According to a recent report released by Alif Ailaan which works for the education of children in Pakistan, 25 million children of school going age are not enrolled in schools.

This, despite the commitment of the government of Pakistan to achieve a hundred percent primary education both in terms of the UN Millennium Development Goals and the World Education Forum Dakar Education For All targets. How serious the Pakistani governments have been in meeting educational challenges may be gauged from the fact that less than 2% of GDP is spent on education for all levels; primary, secondary and tertiary. No wonder millions of children today are out of school and there are close to 60 million adult illiterates in this country.

How can Pakistan catch up with the rest of the world education wise? Education will have to be given high priority and its financial allocations must at least be doubled.

For accelerated results, innovative ways and means especially alternative learning systems will have to be pressed into service. Earlier this month, a regional conference on ALS—Alternative Learning Systems was held in Lahore. UNESCO, UNICEF and JICA officials and educationalists representing Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan participated in the meeting. Director UNESCO made an important point:  that out of school children represented an unconscionable underinvestment preventing nations from reaching their full economic and social potential. ALS provides a flexible route to education for those to whom formal education access is denied for various reasons.

ALS includes flexible methodologies, intensive learning of literacy and numeracy, relevant learning content, learning to learn, civic education, problem solving and equivalence to existing formal schooling. The unreached are children in poverty, girls, ethnic minorities, children with disabilities, refugees, children living in post-conflict settings, immigrants/internally displaced children.

Responding to the diverse interests and needs of children, flexible methodologies relate to pedagogies developed for ALS schools and centres, learning environments, languages and contact hours. Appropriate approaches include distance learning, weekend and night—schooling, tutoring and community learning centres. Some of the plus points of non-formal centres are small and intensive classes and individual learning programmes.

India, Indonesia and Philippines have a long history of ALS in primary education, while ALS for primary education have been expanded considerably in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar and Nepal.

The best performance is to be found in Bangladesh, where Brac has established an enormous network of educational and related institutions. This NGO established in 1972, is the largest in the world. It has a budget of $ 650 million, has a staff of 12,000 and works in many countries. It runs 39,000 schools where 9.3 million students are enrolled. It has branches in a number of countries in Africa and Asia including Pakistan. Brac programmes consist of pre-primary and primary schools, inclusive education and a number of school support services.

The Brac education system has a centre based approach with one teacher for 25-30 children, and the one teacher school is operated by the same teacher for the same cohort of children for the entire period of four years. It delivers lessons in all subjects, with sixty percent female students, no tuition fees, flexible class hours, one local female teacher with over ten years of schooling experience, and the school located on a catchment of a mainstream primary school, fun and activity based pre-school education, mother forums with a mandatory one day per month session, community participation thought SMCs, and the training of government and private school teachers.

In Pakistan, Brac has opened 955 schools with an enrollment of 25,000 students. It has also trained 655 teachers. A special feature of its programmes is the establishment of Mother Forums where more than 22,000 mothers have been trained in the basics of pre-primary and primary education. Brac’s programme aims at setting up to 50,000 schools where 1.5 million out of school children will be enrolled, 10,000 government and private school teachers trained, 5,000 adolescent development centers opened to support 150,000 young girls in life skills and the training of more than a million mothers in early and primary education.

One issue regarding non-formal basic education is the question of Accreditation and Equivalence. There is much to learn for Pakistan from the experiences of countries mentioned where ALS have been run with success for the last many years.

UNESCO and UNICEF would be well advised to bring in experts from some of these countries to help develop improved programmes, proper procedures and relevant skills as well as opportunities for key personnel engaged in non formal education to visit ALS centres abroad. Non formal programmes are very much needed because they, compared to formal systems, cost less, are innovative and flexible and involve communities at local levels.

Pakistan very much needs to expand its non-formal education programmes and learn from the good practices successfully managed abroad.

The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.