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September 14, 2020

Open letter to the education minister

Opinion

September 14, 2020

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Dear Minister for Federal Education and Professional Training. Hope you are doing well. The reason I wrote the full name of your ministry is that the official website has the correct and full nomenclature of the ministry and it has important implications.

After the 18th Amendment to the constitution of Pakistan, there were many ministries and departments that came under the sole purview of the provinces. The federal Ministry of Education was of one of them. As you know, per the 18th Amendment, education at all levels with all its related matters including curriculum, became the exclusive domain of the provinces and it was no more in the concurrent list. This was a major milestone responding to the long-standing demands of the federating units. The beauty of an active and energetic federation lies in the autonomy its federating units enjoy.

Subsequently, the federal government decided that it still needed a ministry to take care of some education institutions that fall directly under the federal sphere. Fair enough. The government changed the nomenclature of the ministry multiple times, finally settling with the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training (MoFEPT). Since federal education had a limited scope for a full ministry, professional training made it a bit broader. So, as the constitution stands today, the ministry should be focusing on the improvement of the institutions that the federal government directly manages and make plans for professional training and implement them.

As you have mentioned in your article published in these pages on September 8, ‘A robust debate has started in the media regarding the Single National Curriculum (SNC) – and that is a good thing’. The debate has involved some of our best minds in education such as doctors Anjum Altaf, A H Nayyar, Pervaiz Hoodbhoy, Rubina Saigol, and Tariq Rehman. They have given their inputs and have responded somewhat ‘negatively’ to various elements of the SNC. The so-called ‘negativity’ needs to be seen in its proper perspective before jumping to conclusions.

The entire SNC saga is primarily something that does not come under the MoFEPT. So the ministry has tried to do something that it should not be doing at all. If the ministry trespasses its boundaries, it is the responsibility of educationists to highlight the constitutional obligation of the ministry to confine itself to its own domain. As you mention, a conference was convened by the ministry regarding the language issue and ‘now the provinces have the option of choosing either Urdu as a medium of instruction or any other mother language’.

One wonders why the MoFEPT needed a conference to decide something that had already been settled by the 18th Amendment. It is up to the federating units to act in this direction as they already have the authority that our constitution has given them. The energies that the MoFEPT spent in terms of resources and time to convene the conference, it should have used to do something more worthwhile falling under its wings, such as improving professional training in the country. Even before the said conference, the provinces had every right to make decisions about what language they want to use and at what level; be it English, Urdu, or any other.

In your article, the following lines are pretty interesting: “Our original plan was that SNC implementation would also mean a single textbook on all subjects, bar any other; in every school.” One may ask who made that ‘original plan’ and by whose authority. Again it is up to the provinces to decide if they want to use a single textbook in every school or multiple textbooks. The article further says: “We have not put any bar on any school using additional material or textbooks. Of course, the textbooks prepared by independent publishers would need approval from the provincial governments to ensure that they adhere to the curriculum.”

Two points arise here: one, constitutionally speaking the MoFEPT has no authority to put a bar and it is every school’s right to use additional material or textbooks, as it is a provincial matter; two, every province already has a mechanism in place through textbook boards to approve textbooks. So the generosity claimed by the article is out of place and uncalled for. The article tries to explain ‘fundamental precepts and respond to some of the criticism’, but then gets into platitudes such as ‘segmentation exists in our education system’ and ‘basic inequality stares us in the face’.

We have heard umpteen times that private schools with foreign certification ‘service the educational needs of the elite’; and other schools such as ‘government schools and madressahs have different curricula and different certification teaching mostly in Urdu’. And then the article rightly diagnoses the real issue: ‘This has divided the nation on class and income lines’. That’s where the crux of the matter is and we must appreciate the minister for his correct identification of the problem. But sadly, rather than trying to focus on this root cause, the rigmarole of the SNC has pushed us away from the main demand.

The real inequality does not lie in curriculum and textbooks. It lies in the inequality of access to educational opportunities. The PTI government has reneged on its promise to create a Yaksaan Taleemi Nizam (uniform education system) which means equal opportunities of quality education for all children and young people, irrespective of their economic and social background. It is not simply ‘disparity of perceptions’ as the article pointed out; it is the disparity in opportunities that deprives our all children to access quality education. If anything, the MoFEPT should have focused on improving those opportunities rather than doing something which was unnecessary for it to do.

Another brilliant point highlighted in the article is about the ‘different worldviews’, which our education system has promoted. When we talk about increasing intolerance and sectarianism in society we must acknowledge the fact that an increasing emphasis on creeds and faith-based education ultimately affects our worldview. When the critics of the SNC highlight this aspect, they can foresee a couple of decades down the road an even more bigoted and prejudiced young generation wreaking havoc with the fabric of this society. The process of this started much earlier with the Objectives Resolution and has continued through General Zia’s so-called Islamization to date with full speed.

So now, if not the SNC what should the MoFEPT be doing? First, it should be striving to enhance the budget allocation for education to at least five to 10 percent of the GDP, which should be transferred to provinces. Without money you cannot eliminate or even reduce disparities in our education system. We need better government schools with improved infrastructure where children feel happy and safe. We need money to offer wholesome lunch to children both as an incentive and as a remedy to their stunted growth. The number of out-of-school children ranges from 20 million to 25 million across the country; the MoFEPT should be focusing on them.

It should be more concerned about having resources to provided activity kits and bags, computers and copies, drawing boards and fun games, intellectually challenging tasks that improve their motor skills, joggers and playgrounds. This all may sound ambitious but that’s how you reduce the disparity in the education system. We should not have schools that lack basic facilities such as electricity, functioning bathrooms, and decent furniture. There is a need to improve professional training and establish new institutes that impart such training to our youth. That’s where the MoFEPT should be active and creative.

Lastly, may we know how much money the MoFEPT spent on involving over 400 people in a year-long exercise that produced a curriculum which is 80 to 90 percent the same as the 2006 curriculum?

Best regards

Email: [email protected]