Tuesday August 16, 2022

A scorecard of the SNC debate

September 09, 2021

As the primary school Single National Curriculum (SNC) is being rolled out, I often find myself looking back at the debate over the last three years. The SNC is the most significant education policy since 2006, thereby warranting a review of the quality of public engagement by its stakeholders. Let us quickly see how all the participants fared, and issue a scorecard of sorts.

At the federal level, the SNC project that began three years ago has seen several twists, turns and adaptations over this period. Information on the development of the SNC began to trickle out during year two and received scattered coverage in newspapers op-eds, whenever there was enough to report. Much of the coverage was critical and remained critical during year three when model textbooks and the rules for obtaining No Objection Certificates (NOCs) for alternative textbooks were released. That criticism, even when accompanied by published evidence and examples, was dismissed out of hand, brushed aside, and labeled partisan attacks fueled by imaginary sinister agendas.

As the project reaches its three-year mark, the feedback from all quarters has slowly sunk in. To their credit, the MoFEPT and the NCC are now demonstrating flexibility and are revising the current batch of textbooks for the next year to address issues identified by various members of the public – the proof will be in the pudding, of course. Nevertheless, many of these issues were entirely avoidable had public feedback been paid attention to earlier. For performing poorly on the first attempt but for its willingness to listen and fix things, I give the federal government a B-minus-grade.

Punjab’s education department and the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) deserve to be graded separately. On the SNC, Punjab has been acting more loyal than the king. Whereas the MoFEPT was accepting of the imperfections of the SNC’s first incarnation and warranted review, the political leadership of education in Punjab fended off all criticism by quickly labelling critics as “mafias” in combative fashion. The PCTB established a complex multistage process for review of alternative textbooks while itself lacking the capacity to handle timely reviews. As of today, the PCTB has issued NOCs for a scattered few textbooks. While some private schools and publishers are trying to jump through the hoops the PCTB has set up, many others have given up.

Instead of taking responsibility for this mess, Punjab’s leadership is threatening schools not bowing to its edicts with revocation of their licences at a time when Covid-19 has already forced many private schools out of business while the government lacks the capacity to provide schools for all children. And, while Punjab is putting a gun to private schools’ heads, madrassahs (that were supposedly part of the SNC experiment) seem to be getting a free pass. For all these reasons the Punjab government deserves a solid F-grade.

Early on public awareness and interest in the SNC was largely non-existent and the issue was on few parents’ radar. Members of the civil society, specifically educationists, first began tracking and discussing the issue. The majority of private school parents that engaged in the debate were activated after the SNC’s release in Summer 2020 when the realisation dawned that it would apply to not just public but also private schools.

Engagement ramped up after excerpts of textbooks began trickling out early this year. Opinions varied from opposition (largely from private school parents whose children were already using better textbooks and proven curricula) to outright support from have-nots (often expressed in messages that affirmed the old proverb of misery loving company). Parents are equal stakeholders in their children’s education and ought to pay attention to what is coming to their schools the day new policies are announced. For their engagement, albeit a bit late, I give parents and interested members of civil society a B-grade.

Think tanks that picked up on the issue did not give it the bandwidth it deserved. A number of TV channels which, like think tanks, provide platforms for debate picked up on the issue, some more frequently than others. Unfortunately, the sporadic coverage meant that discussions rarely had time to venture beyond the basics and never really pushed back on the rhetoric of the government. For their timely, albeit limited, attention to the issue I award these forums a C-plus-grade.

Universities that are meant to be hubs for stimulating and intellectual academic debate failed us completely. Last year, during the height of the pandemic while the public debate on the SNC was raging and everyone and their mother was launching Zoom webinars, academia was and remains absent in any substantive manner: F-grade.

You would expect private schools implementing the SNC to be tracking this issue closely. Schools that were part of the SNC consultation process in the early days conveyed their concerns to the NCC that developed it but were largely ignored. However, as the debate gained steam, to their credit, leaders of a few prominent and / or mission-oriented private schools spoke up publicly.

The vast majority of schools however opted for the path of no resistance and preferred to stay mum so as to not risk retaliation from government departments. While government departments may claim the rules would apply to everyone, super-elite schools like Aitchison have chosen to quietly ignore the SNC and do what they deem best for their students (Don’t hold your breath if you expect Punjab to take any action). For the way most private schools chose to not rock the boat, I have to award private schools a C-minus-grade.

The ones that surprised me most were education sector research and advocacy institutes. Unpaid activist groups and even some schools prepared detailed analysis of the SNC and its textbooks, identifying problematic content by page and line number, performing comparisons with established and proven curricula, with several providing them as written reports to relevant government departments as feedback. Local institutes did not make an audible peep and contributed nothing to the public conversation. Since many such institutes are dependent on funding and goodwill in government departments to operate, this too may be explained as a triumph of business interests over mission statement. For this complete absence, I must award education research and advocacy institutes an F-grade.

Education is not a cause that is every politician’s cup of tea, but every party counts among its ranks several educated members, both in the Senate and the National Assembly, that speak on these issues. Yet, for the last three years we have not heard a word on the SNC from opposition parties. The parliamentary standing committee on federal education remained inactive on the SNC until late last month. Provincial education standing committees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab remained quiet. I write off this silence to indifference and complicity. How can they criticise what they have contributed to by presenting bills (passed unanimously) that have disfigured our education beyond repair? For example, the introduction of the Muttahida Ulema Board in the Punjab book review process was a result of a private member (PML-Q) bill passed unanimously. For this, I award opposition parties a solid F-grade.

Finally, this scorecard would not be complete without grading the only winners of this project: the religious right and far-right, whose members are found across all parties, bureaucracies, governments, and the public. Their representatives did a fantastic job of first loading up the primary school SNC with religious contents across subjects and grades, and then letting madaris back out of adopting it themselves.

When it looked like the public debate was turning against them, they found sympathetic political partners willing to support their cause, particularly in Punjab. True to fashion, in debates we saw them pointing to the anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan card in their pocket, enough to make everyone that values their life to tread carefully or shut up entirely. For playing such an excellent game, I must award the religious right of this country a solid A-plus-grade.

The bottom line is that in Pakistan education is far from a public good as advertised. Education has become a private good and it is every party for itself. In such an environment it is incumbent on parents of school children to track these policy debates and speak up for what they want because, save for a few good Samaritans in civil society, no one else will.

The writer is technical adviser to the MoFEPT. Opinions are her own.