Helping every girl and boy complete primary education in Pakistan

Accelerated Education Centres help underprivileged children learn and build a better future

Moeed Hussain
Sunaina smiles while she studies at the AEP Centre.
07 March 2019

Rahim Yar Khan, Pakistan - 7 March 2019: “When I go to the market with my Naani (maternal grandmother), I can read the shop signs for her,” seven-year-old Sunaina proudly says.

“Once, a shopkeeper made a mistake counting how much money we owed him, and I told my Naani. I got an ice cream as a reward!” she adds with a smile that can brighten one’s day.

In Pakistan, nearly 23 million children aged 5-16 are out of school -- nearly half the age group, the majority of them girls – including five million of primary school age. Born in an underprivileged community where families send their children to work to make ends meet, or have girls married at an early age, Sunaina was unlikely to ever learn how to read and write unless they were provided with an education facility close to home.

“When I go to the market with my Naani (maternal grandmother), I can read the shop signs for her.”

Sunaina, 7 year old second grader

To enable girls and boys to fulfil their right to education, UNICEF, with funding from the Norwegian Committee, supports various Alternative Learning Programmes across Pakistan, including more than 200 in Punjab. These programmes give children who dropped out, or have never been to school, a chance to learn. The project is being implemented in partnership with the Literacy and Non-Formal Basic Education Department of Punjab.

Helping girls and boys complete primary education

The Rehmat Niazi Accelerated Education Programme (AEP) Centre where Sunaina has been studying for a year is located in Bhatta Colony, a very poor neighbourhood in the city of Rahim Yar Khan in the Punjab province. The word Bhatta, which means ‘brick kiln’ (furnace) in Urdu, is a useful reminder that most people here are workers who often eke out a living making bricks in the local kilns.

Hidden at the end of a maze of narrow, muddy paths, the centre is the only learning facility for children in the area. It runs three AEP sessions simultaneously to accommodate as many students aged 5-13 as possible in the community, one of them funded by the Norwegian Committee for UNICEF.

The centre also offers Early Childhood Education (ECE) to the younger children, using specifically designed education kits provided by UNICEF.

The ECE teacher, 28-year-old Fareeha Namreen, writes the names of various animals on the whiteboard in English, before asking students to read them aloud and translate them into Urdu, the language they speak at home. She uses stuffed animals which are part of the kit to help the children remember, in line with the ‘Learning Through Play’ approach used for ECE.

Play is a powerful way to learn, which builds children’s curiosity and self-esteem. In the imaginary world of play, children can experiment without fear of failure. ECE helps create a better learning environment in schools. It also offers teachers with opportunities to engage with young children, helping enrol more children in the centre and preventing them from dropping out.

A teacher conducts an activity in class using UNICEF's early childhood education kits.
Fareeha Namreen, a teacher at the AEP Centre supported by UNICEF and the Norwegian National Committee in Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, leads a learning activity using early childhood education kits provided by UNICEF.

The centre also teaches primary school-age children such as Sunaina. The youngest of seven children born to a car mechanic, who lost her mother when she was still a toddler, Sunaina is an energetic second grader. She was raised by older siblings until her grandmother Naimat Bibi took her in early 2017.

“After my daughter’s death, Sunaina was the only hope I could cling to,” Naimat Bibi says as she wipes off tears.

Poverty prevented Naimat Bibi from getting an education, and she could not afford sending her own children to school, including Sunaina’s mother. After the latter died, Naimat Bibi vouched that things would be different for Sunaina, to honour the memory of her late daughter. However, she could not figure out where to send her to learn.

"When the social mobilizers told me that Sunaina would be enrolled for free, I realized that my dream of sending her to school was finally becoming a reality."

Naimat Bibi (Sunaina's grandmother)

Two years later, Naimat Bibi was visited by a teacher and a community social mobilizer at home, who told her about the AEP centre.

“I told them that I would try and save money, and contact them in a few months, so I could send Sunaina to their centre” Naimat Bibi says. She explains she had not been able to save much in the previous years and was too short on money to pay schooling fees at that point in time.

“That’s when they told me that they would enrol my Sunaina for free,” Naimat Bibi tells joyfully. “I don’t think I have ever felt happier. My dream of sending my grand-daughter to school was finally becoming a reality!”

Sunaina poses with her grandmother at her home.
Sunaina and her grandmother Naimat Bibi at her home in Bhatta Colony, an underpriviledged neighbourhood of the city of Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab.

Learning free of charge

UNICEF-supported Alternative Learning Programmes are primarily run by local and provincial government counterparts and are free of charge. Spread across 500 localities throughout Pakistan, the centres enrol children, even if they have never been to school or are overage, for a minimum of three years, after which they can take the provincial standardised exam for grade five and join the formal education system.

“The project thrives on community support,” explains Sehr Raza Jafri, UNICEF Pakistan’s Education officer in Punjab. “Governments and international organisations create models, but the communities are the ones that must own these initiatives if we want to have the sustained and long-term results that we strive for,” she says.

This is why each centre is established inside a community or close to it. Social mobilizers from the Literacy and Non-Formal Basic Education Department visit the communities which have the highest numbers of out-of-school-children, informing families about the centres and finding available spots for students. This helps build ownership in the communities and convince parents that their children can go to school and complete primary education, since a well-equipped facility is available at a safe distance from home.

For children like Sunaina, the centres are beacons of hope in which they can complete at least a primary education, equipping them –in particular girls -- with the life skills that they will need to access decent employment, postpone the age of marriage and build a brighter future for themselves and their families as they grow up.

Sunaina walks home from school with a classmate
Sunaina (7), a student of grade two, walks home with a class fellow after her classes end at the UNICEF supported Rehmat Niazi Bhatta Colony AEP Centre in Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab.