One nation, one curriculum. Really?

Allocation of adequate resources alone, and not a tinkering with the curriculum, can enhance the quality of education

The federal minister for education and professional training and the premier either fail to understand the difference between a ‘uniform system of education’ and a ‘uniform curriculum’ or juggle the terms willfully for political deception.

From their campaign days they have been incessantly pointing to the problem of amir ka bacha and ghareeb ka bacha going to different school systems with a different quality of education, ending up in an apartheid society and a polarized conglomerate rather than a nation.

“We are determined to deliver what the state of Pakistan has failed to in the last 72 years,” says the minister. In one of his recent speeches in the parliament, he went on to say, “the new education policy (NEP) is going to merge the public, private and madrassa systems of education to offer equal opportunity to all students and constitute a single-minded nation.”

No surprise that within the same stream of arguments, he switched over from “quality education,” to a “uniform system of education (USE)” to a “single national curriculum (SNC)” illustrating their own confusion or illusion. Who on earth shall oppose quality education putting an end to discrimination and treating all qualified citizens equally? But the mantra is either meant to make political gains or erode provincial autonomy.

SNC or USE? Let me say this straight on, it is SNC, and not USE, that the government is about to introduce. All the rest is meant to cloud the public vision. Secondly, the effort does not surpass the “common core,” call it a threshold. Neither a new curriculum nor a minimum standard of education is being proposed. Schools and madrassas are free to sustain the rest of their subjects and standards.

Lastly, the aim is not to eliminate the “apartheid system of education” but an attempt to cultivate a unified national narrative – the chronic fixation of our state. Despite their claims of mobilising 400 stakeholders and constituting a National Curriculum Council (NCC), the prospects are disappointing. The very idea of “one nation, one curriculum” is based upon a flawed premise as a common core is no panacea. If the purpose was to refine the 2006 curriculum and learning outcomes, then there was nothing wrong in continuing with the same.

Education governance, quality and learning outcomes: Regarding how well a country performs in education, Pakistan ranks 125th out of 130 countries all over the world. Certainly, it is not the curriculum alone, but pre-schooling, academic environment, infrastructure and quality of instruction that guarantees good education which the proposed framework ignores.

National and international assessments place our students’ competencies far below their grades. The Standardised Achievement Test results — in languages as well as in science and mathematics — are utterly disturbing. In languages, their average scores in Grade V-VII remains about 35 percent while for science and mathematics they are around 25 percent.

As per ASER’s periodical assessment, about half the Grade V students stumble on Grade II level texts, including simple sentences. Children’s arithmetic competency falls below average. Less than half the Grade V students miscalculate even two-digit division. Meanwhile, 60-65 percent private school students perform better in all subjects on the same parameters. Over and above, equity, access, availability, inclusion, adaptability and acceptability as well as education governance are undermined by the new Education Policy Framework (EPF).

Nearly a third of all schools still run short of the required number of teachers while the teachers-students ratio is almost double the standard (1:20). Teaching secular subjects in madrassas certainly requires appointing at least 115,000 teachers along with guaranteed pay – as bargained by the Ittehad Tanzeem-ul-Madaris. Such subjects, of course, need critical and analytical thinking, lacking in many madrassas. Eventually, these teachers will end up teaching religious perspectives in English, mathematics and science too.

The idea of vocational and entrepreneurial education is almost two decades old, mainly encouraged and supported by the DFID, the EU and other donors. Incorporating certain lessons in Grade V, is not going to strike a shift from ‘job-seekers to job-creators’ as purported by the NCC. What of advancing equality, there is even a risk of pushing the underclass students to menial skills at earlier grades.

There are thousands of one-room, one-teacher schools. The number of dysfunctional schools also runs into thousands. Ghost and frequently-absent teachers have still not been weeded out. Many a teacher serves less as a teacher and more as political worker or evangelist. Efforts to fire absent or incompetent teachers have been met with unionised protests or resisted by MPAs influencing the chief minister. Under the circumstances, how can one acknowledge the introduction of the SNC to be the first-right-step?

Countries with the best schooling models, such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea, which the NCC claims to have studied, offer better privileges and attractive salaries to their teachers. No teacher can enter a classroom without a PhD degree and having been through a rigorous recruitment and training process. Exemplary environment and class structure are maintained with sufficient opportunities to experiment and innovate. This includes group-teaching and peer-assessment. The examinations are limited and results are not made public. There are no watertight natural science and social science divisions and students are free to pick and choose from a range of subjects. Private schooling is almost non-existent.

Religious and social studies: Rather than taking responsibility, the federal minister admires madrassas for taking care of the underprivileged children. He also seems obliged to them for agreeing to incorporate the three proposed subjects. But, so long as the imitational logic rules madrassas, introduction of a couple of new subjects, registration and board exams will not enable their students to compete even with public school graduates, what to speak of private schools, or to make their mark in professional circles.

Claiming otherwise is utterly naïve or plain duplicity. Simply speaking, their worldview is different. Their framework of thought is sceptical of empirical knowledge and critical thinking. If the government is sincere, it should discourage dars-i-nizaami and open an equal number of public schools.

The fact is that more the religiosity, the less the acceptability of diversity and plurality. Even so our educational gurus are not willing to curtail it. Consolidating religious content only in Islamiat and tutoring civility, citizenship and ethics is great but why add plain Islamiat with a number of hadiths, additional surahs, and memorizing parts of Holy Quran by heart? In the Punjab, the essentials of the SNC are already there under compulsory Holy Quran Act 2018. In hiring qaaris to teach these there is a risk of developing a madrassa-like ambience in schools. The cramming tendency will intensify. In higher classes, masaalik and firqa tensions might emerge.

What non-Muslim students are going to be taught instead is not clear. If Muslim students are taught faith at schools, why should non-Muslim students be taught ethics instead?

Admiring the rule requiring the ability to read Quarn to secure a degree at any level, the Punjab governor has tweeted that for him it was “a dream coming true as learning (the Holy) Quran guarantees our progresses”.

The Punjab Assembly has passed a bill laying down that, “religious content in all books of all schools shall be scrutinised by the Muttahida Ulema Board. On its way to scrutinise 1,000 books, the PCTB has already banned 100, declaring their content to be anti-religious or anti-national. Clearly, “our textbooks are the best example of the nexus between power and bigotry,” notes Ayesha Jalal.

The medium-of-instruction: In Pakistan, the medium of instruction has always been a subject of debate. Urdu is proposed by the champions of supra-nationalism, English by the wealthy elite and mother languages by the ethno-nationalist stalwarts and dissenters. Realistically speaking, Pakistan must chose a calculated and sequential multi-linguality.

The TECC and the NCC are indecisive about that too, resulting in the same world of inequity, injustice and divide what they, so to speak, set out to eliminate.

A practical suggestion is to teach English and mother language as subjects. Numeracy and scientific concepts should to be imparted in English right from Grad I. Teaching of all secular subjects should be in English from Grade VIII.

It is quite clear that learning exclusively in Urdu or mother languages leaves students behind economically.

Confining power and privilege to themselves, the political class has been sending their own children to English schools and advising others to love Urdu and/or their mother languages.

Dr Tariq Rahman also suggests an incremental strategy in adopting English as a medium of instruction.

Resources: The much trumpeted NEP is silent on the required financing to improve the quality of education. Pakistan has already failed its MDGs commitment of 97 percent net enrollment. Though more than 40 percent of the schooling burden is afforded by the parents themselves, more then 40 percent of our populace is illiterate. With 2 percent of the GDP allocated, Pakistan lags behind its South Asian neighbours.

It is one of the 12 least-spending countries on education and falls short of the minimum 6 percent budget recommended by the Dakar Framework of Education (2000). HEC’s budget too has been reduced. The post 18th Amendment provincial governments too have backed out of their promise to boost it to 6 percent. It is not by tinkering with the curriculum but by allocating adequate resources alone that the quality of education.

The writer is a social development analyst and consultant. He can be reached at 

One nation, one curriculum. Really?