Elitism, not extremism is the problem

September 13, 2020

Why have elite schools thrived and public schools remained poor, since 1947?

While listening to the debate between the proponents and opponents of the Single National Curriculum (SNC), I sifted through the noise hoping against hope to find that the policy would be applied uniformly. I discovered, however, that elite schools were exempt from its purview. Given this fact, the debate surrounding the SNC is nothing but meaningless humbug.

There was a time when the local system of education in Pakistan, the matriculation system, produced people of the caliber of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan and graduates of this system made it to top centres of higher learning, in decent numbers. However, post 1971, there appeared to be a concerted effort to take it apart.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s nationalization of schools in 1972 — one of the first acts of the first Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government – aimed for the foundations of the matriculation system. Zia-ul-Haq’s de-nationalization policy, led to the proliferation of private schools across Pakistan. The final blow to education for the common man, was the decision to delay the teaching of English till Grade 5. “Children joining Class 1 in 1979, in public schools started out with Urdu as their only medium of instruction”. The pipeline that fed the system with decent teachers was destroyed, and has since then never recovered.

I am not arguing for or against English education or education in English. While recognizing the importance of English in the present global reality, one has to remain cognizant of the incredible strides that countries like Iran, Korea, China and Vietnam have made in raising literacy via excellent education delivered in their respective mother tongues.

I taught at the elite Karachi Grammar School, and then at a large public school in Karachi for a number of years. There was a scandalous and obscene difference between the two. That such a difference should exist in terms of quality of education, resources, facilities and faculty between two schools in a country that prides in calling itself Islamic, is an affront to every tenet of decency and morality. The point is not just that one was delivering education in English and the other in Urdu, but rather that one was delivering excellent education (which happened to be in English) while the other was delivering education of very poor quality (which happened to be in Urdu).

The nine education policies, that are collecting dust in the storage bins of the Ministry of Education will soon be joined by umpteen copies of the SNC. Does anybody remember the fancy Education Emergency report produced by Michael Barber of the DFID? That too is there collecting dust. The nine education policies appear to have had the same purpose as the SNC – ensuring that only the children of the elitist cabal, which runs the country get excellent education.

I have read many well-researched pieces arguing against the SNC. They are well-meaning, but miss the point. For example, one laments that the focus is mainly on learning outcomes of the low-level variety which cannot foster critical thinking that the SNC promises. The question is: what critical thinking skills are being engendered under the present curriculum? Another argument is that the SNC promotes rote learning. Having worked in a public school, I can state unequivocally that the system is based purely on cramming. So what’s the difference?

Talking about the triangular model (learning outcomes, instruction and assessment) of curriculum design or minimum learning standards, is irrelevant in a system rife with a culture of cheating in exams. Talking about websites that do not work is immaterial, when the vast majority of public-school students have no access to WIFI, speak nothing of laptops.

Many teachers in the public system do not even know what learning outcomes mean. Most have had no training to attain such goals and countless teachers do not know their subject matter. Not a single teacher of English in the large government school I worked at in Karachi could converse in English even at a rudimentary level (again, this is not about English; just an example of lack of qualifications). And this was in Karachi, the leading urban hub of the nation, one can only imagine what goes on in government schools in rural areas.

Saying that the departments of education are politicized in Pakistan, is just stating the obvious. Appointments across the board are made to provide jobs to favourites. I remember sinking into my seat when my professor at Harvard, stated that Pakistan may be the only country in the world, where someone who applied to join the police force, could be appointed as a teacher in a public school. He had lived and worked in Pakistan.

In the end, the SNC is better or no worse than what is on offer at present. Whether it raises madrassas to the level of public schools or lowers public schools to the level of madrassas makes no difference. My only protest against it is that it misleads by using the word ‘single’. It is not singlular at all. It is meant only for the children of the poor. It is very much a part of the dichotomous system that exists: excellent private education with English as the medium of instruction for the elite, and poor-quality education with vernacular as the medium of instruction for the masses. The SNC or PTI 1.0 could easily also be labelled ZAB/ZIA 2.0

It is not a curriculum that will change education in Pakistan. Our rulers need to realize that the brew of unemployment, crime and hopelessness that illiteracy engenders will soon make Pakistan unlivable even for their own progeny. Two simple actions can transform public education overnight: 1) that it be made mandatory for the children of public servants to attend government schools, and 2) that all children coming out of high-end private schools must serve as teachers in public schools for a period of two years as national service.

The writer is the International Programs Coordinator at Western Michigan University and holds a doctorate in    education

Elitism, not extremism is the problem