Before assuming power in August 2018, PTI leaders were pretty vocal about their desire to introduce a uniform education system in Pakistan. The Urdu words they used were ‘Yuksaan Taleemi Nizam’ meaning the same education system for all students, irrespective of their economic and social background.
The slogan was attractive and no sane person could disagree with it because the need to eliminate – or at least reduce – discrimination in education was a sound proposition. Recently, the government has unveiled a Single National Curriculum (SNC) for school education in the country. The SNC has triggered a heated discussion in academic, political and social circles; and there are conflicting opinions about it. Before getting into the debate about the pros and cons of the SNC itself, it seems appropriate to be clear about what we mean by a system of education.
There are some dos and don’ts that must be kept in mind before one can claim to offer a uniform education system. A system of education consists of multiple dimensions, and curriculum is just one of them. When we discuss what pupils learn at schools, if at all, we mean what curriculum they are going through. So arguably, the first component of education is about what learning takes place or what topics learners go through. The second is how that learning takes place and how we assess it – what methods of learning the students employ or the teachers encourage them to employ.
How the teachers assess them, meaning what kind of exams the students will take or what types of assessment the education system proposes. Then, we may consider where the learning takes place. That includes buildings, classrooms, computer labs, electricity, fans, learning environment, libraries and related facilities, bathrooms, playgrounds, potable and running water, and other features of the premises where the learning presumably takes place. Other related questions are about who manages the education system and for whose benefit the entire educational machinery is functioning, or not functioning.
After the what (curriculum), the how (methods of learning, teaching, and assessment), the where (buildings and facilities), the who (education managers, teachers) and whose (the beneficiaries of the system), comes perhaps the most crucial question of why we discuss and do all of the above. The ‘why’ of an education system is an overarching question without which we keep shooting in the dark; as we have been doing for over seven decades now. Why do we have a certain curriculum? Why do we want our learners to learn in a particular way? Why do we assess them the way we do? Why do some schools have better facilities and others don’t?
So, the first ‘do’ of a uniform education system is to be clear about why we want it – why is there an education system in the first place? This question is important because it encourages us to think about the rationale for our education. It clarifies our intentions, justifications, and reasons for a certain system. Is our intention to groom critical thinkers? Do we want to nurture self-righteous adults? Do we justify religious education on the basis of our own belief systems? Do we desire our education system to lead our pupils to enlightenment or to obscurantism? Do we want to produce robots, or raise responsible citizens?
A lack of clarity about the rationale behind our education system leads us to a hodgepodge of new and old ideas. Do be clear about what kind of worldview you want to promote because that will decide about your focus in education. We may say that we want both old and new ideas to go hand in hand. Fair enough, but then be prepared to get confused generation after generation, as we have been doing. Not that in other countries there are no confusions; there are plenty, and that’s why we get the likes of Bolsonaro, Modi, and Trump getting elected, which reflects essentially a failure of the education system.
But two wrongs don’t make a right, and education is constantly a work in progress. If other countries make a mistake and suffer as a result, we need to learn from their experiences. The discipline of comparative education helps us be clear about the rationale of our own education system. When we observe that in Australia and in some other countries the so-called outcomes-based curriculum is being phased out, we may learn not to repeat the same mistake in Pakistan. So, the first ‘do’ is to be clear about the rationale.
In the 21st century, the rationale behind an education system is to foster critical thinkers and enlightened citizens rather than ideological followers and gullible believers. In the absence of that clarity, you end up with diametrically opposite directions in your curriculum. You may have one direction in your English syllabus and another in your religious education. You talk about diversity in your curriculum but your textbook board imposes a ban on any supplementary material that gives a different opinion. In social studies you talk about respecting all religions but your provincial assembly passes a bill that triggers sectarian strife.
Once we are clear about the ‘why’ we may move on to the what, how and where. To align all these in accordance with the 21st century requirements you need resources. So, the second ‘do’ is to increase allocation for education. Again, the field of comparative education helps us understand how much to spend on education. The government education expenditure as a percentage of GDP is nearly 13 percent in Cuba, around eight percent in Namibia and Botswana, over seven percent in countries such as Belize and Bolivia; even Bhutan spends over six percent of its GDP on education.
Among the Muslim countries, Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey spend between four and five percent. Even some of the most developed countries that already have nearly 100 percent literacy rates such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden spend seven to eight per cent of their GDP on education. Closer to home, Nepal stands at over five percent and India nearly at four. So where do we stand with slightly over two percent? On the UNDP human development index (HDI) we rank at 152, whereas the top ten countries on the HDI, from Norway to the Netherlands have some of the best education systems in the world.
The third ‘do’ for a uniform education system is to focus on where children get a nice, pleasurable, and stimulating learning environment. And that you do by making your government schools at par with some of the best private schools. If you don’t do it, just developing a single curriculum won’t help. Uniform education system should mean that across the country all children – irrespective of their economic and social background – get uniform opportunities to quality education. Do provide in all schools: bathrooms that are functioning, clean drinking water, computer labs, decent seating arrangements and furniture, environment that is enabling and pleasant, electricity and fans, grounds to play, and high quality of internet service.
Do make them part of a uniform education system. Then make sure that in your supposedly uniform education system the methods of learning, teaching, and assessment are aligned with the 21-century practices and requirements. Do ensure that all children are able to learn by making use of activities that suit them and not imposed on them. Do develop benchmarks of learning and teaching that incorporate the latest practices and theories of learning and teaching. To do that you need to have a vast cadre in education that is properly qualified and trained, and for that again you need resources.
In the next part of this article we will discuss some of the don’ts that must be avoided at all costs.
To be continued
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.
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