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One nation, one curriculum, many questions

Opinion

July 31, 2020

A few days ago, there was an online session with Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy and Dr Mariam Chughtai, member of the National Curriculum Council, on the proposed ‘Single National Curriculum’ (SNC). While the session was informative, the discussion ended up fixating on the issue of religion, and other critical issues fell by the wayside. So, let us return to the basics.

Since the PTI came to power in 2018, it has identified a ‘Single National Curriculum’ as its central education agenda. However, to date there has been no clarity as to what it actually meant. Historically, Pakistan has had several ‘National Education’ policies, with limited degrees of success. The last ‘National Policy’ was formulated in 2006, and since then there has been no national policy because education is now a provincial subject under the 18th Amendment, and so each province is supposed to have its own policy, as in all federal countries. So, what is the government’s plan then?

According to what Dr Chughtai noted in that debate, the ‘Single National Curriculum,’ is neither ‘single,’ nor ‘national’ nor a ‘curriculum’ – and a mere new name for the ‘National Education’ Policy. Continuing previous practice, the SNC is a set of curriculum guidelines, which the provinces are free to accept or decline. She clearly noted that the SNC creates a ‘floor’ not a ceiling, and therefore schools, especially private schools, are free to adapt it to their needs.

The previous policies also created a ‘floor,’ and provided guidelines, and so there is nothing new here. In fact, she mentioned that the learning outcomes of the SNC are the ‘same’ as the 2006 ones, meaning that except for the upgradation for the last decade or so there has been no real change in them. Dr Chughtai also mentioned that there will be no ‘single’ textbook coming out of this, only a ‘model’ textbook, which again the provinces, private schools, madressahs etc are free to use, but it won’t be imposed. This also conforms to previous practice. In fact, in Balochistan textbooks made by the Punjab Textbook Board have been long used. Thus, what is being proposed is a set of guidelines, with a model textbook – and provinces can either utilise it completely, or adapt it to their needs. Similarly, madressahs and private schools can have their own textbooks, provided they meet the minimum standards, as is the case presently.

The cerise sur le gateau was where Dr Chughtai elaborated that the SNC has nothing to do with the prevailing multiple systems of education in this country which will remain as they are. She said, ‘we are not making an equal system, we are making equal standards, which will serve as a baseline.’ Her remarks only further confused an already not-so-clear agenda of the exercise.

Now to some problems: First, is the manner in which the SNC is being made. Dr Chughtai repeatedly mentioned the participation of 400 people, but despite several search attempts, there is no publicly available list of those people. Since a gathering of 400 people doesn’t legitimise anything by mere numbers or their distribution across provinces, it would be good to know who and with what expertise were people involved. Afterall, the textbook boards have a large number of ‘experts’ involved and yet have been very successful in coming up with substandard books. So, some transparency would be appreciated.

Second, and most important, problems with previous national policies remain in the current one. Foremost is the issue of the medium of instruction: expecting school children in public schools (where the SNC will be implemented largely), to understand maths and science in English at the primary level is wishful thinking. As Professor Hoodbhoy pointed out, the lack of language skills make pupils rote learn such subjects, to no real use. So, are we going to repeat the same mistake again? Would it not be better to focus on language acquisition first, be it Urdu or English, and then introduce these subjects at a later stage?

Furthermore, Dr Chughtai claimed that the religious context of the curriculum beyond the Islamiat class has been curtailed. I hope that is the case, but the introduction of a separate Quran class, in addition to Islamiat, increases the content patently. Religious content in Urdu, Pakistan Studies, and Social Studies textbooks also remains an issue. With the proposed influx of madressah graduates into public schools teaching Islamiat, the issue of the madrassaisation of schools also still remains.

Third, Dr Chughtai claimed that ‘implementation’ was not the domain of the National Curriculum Council, yet this is one of the most central planks of any policy! Pakistan has suffered not from a lack of good policies, but a lack of proper implementation. No matter how good the curriculum, if the teachers are not trained and prepared, and the schools have no supporting infrastructure, the policy remains pious utterances, with no real effect. Hence, the ‘policy’ has to walk with the ‘reality.’

Our previous policies failed not because they were intrinsically flawed, but because they failed at the implementation level. With only six months before the primary school curriculum has to be rolled out, there is no realistic plan for implementation.

It is indeed good practice to update our curriculum and its guidelines, and at the federal level it had been 14 years since it was last done. However, there must be a robust and open public debate about its several issues.

Should education again be federalised and capacities not developed in the provinces to be self-sufficient in this subject? Should the prime focus be a newer curriculum (or guidelines) and not the immense problems in infrastructure and human capital development through rigorous training, which ultimately fails it? Should there be religious content in non-religion classes? And what approach to language acquisition should be adopted to ensure students learn rather than rote-learn?

The main reason private schools do well in Pakistan is because they holistically tackle the subject, and combine a good curriculum with teacher training and student learning. Under the SNC they will continue exactly as before, and yet it will be the madressah and public school students who would be left with yet another good but unimplemented policy.

The writer is an associate professor of science and technology and teaches in Lahore.