Getting children back to school in Pakistan

  • July 27, 2023
Getting children back to school in Pakistan

Scholar-Elect Minha Khan talks about her research on out of school children in Pakistan, which is fired by her experience of education's transformative power.

Having grown up in Pakistan, I have experienced first-hand the transformative power of education to break cycles of inequity by providing every child the opportunity to succeed, thereby uplifting families for generations to come.

Minha Khan

In April Pakistan’s education minister declared that the country has the highest number of out of school children in the world. According to UNICEF data, approximately 22.8 million children aged 5-16 in Pakistan do not attend school, accounting for 44 percent of the population of this age.

The declaration came the year after months of flooding killed 1,739 people and saw a third of the country under water, with many of the hardest-hit districts amongst the most vulnerable districts in Pakistan.

Minha Khan’s PhD will tackle the urgent issue of how to bring the many Pakistani children who have dropped out because of climate change or Covid back into the education fold. She says that being number one on the list for out of school children has focused minds and brought more funding.  “All of a sudden people realise it is a major concern and will get worse,” says Minha.  “Although we’ve ranked in the top 10 for many years, being number one has forced us to confront it.”

Minha, who has addressed issues ranging from how schooling in a child’s non-native language can make learning inaccessible to girls’ education and how funding and governance affects school success,  adds: “Having grown up in Pakistan, I have experienced first-hand the transformative power of education to break cycles of inequity by providing every child the opportunity to succeed, thereby uplifting families for generations to come. At the heart of my work, therefore, is a commitment to positively contribute to the educational ecosystem of Pakistan.”

Her PhD in Education starts in the autumn. She says she was drawn to Cambridge by the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre’s interest in a practitioner-based international approach. “It is a mixture of academic and real world and the first picture I saw on the website was one of young Pakistani girls studying together,” she says. That was refreshing for Minha after years of studying in the West and feeling that she had to fight to show that her focus on Pakistan was important.

 Childhood

As a child, Minha [2023] lived in three different countries and experienced several different school environments. Born in South Carolina, her family moved to her mother’s hometown of Karachi in Pakistan when she was four. She stayed there until she was 18 – except for a two-year stint in Saudi Arabia before her A Levels due to her father’s job as a chemical engineer.  Her mother is a graphic designer and owner of an independent bookshop where Minha would help out. In Pakistan Minha went to two different private schools, moving schools in a bid to get the best quality education. In Saudi Arabia she was exposed to a very different education system. 

Minha always loved education and the social experience of being at school. She excelled at her studies, enjoying most subjects but gravitating more towards social sciences in her later years. She had planned to study social sciences in Pakistan when she finished school, but she got a scholarship to Stanford which meant her studies would be cheaper in the US than in Pakistan.

So she went to the US, even though she had wanted to stay local as all the social science subjects she was interested in working on were local ones. There she found she had to fight for her interests to be considered relevant. “Every time I proposed a topic I found I had to prove why it was important in the West and convince people that Pakistan mattered.  In the process I convinced myself more and that feeling has stayed with me,” she says.

Stanford

At the time she started at Stanford Trump had just been elected President and there was a lot of anti-Muslim feeling around. That was challenging enough, but Minha also found it difficult to adjust to a less collectivist society. “I felt very isolated,” she says. She joined a number of clubs focused on social justice where she figured she could meet like-minded people. Gradually she built up a friendship group and felt more of a sense of belonging. She threw herself into her sociology degree and was able to try out classes in everything from linguistics to anthropology. She returned, however, to sociology because of the breadth of study it offered, but she minored in education, becoming a sociologist of education.

Having begun her studies in 2017, she spent the last one and a half years working online, mainly from Pakistan, after Covid hit.  As a result of the pandemic, Minha had to switch her dissertation topic, moving from ethnographic work in schools to working with girls from lower income groups through Whatsapp calls. She says using Whatsapp helped people to share their experiences anonymously without feeling shame or guilt.

While she was in Pakistan, Minha continued to work online as a research assistant for the Citizens Foundation, an NGO she had spent her summers working with while at Stanford. It is one of the largest privately owned networks of low-cost formal schools in Pakistan. The role helped her broaden her methodological knowledge. Minha never returned to Stanford after 2020, graduating in an online ceremony, but the university helped secure her a full-time role as a researcher at the Citizens Foundation.

A multilingual approach to education

There she worked on the research, design and evaluation of a multilingual education programme. Pakistan is a country of more than 70 languages, yet its people are often educated in either Urdu or English. That can lead to accessibility issues for those who don’t speak them. “I helped to develop a language programme that equips students to learn in the languages that are most familiar to them while ensuring they have the linguistic repertoire to access national and international spaces of learning and work as well,” says Minha, adding that it is the first large-scale programme of its kind. “It’s a very special programme. The education needs in Pakistan are often so urgent that there is not time to do this kind of research, but it can have a widespread impact, for instance, on policy,” she states.

The report on her work came out in 2020, but Covid and the flooding in Pakistan have hampered progress on an evaluation report. “It’s difficult to weigh the impact when people are facing so many other factors,” says Minha. Through the process of working on the report she realised that she was having to take big decisions that she didn’t feel fully qualified, as a graduate, to take.

Oxbridge

So Minha decided to go back to university to study social policy. She got a place on a master’s course at Oxford University where she is doing her dissertation on the relationship between student outcomes and education expenditure. “Will student grades go up with more money and does that depend on what type of school they are in?” asks Minha. Her interest is in why private schools so sharply outperform their public counterparts in Pakistan, but for her master’s she is tackling this from an international perspective. It is her first large scale quantitative project.

For her PhD she is keen to focus on Pakistan. Once she realised that Cambridge was where she wanted to be, she only had a week to apply and emailed education faculty members to work out what project she could put forward. She got an almost immediate response.

Minha is very excited to have been selected as a Gates Cambridge Scholar and to bring together her passion both for academia and for changemaking.  “I am so grateful that the Gates Cambridge scholarship programme has found it worthwhile to invest in the future of Pakistan’s education systems and allowed me to be part of the change,” she says.

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