The general elections in Pakistan are just a few days away. As is the environment in the days running up to the polls, candidates are busy campaigning to gain the goodwill of their respective constituencies. As always, lofty promises are being made to revitalise the country’s weak economy, revive industrial activity, and create jobs for the underutilised workforce.And while scores of Pakistanis pin their hopes on various political actors, the hard fact remains that post-elections most tall promises will be forgotten by their orators. Take the case for the state of education, for instance,despite occupying significant space in the manifestos of all the political parties, for the last 10 years or so, at least 20.8 million Pakistani children between the ages of five to 16 years remain out of school. More than 13 million (53 per cent) of these out of school children in Pakistan are girls.Most of the children who do manage to see the inside of a school are unlikely to sustain their education beyond fifth grade; this is especially true for girls. At the national level, the enrolment rate for girls stands at 53 per cent at primary, 21 per cent at middle and a worrisome14 per cent at the high school level. The situation becomes all the more precarious when we take an exclusive look at the smaller provinces. For instance,in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 52 per cent of the girls between the ages of five and 16 are out of school. The enrolment rate at the primary level is only 51 per cent which drops to just 17 percent at middle school level, and becomes a shameful 8 per cent at high school level.It is important to understand that we are no longer in the early 2000s where, thanks to the advent of the Millennium Development Goals, universal primary education was the global slogan. We are now living in the post-development era where at least 12 years of education is the new “basic”To Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) credit, both the political parties seem to have taken heed of these alarming statistics, dedicating a section each in their respective manifestos to especially speak about improving girls’ access to secondary level education. PPP has promised the implementation of Article 25-A, which makes it obligatory on the state to provide free quality education to every Pakistani child between the ages of five to 16 years. PTI on the other hand, does not merely speak about the implementation of Article 25-A but also goes further and pledges to increase the number of schools for both boys and girls in addition to providing stipends to girls to facilitate their access to education.Out of the three major political parties, Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PML-N) perhaps has the most disappointing manifesto, at least as far as the state of education in Pakistan is concerned.While the party’s manifesto does focus on making quality education accessible for both the genders, it does so by focusing squarely on primary and higher education, without as much as mentioning the crucial steps in between, i.e.secondary and higher secondary levels. To put it euphemistically, this rather curious approach to tackling Pakistan’s education emergency seems ill-advised and immature. It goes without saying that without providing appropriate access to secondary and higher secondary levels, it is absolutely pointless to discuss higher education. What this approach is likely to result in is a massive dropout rate post primary schooling — something that Pakistan is already struggling with at the moment.It is important to understand that we are no longer in the early 2000s where, thanks to the advent of the Millennium Development Goals, universal primary education was the global slogan. It is impossible to look past the fact that the dream of a truly prosperous Pakistan cannot be realised without investing in the future of our children. There is no negotiation on this matter and there should be no difference of opinion on this. It is a national issue and it can only be addressed if the communities, the civil society as well as the local, provincial and federal governments join hands and work earnestly till every out-of-school child finally finds a place in a classroomWe are now living in the post-development era where at least 12 years of education is the new “basic”. Accordingly, it is imperative that all efforts by both state and non-state actors should be channelled towards ensuring at least 12 grades of free, quality education for every Pakistani child.It is worth pointing out here that this election year, the civil society organisations are making rigorous efforts to make the dismal state of education in Pakistan stand-out as an important agenda item during the elections.However, no amount of advocacy can bear fruit unless an average Pakistani actually starts demanding at least 12 years of free and quality education for his/her children from the ruling elite.It is impossible to look past the fact that the dream of a truly prosperous Pakistan cannot be realised without investing in the future of our children. There is no negotiation on this matter and there should be no difference of opinion on this.It is a national issue and it can only be addressed if the communities, the civil society as well as the local, provincial and federal governments join hands and work earnestly till every out-of-school child finally walks into a classroom.Twelve years of free and quality education is the right of every Pakistani child and it is about time that we actively demand it from those who rule us.The writer is a development practitioner, currently working with Pakistan Youth Change Advocates (PYCA) to ensure universal secondary education in the countryPublished in Daily Times, July 23rd 2018.