Saturday July 20, 2024

Dragging us back down

By Dr Ayesha Razzaque
July 10, 2020

I have been following the progress of the unified education system and Single National Curriculum (SNC) that the PTI government campaigned on (with very few details at the time) for a while.

People seem to be not paying attention because there are so many other issues vying for their attention – Covid-19, the fuel crisis, the wheat crisis, the sugar crisis, budget or whatever else is the outrage of the day. Whenever it comes up in private conversations with parents of school-going children, almost no one seems aware of it (yet!) – it is not on anyone’s radar. This, in spite of the fact that they will be directly impacted by the education reforms slowly creeping their way. If you, like the many parents I talk to, have missed the slow-moving news of what is coming next year, let me give you a quick recap.

As stated by its supporters, the unified education system is a simplistic solution to a complex problem: to dismantle the structures in our existing education system that lead to the creation of an ‘elite’ segment in our society.

The PTI promised to deliver a unified education system, which entails several major changes.

The first is the end of different curricula and examination systems. This means IGCSE, O/A-levels, IB to be replaced by some overhauled version of the existing school system, covering grades 1 to SSC (Matric) and HSSC (FA / FSc). Apparently this revamped system will outshine all outgoing examination systems, foreign and domestic, in terms of quality. We have been unable to develop our local school system to a fraction of these well-recognized international examination systems in 70+ years. Yet, somehow, it is now going to happen in just one or two years. So, colour me skeptical.

Second, madressahs are to adopt the same Single National Curriculum and accompanying exams as all other schools. I welcome this step.

Third, the medium of instruction in each province / region is also to be unified, to Urdu or a regional language. English, which this government sees as the root cause of class divide in our society, will be relegated to a subject and will not be available as a medium of instruction.

I am fully cognizant of the numerous studies that have concluded that children learn best when the medium of instruction is their mother tongue. For a large proportion of in-school and out-of-school children in Pakistan, Urdu is no less alien than English. Making schooling available to them in Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Baluchi, Saraiki, Balti, etc, will bring down the barrier to learning created by an unfamiliar medium of instruction. This realization has been a long time coming, and I welcome it.

My disagreement is not with the introduction of more languages as mediums of instruction in schools. My disagreement is with the elimination of choice for students and parents – the elimination of English as a medium of instruction and the ejection of competing high-school examination systems.

It takes away the one advantage our labour force enjoys in the global marketplace, the advantage of knowing English. Dismantling credible and widely recognized exam systems, forcing students off English-medium education and tying their fortunes to an education all in Urdu or regional languages will remove a key plank on which our educated middle class stands to compete in the domestic and global white-collar labor market and serves as an engine of social mobility.

We cannot improve our education standards by banning the competition. Reducing schooling choices to equally inferior ones, or at least equally unproven ones, does not help children struggling in poorly performing schools – it only pushes down the lucky few who managed to avoid and escape them.

On June 25, Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood announced that the rollout of this “overhauled” school system will happen in three phases. Grades 1-5 will become effective in April 2021, grades 6-8 in April 2022 and grades 9-12 in the following year, in April 2023. He has announced that the Single National Curriculum for Grades 1-5 for next year is ready. However, repeated googling over the last year and monitoring of the ministry website do not reveal any glimpse of this vaunted curriculum.

There has been no public consultation/ debate of any kind, no request for comments from the public, as has been the practice for some other policies in recent years. Why not? Will it just be sprung on parents next year?

I have been watching the slow, almost stealthy, progression of these school and curriculum reforms since before the PTI came into power. Before the 2018 election I wrote them off as populist campaign promises, not meant to be kept. After the election, when the PTI actually began moving on this issue, I was expecting advisors to the minister, private schools and parents to speak up and talk sense, or for the government itself to take another one of its infamous U-turns.

I was expecting some provinces to stand up on the issue of the 18th amendment, and refuse. But according to recent reports, even Sindh, which is experiencing the greatest friction with the federal government, has decided to use Sindhi as its medium of instruction, but seems to be otherwise largely on board.

Many people I talk to about this issue think I may be mistaken or may have misunderstood these reforms, that such massive changes to the school sector could not possibly be made without an open public debate. I advise them all to watch Minister Shafqat Mahmood’s in-depth interview with Arifa Noor (NewsWise) from September 4, 2019, available on YouTube.

Now that you understand these simpleminded reform ideas, let me rephrase their stated purpose: If someone dares to aspire to a better life for their children and has the will and resources to provide them with an education better than what public schools offer, they should be dragged back down with the rest. Go to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

But like all new rules in Naya Pakistan, this one too has an exception for the super-rich, the real elite: If you can afford to school your children outside of Pakistan, you may move them abroad and escape all this nonsense.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.