Educating the masses in Naya Pakistan

The government has set itself some lofty objectives, but the path to their achievement is not clear

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf recently marked two years of its government at the Centre and in three provinces — uncharacteristically for the party without much fanfare. Select ministers took the opportunity on the occasion to highlight the achievements and, more to the point, the course correction in their respective sectors in line with the party manifesto and the campaign promises. This included public education.

The Constitution of Pakistan obligates the state “to provide free and compulsory quality education to children of the age group 5 to 16 years”. Yet, Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world and the second largest population of out-of-school children (22.8 million children). Drastic measure in the past, including nationalisation of private schools including those run by trusts and missionaries and later privatisation of some of those, have failed to achieve the purpose of providing education to the masses. The rise of the private sector in catering to the schooling needs of the populace has not been without serious costs and consequences. A substantial number of children are meanwhile being schooled at religious seminaries whose curriculum and output leave much to be desired.

According to the Federal Minister, Shafqat Mehmood, the challenges faced by the government in education were immense. The ministry he inherited, he says, was “a visionless part of the federal government with fragmented/disjointed efforts in very limited areas.” The new team, he says, has provided a vision to enhance the quality of education and skill development as well as achievement of universal literacy. The initiatives taken in this regard include re-enrolment of school dropouts, education vouchers for out-of-school children and inclusion of information technology modules in the curriculum. The most highlighted decision has been the introduction of a single national curriculum (SNC) for schools.

The SNC is meant to ensure that all children in Pakistan learn the same material irrespective of the schools they go to - thus the slogan: One Nation, One Curriculum. The curriculum for Grades I to V has been approved and announced. Predictably, it has garnered much attention and a debate is currently raging about its merits.

Educationist A H Nayyar, formerly a professor at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, recently wrote in a newspaper article: “They [the policy makers behind the SNC] believe that, even if English language is completely alien to a five-year-old child, he must nevertheless be instructed in English. They also believe… that a greater dose of religious education will produce more honest and useful citizens… Through the SNC, policy planners seem to be promoting influences that are antithetical to critical thinking. The primary focus is on the sheer quantity of information poured into students’ heads.”

Dr Nayyar says that the new course on Islamiat is heavy, so much so that “it turns out that public and private schools will be teaching more religion than even the madrassahs.

Mainstreaming of madrassahs, also included as an objective in the official policy, is a valid concern. It’s a desire past government have shared. Most madrassahs were already persuaded by General Pervez Musharraf to introduce ‘contemporary’ subjects in their curricula. In fact, it is rumoured that the present government’s intense registration process has resulted in the seminaries rethinking their policy of obtaining an official certification. This might explain the fact that the registration process for the most is pending.

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, eminent physicist, too, has criticised the decision of the Punjab government to make the teaching of the Holy Quran compulsory at the college and university level. “Without passing the required examination no student will be able to get a BA, BSc, BE, ME, MA, MSc, MPhil, PhD or medical degree. Even the Zia regime did not have such blanket requirements.”

While the curriculum is being revised, with greater emphasis on teaching of Islamic content, enrolling out-of-school children remains a distant dream. There has been no initiative recently to this end. Even if the gigantic task of nearly doubling the number of children enrolled at schools is completed, there are no teachers to receive them, although the construction of 7 new schools/colleges has been approved for the federal capital.

Sources in the Ministry of Education say there are 40,000 posts for teachers in government-run schools and colleges in the federal capital. Only 9,000 of these are currently occupied. The most significant reason for not hiring the teachers is that the government has no money to pay their salaries. Yet, the SNC requires every school to employ a madrassah-certified qari to teach Quran (nazra). Also, three teachers will be employed by the government for each madrassah, to teach the non-religious subjects.

What has materialised so far is distant learning initiatives on account of Covid-19. These have included nationwide broadcast of Teleschool for Grades 1-12 and development of the eTaleem Portal.

In a nutshell, the government has set itself some lofty objectives, but the path to their achievement is not clear. Given the limited resource allocations, it is not at all clear how the government proposes to enrol the large number of out-of-school children and hire the required number of teachers for them. There is a greater focus instead on redefining an already ‘reformed’ curriculum. But diversity in curricula is hardly as serious a threat as it is made out to be.

The writer is a Lahore-based freelance journalist and researcher

Educating the masses in Naya Pakistan