The Promise of Multi-Shift Schooling

ISLAMABAD – The need to uphold the right to education has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. Ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education” for all is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed upon by world leaders in 2015. But achieving this goal by the SDGs’ 2030 target date will require us to make smart use of limited resources.

The scale of the challenge is enormous. In Pakistan, for example, an estimated 22.8 million children are out of school, of which 78% are aged 10-16. A staggering 44% of Pakistani children who complete their primary education drop out, rather than moving on to secondary school.

The problem is not that children do not want to study. Instead, as UNICEF and UNESCO point out, the problem is largely one of supply-side barriers, from a lack of accessible schools (whether because they are too full or too far) to the incompatibility of livelihoods (such as harvesting schedules) and school timetables.

In recent years, a number of initiatives have been launched to help address such failures. Among them is a program implemented in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces of Pakistan called Sustainable Transition and Retention in Delivering Education (STRIDE), which focuses on removing the barriers students face in moving on from primary to higher levels of education.

In its first year, the STRIDE pilot project covered four districts, giving a second chance to some 8,000 young people. Based on positive initial results, it is now being scaled up to include two more districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The key to success will be to continue to use data to ensure that planning, financing, and service delivery are context-specific.

Data show major discrepancies among villages and districts in terms of student transition and retention. While an outsider might simply blame the students, a more careful look at the evidence could show that there is no secondary school nearby or that the nearest school is already at capacity.

That is what happened to Gul Muhammad, a 22-year-old husband and father of two from the Kohat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. To stay in school after completing the eighth grade seven years ago, Gul would have had to commute over six miles each way. That was too long a distance to travel daily on foot, but he lacked the resources to make the trek by wagon or bus.

So Gul decided to work with his father on a farm, hoping that he would be able to continue his studies on his own during his free time. As time went by, he began to wonder whether he would ever set foot in a school again, and worried that if he ever did, his age could be an impediment to learning.

Thanks to STRIDE, however, Gul started high school in September 2017. To facilitate his commute, he received a free bicycle. More important, he has been able to take advantage of “second-shift schooling”: classes start in the afternoon, enabling students to continue to work in the morning.

Second-shift schooling is a lifeline for working students. For example, in Brazil, a three-shift system was introduced for upper secondary education, enabling young people to adjust their school schedules according to their work obligations.

The OECD reports that in 2013, 43% of students were taking advantage of the night-shift option, while working full-time.

Furthermore, multi-shift schooling gives local teachers the opportunity to increase their earnings by working in the evenings, while making the most of existing educational infrastructure.

According to UNESCO, the case for second-shift schooling is particularly strong in developing countries, where suitable land is often scarce, driving up the cost of new schools. As part of STRIDE, 180 schools in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have added a second shift, saving around $12 million in construction costs.

Then there is a case such as Lebanon, where the influx of refugee children from neighboring Syria has overstretched the school system. These children would have lost years of education – and hope for a better future – had Lebanon’s schools not introduced a second shift to accommodate them.

The international community agrees that every person has the right to a quality education. And while there is no consensus about how to uphold that right, two imperatives seem obvious. First, given the wide variety of supply-side factors affecting people’s access to education, solutions must be adapted to local needs and conditions. Second, with public budgets stretched thin, officials must make the most of available resources.

Multi-shift schooling satisfies both of these principles. There is no more convincing evidence than Gul. Not long ago, he had almost lost hope that he would ever return to school. Now, he has cleared his ninth-grade examinations and is in the tenth grade. A second shift gave him – and can give millions more young people like him – a second chance.

Zara Kayani is a research fellow at the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences (I-SAPS) in Islamabad, Pakistan.