Education Reforms: No Need To Reinvent Curriculum
Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood announced on December 20, 2020 that his ministry had started the process to formulate an education policy for Pakistan. In a tweet, the minister said that while the government had taken several initiatives on coming up with a single national curriculum for the whole country, an education policy ‘is necessary’. “So, on my direction a process has been started by the Ministry of Education which includes widespread consultation. All suggestions welcome,” he said.
On January 4, 2021, Shafqat Mahmood, declared, again through Twitter, that uniform syllabus will be implemented by the start of the next academic year. The new syllabus for primary school education includes English, General Science, Mathematics, Social Studies, General Knowledge, Urdu, and Islamyat (this is how it is spelled on the website of the ministry of federal education and professional training). The draft single national curriculum from Grade VI-VIII includes English, Science, Computer Studies, Geography, History, Urdu and Islamiyat. The ministry has used two different spellings for Islamiyat on its website. Although apparently a typo error, it does not reflect well either on the ministry or its efforts to ‘reform’ the education system and introduce a new uniform curriculum.
It is clear that the curriculum is still being developed and the exercise is far from complete to be in a state that it can be introduced by the start of the next academic year. It appears that little or no effort has been made to developing and stating the objectives or the desired outcomes of each stage of school’s education; primary, secondary, and post-secondary.
I have read many articles on the school curriculum and have followed the debate for a while. My humble and simple advice: there is absolutely no or little need to reinvent the wheel. The goal should be to replace the current system of matriculation/intermediate levels qualification with O/A-level qualification OR International Baccalaureate diploma.
The discussion about the medium of instruction is not complete or very meaningful if we don’t spell out the end goal; what kind of qualification should a typical 18–19-year-olds should have to be well prepared to go to a university or pursue other goals in life?
Learning from Asian experience
We can learn from Asian countries like Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Generally, the Asian countries have done well on PISA assessments, even better than European countries. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations intended to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science and reading.
Since the introduction of international achievement assessments, Singapore has received a great deal of global attention because of its strong academic performance achieved at primary and secondary education levels.
The ability to understand and act on intercultural and global issues saw Singapore’s 15-year-olds claim the top spot in an international test conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2018. In the Global Competence test, conducted as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Singapore students scored an average of 576 marks, followed by their peers from Canada who on average scored 554, Hong Kong (542), Scotland (534) and Taiwan (527). Students from 52 economies, including Singapore, were involved in the assessment.
PISA is conducted by the OECD every three years to assess students on their reading, maths and science skills, but in recent years, the OECD has added more assessments on other competencies and skills.
It said learning to participate in interconnected, complex and diverse societies is no longer a luxury, but a pressing necessity. The OECD believes that schools are ‘central’ to the teaching of these skills.
Of the 27 OECD member states whose students had participated in PISA 2018 Latvia’s 15-year-olds won 9th place with a score of 497 points. OECD’s results show that 93% of students in Latvia communicate in two or more languages daily, which is the highest index among 27 member states.
Singapore — a world leader in high school education
Given Singapore’s success, it is important to learn what and how the country approaches and manages its education system. In Singapore, compulsory education includes six years of primaryschool, four years of secondary school, and one to three years of post-secondary school. Preschool, called kindergarten, is voluntary and offered both by the Ministry of Education and by private providers. The instructional system is centrally controlled with a well-developed curriculum and syllabus for each course aligned to an end-of-course exam. At the end of the fourth year of primary school, students take school-based tests that determine what level (band) students will study for English, mathematics, mother tongue, and science during the next two years. At the end of the sixth year of primary school, when students are about 12-years-old, students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in English, mathematics, mother tongue and science. Based on these results, students are admitted to one of four pathways in secondary school.
The Singapore Ministry of Education oversees the development of the national curriculum, which includes ‘Desired Outcomes of Education’. The desired outcomes are student excellence in life skills, knowledge skills, and subject discipline knowledge organized into eight core skills and values: character development, self-management skills, social and cooperative skills, literacy and numeracy, communication skills, information skills, thinking skills and creativity and knowledge application skills.
The primary school curriculum is focused on ensuring that students have a good grasp of English language, mother tongue language (instruction in mother tongue language is available for Chinese, Malay and Tamil speaking students), and mathematics. There are also several additional curriculum elements, including civics and moral education, pastoral care and career guidance, national education, physical education and project work. Science and social studies are incorporated in later phases of primary education.
Although students are sorted into bands beginning in secondary school, there is a national curriculum for students aged 12-16 that is essentially the same across the bands, with students in the more difficult tracks expected to perform at a higher level of competence.
Core subjects at this phase include English; mother tongue language; mathematics; science; literature; history; geography; arts, crafts and design; and technology and home economics. Students are also required to continue their education in several non-exam subjects: civics and moral education, physical education, music and assembly. In upper secondary school, students spend a minimum of eight hours a week on their “A” level subjects (these subjects are chosen by each student) and an additional four hours a week on civics and moral education, assembly and physical education. University-bound students also complete interdisciplinary project work intended to promote collaborative problem solving, literacy and communication and creative thinking skills.
The Ministry of Education has a great deal of control over how the curriculum is implemented. As it promoted a shift from instruction based on teacher lectures and student memorization to one that emphasizes student engagement and creativity, ministry officials met regularly with school leaders and developed an extensive series of professional development opportunities for teachers as they rolled out the new system. However, in recent years, the ministry has sought to loosen their control over the curriculum, encouraging schools to consider the curriculum as a framework, and to adapt and work within the framework to meet the needs of their students. Secondary schools are also encouraged to develop additional courses to bring a distinct flavour to their schools; students choose their secondary schools, and often select those whose unique approach matches their interests.
Singapore School Curriculum
Primary school students are taught the following subjects:
English Language, Mother Tongue Language (MTL), Mathematics, Science, Art, Music, Physical Education, Social Studies, and Character and Citizenship Education.
Primary schools are equipped to teach the Strategies for English Language Learning And Reading (STELLAR) curriculum. STELLAR is an interactive literacy programme that fosters confidence in learning English using children’s literature.
Students are exposed to a wide range of subjects at the lower secondary level. The subjects offered are:
English Language, Mother Tongue Languages, Mathematics, Science, Character and Citizenship Education, Humanities, such as Geography, History and Literature in English, Design and Technology, Food and Consumer Education, Physical Education, Art, Music, and Project Work.
Compulsory subjects at upper secondary level are:
English Language, Mother Tongue Language, Mathematics, Science, and Humanities.
A Level OR International Baccalaureate
After completing upper secondary level (in all about 10 years of education), students go on to study for their “O” levels, ultimately leading to the A-level qualification or International Baccalaureate Diploma.
The International Baccalaureate (IB) and the A levels are both two-year-long programmes that cater mainly to students between 16 and 18 years old. In Singapore, more students tend to opt for the A-level route. In 2019, 12,405 students sat the national exam. A-level students are graded almost entirely on their final exams, which tend to be content-heavy.
The IB is considered a less frequently chosen option as it is perceived to be more rigorous and demanding. In the IB, the final exams account for about 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the total mark for each subject, while assignments assessed by teachers and checked by external examiners contribute the rest of the final grade. The curriculum places emphasis on the research processes of the students, as well as on their inquiry and problem-solving skills.
Other key external assessments are the theory of knowledge essay and the individual extended essay, which are completed by students over a specified period of time under teacher supervision. Some teachers say that IB coverage is more extensive, but the final exams tend to be less challenging than the A levels. According to a Singapore school teacher, “Children who are more exam-savvy might do better in the A-level exams… The IB exams benefit students who are good at time management, independent learning and research”.
One key difference between the two routes is that the IB mandates that students take a broader spread of subjects across disciplinary areas. The A-level route requires students to take at least one contrasting subject. Many arts students tend to choose mathematics, while science students tend to choose economics.
The IB has six subject groups: studies in language and literature; language acquisition; individuals and societies; sciences; mathematics; and the arts. Students can choose courses from these six groups. However, they may opt to study an additionalsciences, individuals and societies, or languages course, instead of a course in the arts. Both A-level and IB offer elective courses in religious studies that cover the world’s main religions given. In Pakistan’s context, it is difficult to see how Islamiat can be taught to all students as one subject as there are many sects within Islam and non-Muslims should not be forced to learn about Islam if they don’t wish to.
In any events, students in Singapore graduate with A-level or International Baccalaureate diploma when they are 18 or 19 years old. Both prepare them to pursue university education, or other goals in life.
Education and National Priorities in a Globalized World
According to one of the world’s leading economists Thomas Piketty, the Asian countries have benefited far more from open markets for goods and services and advantageous terms of trade than from free capital flows. Many studies also show that gains from free trade come mainly from the diffusion of knowledge and productivity gains. According to an OECD report, the globalization of markets is accelerating the diffusion of technology and the pace of innovation. New occupations are emerging and replacing others. Within each occupation, required skills and competencies are evolving, as the knowledge content of production processes and services is rising. A major challenge is simultaneously to enhance the responsiveness of education and training systems to these changes in skill requirements and to improve access to training and skills development. An internationally competitive high school education system is absolutely critical to meet these challenges and for Pakistan to meet the challenge of fostering strong, sustainable and balanced growth.
Hence, the overriding objective of the national education policy should be to produce young graduates who can help Pakistan compete regionally and globally. Only an outward looking approach can help that objective.
Yousuf Nazar is a former investment manager. He has published several articles on Pakistan’s politics and economy. He is the author of a book, “Balkanisation and Political Economy of Pakistan.”