Not by design

September 13, 2020

Hence there is a highprobability that this policy will entail more madrassah-isation of public education than the mainstreaming of madrassah education

Now that the first part of Single National Curriculum (SNC) has been rolled out, it is possibly the best time for an effort to predict its undesirable, though likely, adverse consequence. Evidence-based assessment is increasingly used to draw conclusions about the outcomes of policies and plans. The SNC intervention can only benefit from it.

The negative consequences discussed here are rooted in a flawed conceptual framework as well as from a failure to learn from past experiences. Ideally, an evaluation of the previous curriculums in terms of their effectiveness should have preceded the new effort.

It is pertinent to note that the SNC has been crafted without touching upon education policy as a whole. The working assumption seems to be that factors like conditions of infrastructure in education sector; behaviour of the actors, particularly parents; the implementation machinery and flow of resources will remain constant or improve to enable the success of the new policy. Therefore, besides the organic and logical fallout of the policy itself, any change in these factors will inevitably impact the outcomes of the policy.

Article 31 of the Constitution mandates teaching of the Islam and Arabic. The parliaments and the provincial assemblies since 2014, with the exception of Sindh, have passed laws that require teaching of the Holy Quran in schools. This has led to an increase in the scope of religious content in the curriculum and related textbooks. It has also caused the madrassah managements’ influence over the public education system to grow. They are already part of the curriculum council, etc. The latter factor is not mandated by law, but exists by choice. Hence, school education from Grade 1 to Grade 12 shall have compulsory subjects of Islamic studies, Holy Quran and nazrah (Arabic reading) alongside increased Islamic content in social studies and language courses. Hence there is a high probability that this policy will entail more madrassah-isation of public education than the mainstreaming of madrassah education.

The SNC has three stated key objectives: building national and social cohesion; bridging the opportunity gap between various economic classes and improving the overall quality of education delivered. Then there are several pedagogical objectives such as instituting creative learning, promoting inclusivity, etc.

The claim about uniformity merits an evaluation before any attempt to judge its success or failure. The author is of the opinion that effort towards a uniform curriculum has been going on for long. The education policy of 1972, in particular, was idealistic, nationalist and relied on the concept of bringing about uniformity. The ideal was to be achieved by emphasising teaching of religion which the subsequent policies only enhanced without any evaluation. Nationalisation of private schools in 1972, damaged the system further to the extent that it has not been possible so far to undo its negative impact. The SNC also reflects a strong tendency of increasing government control over private schools through curriculum. Academic freedom is the first likely casualty.

The ideologues at the Ministry of Education appear to have ignored the experience of, while toying with the concept of assimilation, through education. Hence, in a bid to introduce uniformity of world views among students of various school systems, the SNC may end up promoting a world view where diversity of opinions is seen as a vice. This clashes with other key policy objectives. Moreover, when its impact extends beyond educational institution, it will negatively influence societal behaviours and quality of democracy present.

Increasing religious content will necessitate the induction of more madrassah graduates in public education, which may negatively impact the standard of education imparted. Many parents will feel compelled to send their children to English-medium schools hoping for a better quality of education. This will result in new stresses on median income household budgets and the expansion of private-English-medium-schools which is already trending in the country. Pressured by public opinion, the government will be inclined to enforce lower fee structures, which will result in increased and continuous tensions between the provincial governments in particular, and private school management, followed by legal battles. Therefore, the policy’s potential for low-intensity destabilisation of the society, should not be ignored.

English medium education is already seen by many as a necessity as a large number of middle class households are opting for education abroad. If they cannot afford UK or Australia, they choose to send their children to China, Singapore and Eastern Europe. In the future, Sri Lanka might become attractive too. A low education standard at home will likely enhance the existing trend of education abroad and result in a brain drain.

The support from bilateral and multilateral donors has been crucial in the wake of extremely low government spending in education sector. This support is becoming scarce and hard to attract. Any policy that does not make sense on the paper is likely to dissuade the possible donors.

In sum, the SNC will likely defeat its two objectives directly; narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, and encouraging national social cohesion. Indirectly the SNC is more likely to widen the opportunity gap, mainly because it will neither help the quality of education nor become a factor in empowering the masses.

Implementing the SNC will bring about results of the kind and in proportion, to the foresight and effort that will go into the policy making. The Ministry of Education will do the nation a favour by reconsidering the SNC. The higher purposes attached to national level policies require meaningful and fruitful participation of all stakeholders. Political promises and individual interests are far less important than the future of the nation.

The author is executive director of the Centre for Social Justice engaging in policy advocacy and research. He can be reached at  

Not by design