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Single National Curriculum Is A Diversion. Quality And Access to Education is What Matters

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The Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training, along with the premier, either fail to understand the difference between ‘uniform system of education’ and ‘uniform curriculum’ or they juggle the terms willfully to forge political deception. Right from PTI’s campaigning for power, they have incessantly talked about the problem of amir ka bacha and ghareeb ka bacha going to different school systems with widely apart quality of education creating an apartheid society and a polarized conglomerate rather than a nation.

‘We are determined to deliver what the State of Pakistan failed to in the last 72 years’, argues the minister. In one of his recent speeches in the Parliament, he even went on to say, ‘the new education policy (NEP) is going to merge the public, private and madrassa systems of education and offer equal opportunity to all students and constitute a single minded value-driven nation’. No surprise that within the same speech, he switched over from ‘quality education’, to ‘uniform system of education (USE)’ to ‘single national curriculum (SNC)’ illustrating their own confusion or deliberate trickery. In fact, who on earth shall opposed ‘quality education’, putting an end to the ‘apartheid system of education’, and ensuring ‘equal opportunities to all qualified citizens’? But the mantra is either meant to make political gains or erode provincial autonomy inch by inch.     

SNC or USE? The government clearly intends to introduce SNC and not uniform system of education (USE).  Secondly, the very effort does not surpass proposing a common core, what they call a threshold. Neither the whole curriculum nor minimum standard of education is being proposed implying that elite public and private, the ordinary public and private schools, and madrasas are free to sustain rest of their subjects and standards. Lastly, the aim is not to eliminate the ‘apartheid system of education’ but an attempt to cultivate a unified national narrative – the same old chronic fixation of our state. Despite their claims of mobilizing 400 national, provincial, religious, public and private stakeholders and constituting a National Curriculum Council (NCC), the prospects are disappointing. The very idea of ‘one nation, one curriculum’ as projected on top of the curriculum framework is based upon faulty premise as the common core is no panacea to cure the ills, perhaps rightly diagnosed. If the purpose was just to refine and introduce certain subjects then what was wrong in continuing with the 2006 curriculum what they themselves admire and have incorporated in the proposed SNC. Expertise and opposition parties believe that the purpose is to undermine 18th Constitutional amendment. Is it really the curriculum?

Quality of Education, Education Governance and Learning Outcomes

 Pakistan ranks low in terms of social development. One thing is clear that, it is certainly not the curriculum alone, even if it is relatively improved, but pre-schooling, academic environment, infrastructure, quality of instruction and helping aids that certify the quality of education which the proposed framework completely ignores. Theory driven students learning outcomes (SLOs), teaching guidelines and training package, lifted and refined from 2006, are not going to revolutionize the quality of education.

Multiple national or international assessments place our students’ knowledge and skills far below their grade. The Standardized Achievement Test results – in languages as well as in science and mathematics – are utterly disturbing. Their national average score in languages from grade V to VII remains roughly around 35% while for science and mathematics it is around 25%. On average, as per ASER’s periodical assessment, about half the grade-V students stumble on reading grade-II level texts, even simple sentences. Children’s arithmetic competency falls below average as less than half the Grade-V students miscalculate even two digits division. Comparatively 60-65% private school students perform better in all subjects on the same parameters. Contrary to the claims of lifting up public education standards, poor performing public schools continue to be transferred to private entities for over a decade. Over and above, equity, access, availability, adaptability and acceptability as well as poor education governance, and lack of transparency and accountability are also undermined by the new Education Policy Framework.

Approximately one-third of all schools still run short of required teachers while teacher-students equation is almost double (1:40) than the international standard. In addition, teaching secular subjects in madrasas requires appointing at least 1,15,000 teachers along with guaranteed pay – as bargained by the Ittehad Tanzeem-ul-Madaris (ITM). Such subjects, of course, need critical and analytical thinking – inherently lacking in madrasas believing ‘azaadi-e-afkaar hey iblees ki eijad’.

The very idea of vocational and entrepreneurial education is almost two decades’ old, mainly encouraged and supported by DFID, UNICEF, EU and other international donors. Hence, incorporating certain lessons in grade-V too, is not going to create a shift from ‘job-seekers to job-creators’ as purported by some of the NCC members. What of advancing equality, there is even a risk of pushing underclass students to menial skills at earlier grades.

Thousands of schools in Pakistan are one-room, one-teacher schools. Dysfunctional schools also run in thousands. Ghost and frequently absent teachers have not yet been weeded out. Generally effective but even biometric attendance system is tricked. Many teachers act more as political workers or evangelists instead of being instructors. Efforts to fire absent or incompetent teachers or halt their salaries invokes unionized protests or are resisted by local MPAs indirectly influencing the Chief Minister – though the situation varies between regions and provinces. Under such circumstances, how can one admit it to be the first-right-step as stressed by NCC? The fact is, the ruling party itself overshadows reforms for opting-out false direction, miscommunication, lacking will and realistic planning.

Countries with the best schooling model such as Finland, Singapore, Turkey and South Korea including some of those NCC claims of having studied, offer higher social privileges and attractive salaries to their teachers. Without a PhD degree, intensive training and having been through a rigorous recruitment process no teacher can enter into a class. Exemplary environment and class structure is maintained with sufficient opportunities to experiment, innovate and learning across schools, including group-teaching and peer-assessment.

Exams and formal assessment remains limited and results are not made public as human dimension, they assert, is more important than numbers. Schooling encourages joyful and experiential learning at home and neighborhood with state-provided facilities. Dissolving watertight science and social science divisions, students are free to pick and choose from a range of subjects with limited amount of home work. Private schools are extremely limited and, if at all, quality of instruction and education is more or less the same.

Debated Content of Religious and Social Studies

 In spite of acknowledging the State’s failure in universal schooling, the federal Minister for EPT admires madrassas for taking care of the poor and destitute children. Promising that dares-e-nizaami will be kept intact – the very system that instilled fundamentalist tendencies in our society – SNg repeats the earlier folly. So long as the environment and imitational logic rules madrassas, registering and putting them through a board exam will not enable their graduates to compete with public and private school students. To deny this is utterly naïve or plain duplicity. Simply speaking, the world view of madrassas is entirely different as known by the minister himself. If the government is sincere by any measure, it should discourage dars-e-nizaami and open up equal number of quality public schools. Otherwise, the situation shall remain, ‘parhey faarsi baichey taeil’. Because their ethos is skeptical of critical thinking and empirical knowledge.

It is a proven fact that higher the religiosity, lower the acceptability of diversity and plurality. Even then our educational gurus are not willing to minimize it. For this very reason, the tolerance continuum dwindles as we move from private to public schools to madrassas. Interestingly, NCC members do not see any harm in teaching excessively about faith to kids at all levels. Consolidating religious content only in Islamiat and tutoring ethics is great  but why throng plain Islamiat with number of hadiths, additional surahs, duaaien and memorizing several parts of the Holy Quran by heart? Part of that was already made essential through Punjab Compulsory Teaching of the Holy Quran Act 2018. Naturally, schools will have to accommodate madrasa qualified qaaris – as demanded by madrasas – to educate so much of religion. Not only that, there is a risk of developing madrasa like ambiance in public schools.

Cramming tendency will become even more intensive. In higher classes, masaalik and firqa tensions shall gradually emerge. Maryam Chughtai – an eminent member of NCC said that  ‘there is nothing wrong in studying Islam at school what they have to study back home.’ She forgets that families vary in their degree of religiosity and are flexible in timing and degree while at school it simply becomes a disciplinary or political issue as we have seen all over Pakistan.

Asserting that Zia’s and Nawaz’s regime’s educational content was far more religious than present one ignores that similar issues might emerge again despite engaging representatives of all masaalik. Ultimately, it is the teachers who will teach these contents not the ulema who were part of the process. What non-Muslims students are going to be taught is yet not clear? If Muslim students are taught faith at schools then the non-Muslim students too have every right to study their own faith – not Akhlaqiaat instead. On the other hand, even religious lobby accepts that citizens qualifying through a secular system prove to be far more ethical and responsible citizens than those coming out of madrasas. If there is nothing to hide then why the SNC is not being made public? Not a single conference was organized to openly discuss the concerns.

Admiring the decree of getting through compulsory naazra Quran at all grades and for all degrees, Governor Ghulam Sarwar tweeted it as ‘a dream coming true as learning Quran guarantees our progress’. The Speaker Punjab Assembly earlier facilitated a legislation ensuring that, ‘religious content in all books and all schools across board shall be scrutinized by Mutahida Ulema Board (MUB)’. ‘The legislation has closed the doors of sharr (conflict) for ever’, as he boasted about his success. The new law Tahuffaz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam, Punjab, proposes MUB and Director General Public Relations to examine and not to allow arrival or publication of any national or international book critical of Islam, politics or history of Pakistan in the name of ‘national interest’. On its way to scrutinize 1000 books, the PCTB has already banned 100 books, declaring their content to be anti-religious or anti-national. The truth is ‘our textbooks are the best example of the nexus between power and bigotry’ notes Aysha Jalal. With this backdrop, how shall we be able to save our curriculum and syllabi to not to be influenced by newly emerging religious trends?

Medium of Instruction Controversy

 In a polyphonic and multi-ethnic federation like Pakistan, medium of instruction (MoI) has always been a subject of intense debate. Generally, Urdu is advocated by the champions of supra-nationalism, English by the wealthy and powerful elites and the mother languages by the ethno-nationalists stalwarts and dissenters. Realistically speaking, states like Pakistan must chose a calculated and sequential multi-linguality to move along with the scientifically-advanced, technology-driven globalized world and to strengthen children’s cognitive ability as well. TECC and NCC are indecisive and unclear about that too resulting into the same world of inequity, injustice and divide what they, so to speak, set out to eliminate. Saying that ‘provinces are free to adopt mother language as MoI’ does not explain the subject and the level. Teachers’ minimum qualification, competence and recruitment procedure must accompany the plan. Otherwise English, other than Islamiat and social studies, has been the MoI since 2006 which was never adopted by teachers. In one-room and one-teacher schools, it is naturally going to pose challenges. Otherwise the dilemma of adopting English language at advanced level shall remain serious as it has much to do with teachers’ competence and quality of teaching as well.

A practical suggestion is to teach English and mother language as subjects while numeracy and scientific concepts need to be imparted in English language right from grade-I to incrementally transform teaching all secular subjects in English from grade VIII. English today is the source of knowledge, skills and technology. Alternatively, spending enormous amount of resources, all modern and classical knowledge needs to be translated into Urdu and mother languages (as is the case with countries like China and Japan) which this state is not willing to do. If unaddressed, the current system will keep promoting otherness and unnecessarily advantaging the elitist English school children. At the same time, English language emancipates from class oppression and tribalism too.

It is amply demonstrated that teaching exclusively in Urdu or mother languages leaves such students far behind in competition. Teaching English, the way I am suggesting, will largely remain textbook bound but with the passage of time, it may move from being subject-centered to learning-centered. As an operational system, it helps seeking and generating jobs. Confining the power and privileges to themselves, political class sends their own children to English schools and keeps advising others to love Urdu and/or their mother languages. ‘To dilute the advantage of the wealthy elites, Dr Tariq Rahman, also suggests incremental strategy of adopting English as a medium of instruction. At the same time Saraiki, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashtun, Baloch and Gilgit-Baltistan’s history, their heroes, poets, writers must be incorporated in respective provinces as part of social studies.

Budget and Resources for Education

The much trumpeted NEP is deafeningly silent on required financing to improve the quality of education. No accompanying plan to bring millions of out-of-school children back to schooling. We have already failed our MDGs commitment of 97% Net Enrollment and now the SDGs are already on bumpy track. With 2% of the GDP allocated to education, Pakistan lags even behind its South Asian neighbours and is one of the 12 countries worst spending countries on education. It also falls short of the minimum 6% budget recommended by Dakar Framework of Education (2000). HEC’s budget has even been reduced. Post 18th Amendment, even provincial governments backed out of their promise to disburse at least 6% of their annual turn-over to education. Not by tinkering with the curriculum but by allocating adequate resources to education sector alone can minimize inequity and enhance quality of education.

SNG for now appears to be a desperate populist stunt.

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The writer is a social development analyst and consultant. He can be reached at [email protected]

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