite the fact that only 4% private primary schools receive funds from the government (as compared to 26% public primary schools), private schools report having better at school facilities. For example, 73% private primary schools had boundary-walls as compared to 61% government primary schools. Similarly, with regard to the availability of functional toilets, it has been found that this facility was still not available in 49% public and 25% private primary schools in rural Pakistan.

The current education status of Pakistan as demonstrated by ASER 2014 clearly illustrates a bleak picture. If our objective is to educate ALL CHILDREN while creating a nexus between education and sustainable development, we need to come up with s new framework for meeting educational goals and targets focused more towards implementation. Moreover, at a time when the international community begins to plan post-2015 education goals and an associated framework, it is vital to ensure that new goals invest in citizenship and that quality learning is brought in to the centre of the debate along with enrolment!

Sehar Saeed, Program Head, ASER Pakistan. Email:

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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