Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training Mr. Shafqat Mahmood, Addressing at the Virtual Global Education Meeting, 2020.
UNESCO convened an extraordinary online session of the Global Education Meeting (2020 GEM) on October 22, 2020, co-hosted by the Governments of Ghana, Norway and the United Kingdom. The GEM provided a unique platform for sharing thoughts and policy frameworks amongst high-level political leaders, policymakers and global education actors to protect and rethink education in the current and post-COVID-19 world.
H.E. Mr. Shafqat Mahmood, Federal Minister for Federal Education and Professional Training, Pakistan was one of the invitees to deliberate on the theme: Focus on inclusion, equity and gender equality of education in the context of COVID-19. In his address, the Minister thanked the hosts for organizing the extraordinary session on Education post-COVID-19 and highlighted that COVID-19 has posed unprecedented challenges to education worldwide. Minister Mahmood added that from mid-March until mid-September, Pakistan shut down all educational institutions.
Due to social differences of gender, wealth, ability, location and language, the pandemic further unfolded a digital divide in our society making it a challenging task for the Government to provide equitable, inclusive and gender equality distance learning education to the relevant communities across the country.
While accepting this daunting task, the Government of Pakistan launched ‘Tele-School’ on the National Television Network within 15 days of the pandemic to provide education to the children of grades 1 to 12 from 8 AM to 6 PM daily during the lockdown, Minister Mahmood informed. At the higher education level, the bottleneck was not just to access the internet, but also the capacity of the teachers to cope with online teaching. Therefore, there was a learning curve involved for both students and teachers. With time, the ability of the teachers improved, and the government was able to address internet problems.
Minister Mahmood noted that after assessing the situation and building consensus amongst all stakeholders, a decision was taken to open the schools in a phased approach, with schools beginning to open mid-Septemner. With most of the schools now open, and 80-90 per cent of children back to school, there is a concern of a second wave. Efforts to mitigate this are underway with a full focus on health issues in the return to school, with the goal to ensure education goes on, and that children and communities are safe.
In his concluding remarks, the Minister emphasised the role and importance of distance learning and shared lessons learned during the pandemic. One of the key lessons highlighted was that distance learning has to stay. For this purpose, a distance-learning wing has been established at the Federal Ministry. The pandemic has also taught us that now we can have a blended learning system to teach in schools, and at the same time, use the technology to reach out to the students. Therefore, with the help of the World Bank and UNICEF, work has started to develop a national education response and resilient plan for COVID-19, which will not only help in applying safety measures in schools, but also invest in content development and assessing the right technological means to benefit the children.