‘One Text, One Curriculum’ - Pakistan’s Big Gamble With Education

‘One Text, One Curriculum’ - Pakistan’s Big Gamble With Education
The news from Islamabad will catch a lot of stakeholders off guard as significant efforts are underway at the education ministry to produce ‘one core text’ which the government aims to teach at every single primary level institute across Pakistan. In a broad, overarching, centralised effort to bring madrassahs, private schools and public schools at the same level, the government wants to ensure every single student studying in grade 1 to 5 is taught the same text.

Federal Minister for Education, Shafqat Mehmood had already talked of his desire to see a uniform curriculum being taught for grades 1 to 5 but the mention of ‘one text’ appears to be an extension of the one curriculum not anticipated by educationists, academics & private school industry across the country. In a conversation, the education minister has revealed that the end goal is unrelenting uniformity, so that the core text is the same for a ‘student at a madrassah and those at the Aitchison College’. The purpose is to eradicate discrimination against the poor, as explained by Shafqat Mehmood. Howeverm he admitted that ‘not all details’ around implementation have been finalised by the government.

The issue of federal government mandate post-18th Amendment in the area of education is one that is crucial. But it is a debate that can be had at another time. The more important debate is the substantive one about uniformity, it’s implications and whether it can really address issues of education inequality. Unwrapping ‘one text’ policy is also equally pivotal in this regard. It is still not clear the form it will take and the amount of control government can retain over the content taught at schools, the objectives of this effort and effects on children via uniformity.

The government appears to be looking at uniformity as a means for addressing issues of equity. The truth of the matter is that large swaths of Pakistan are dominated by children with extremely different socio economic status, cultural and social background. Students belong to different households which have different levels of income, variant language skills, religious backgrounds, and they live in very different environments. The same curriculum and books containing ‘one text’ will not reduce disparities. The underlying issues which facilitate a student to learn more or better at a private school have much less to do with the text. Dr.Bari from LUMS School of Education argued back in October that about twenty-two million or so children aged of five to 16 remain out of school in Pakistan. The majority of children in school irrespective of public or lower-tier private sector are getting poor quality education. This makes it imperative to focus on issues of teacher training, classroom facilities, meal vouchers as opposed to spending resources and political capital on hard core uniformity. Aiming for uniformity will produce no change in primary school enrolment or increase teacher knowledge, which happen to be the biggest impediments to successful learning.

Back in 2010, The International Growth Centre’s study statistically showed that the rise of low-fee private schooling has been an extremely significant development in the education landscape. While private school growth rates have been highest in rural areas, at the same time, parents across Pakistan have become active decision-makers in their children’s lives regardless of socioeconomic status. The study highlighted that parents are known to demonstrate a high demand for education and better schooling opportunities for their children. The problem of low quality private and public school education stems more from issues ranging from teacher training to classroom facilities as opposed to curriculum. At the heart of the matter lie private schools and private publishers. In Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, more than 50 percent of the population by 2010 lived in village with at least one private school. The several thousands of these private schools rely on their ability to choose from a wide variety of books (already published along provincial textbook board guideline) based on book quality, content, design, reader friendliness etc. This is precisely the basis on which private publishers compete in the private schools market which form the bedrock of Pakistan’s education setup. From the government’s intended one text, it seems very unclear the level of intervention they are aiming for and the ramifications of ‘one text’ for students, private schools and private publishing industry. It has created visible stress for thousands of private schools management and an experienced publishing industry that have increased quality of education across all strata of society in absence of public schooling.

The status quo has hence become extremely uncertain at this point. There are legitimate demerits to one curriculum, let alone one text. One text appears to be a step ahead and there seems to be a solid distinction between the two. The only precedent for one text comes from the Soviet Union or China, countries hell bent upon ideological alignment of the masses to state’s core narrative. Pakistan’s primary school education is already prone to censored, and one sided historical narrative in Pakistan studies. If ‘one text’ is made mandatory, children across provinces will be in receipt of exact same content. This is the point where regional cultures, history and literature could get completely ignored. Questions like should Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah be taught and should Sindh’s Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai be ignored? These questions reign supreme when the government is moving towards one curriculum. If the medium of instruction is chosen to be Urdu for all, then it will do away with the home or mother language of some children as opposed to others hence put children at a disadvantage in terms of learning. This is precisely why students from urban middle class sent are often sent to good private schools to attain an education in English from the onset. The government’s ‘one text’ will drastically disadvantage their ability to learn in a token of exchange used the world over.

The ball is now in Shaafqat Mehmood’s court. As one of the better performing members of Imran Khan’s team, he must ensure that any major education policy strikes the right balance between regional demands and state’s quest to streamline all educational institutes across the country. Perhaps, the most important aspect will be enabling and affording the private education sector to produce quality textbooks and ensure quality teaching than impose an arbitrary one text.

The writer is co-founder Future of Pakistan Conference and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science.