The curriculum conundrum

A single national curriculum has the potential to address the challenges posed by social gaps in education

The curriculum conundrum

The formulation of a single national curriculum (SNC) marks a watershed development. It is a historic initiative designed to eliminate the class-based education system and create equal educational standards for all students in Pakistan, regardless of race, class, gender and any other shade or grade of discrimination. Being developed with loads of input from national scholars and international experts, it has incorporated suggestions received from almost all segments of society and is being designed in line with the global best practices. It seeks to take good care of the pedagogical needs of the 21st Century.

The Islamic content in the curriculum is strictly in accordance with an act of the parliament called The Compulsory Teaching of Holy Quran Act, 2017. It is mandatory for all federal institutions to implement it in letter and spirit. The act was also adopted by three provinces but not Sindh. The SNC has taken special care to ensure that there is no material in it that offends the sensibilities of any of the minorities in Pakistan. In fact, it is for the first time that a separate special curriculum has been prepared for Hindus, Christians, Bahais, Sikhs and the non-Muslim inhabitants of Kalash Valley.

Concrete efforts are afoot to ensure that the curriculum is reflective of all Pakistanis’ aspirations and promotes a culture of community cohesion characterised by tolerance, peace and brotherhood among all communities in the country.

Historically, the education system of Pakistan has evolved from the socio-economic strata of the country. It has further sharpened the class boundaries in the country. The three mutually exclusive education systems - public schools, private schools and madrassahs - have been a part of the problem. There is also visible difference in content taught in the three education systems.

The lack of a cohesive system has widened the gaps between learning, leading to social inequities. The benefits of quality education in Pakistan have remained with those attending private institutions. The SNC is an intervention long due. Criticism of the SNC is being pushed by the segments of the society that feel that if the authorities are targetting private institutions with malice. This is not the case.

The SNC will initially address pre-primary and primary schools; up to Class 5. It will move on to secondary classes later. The enhancement in terms of hardware, technology and ease of access should meanwhile be accorded the top priority. Technology will soon be the key factor. The concerned authorities must focus on rural areas where internet coverage is sparse or altogether missing.

The main hindrance discussed by the critics is language. The content and language of private institutions have varied greatly from public schools. The need to re-structure that area is of the essence now. Public schools and madrassahs will benefit from inculcating better English learning tools at par with the private institutions. The acquisition of the language will be an equalising factor. Many developing countries have had a successful experience of teaching both English and the local language. There should be no question of losing one or the other.

The lack of a cohesive system has widened gaps between learning, leading to social inequities. The benefits of quality education in Pakistan have remained with those attending private institutions. The SNC comes as an intervention long overdue.

A systematic and well-orchestrated campaign has been launched against the SNC. It is spreading falsehoods like the claim that the Ulema Board has decreed that all human figures in biology textbooks be covered with appropriate clothes to protect their modesty; that qaris from madrassahs will be appointed in all schools, public and private, to teach the Holy Quran; and that the SNC discriminates against minorities. The Ministry of Education has denied these accusations in strong terms. It has pointed out that the SNC has so far been approved only till Class 5 whereas biology is not taught until Class 9. No textbooks for the subject have so far been finalized under the SNC. The federal government’s approval process for science textbooks does not include consultation with the Muttahida Ulema Board, so that the claim that the Board has prohibited the inclusion of any diagrams or educational material is false.

Science textbooks are being developed in close consultation with renowned experts and will not be approved for publication until it is determined that they meet the global benchmarks.

The Punjab Assembly has approved a law whereby an Ulema Board approves all Islamic content in the curriculum. However, the Punjab government has informed the federal government that no change has been made in the biology textbooks by the said board. The teaching of qiraat to Muslim students is a part of the Islamiat curriculum. This instruction can be provided by the current Islamiat or religious studies teachers. The schools can also hire new teachers for the purpose.

Recently, the Deutsche Welle (DW) has also criticised the government for preparing to implement a uniform education system in the country based on an Islamised syllabus, including the teaching of the Quran. It has said the critics fear that this could lead to further Islamisation of schools and universities and increase the influence of Islamic clerics, sharpen sectarian fault lines and greatly damage the social fabric.

The uniform education system aims to provide equal opportunity to quality education, bridge the class gap and social disparity, and ensure better understanding of the Quran. Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.

Uniformity of curriculum will create basic standards of academic proficiency. Several countries in the West, including the UK, Germany and France, have uniform education policies. Under the New Education Policy (NEP) of India, the teaching of Hindu epics, including the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, has been made mandatory in 100 autonomous madrassahs.

The rise of far-right parties in Europe and the harsh propaganda against immigrants and Muslims are the primary reasons for the Islamophobic sentiments and anti-Muslim hatred among their populations. The SNC has the potential to address this challenge.

Educationists, policy-makers and strategists across the globe are joining heads and hands to formulate a unified framework for imparting education. Recently, the World Economic Forum Davos, 2021 Agenda had serious deliberations on Education 4.0 and its multiple advantages to address the challenges posed by the fourth industrial revolution. It is time to take measures to design an education system that offers a level playing field to all learners and thereby create a cohesive community, equipped with the requisite knowledge, skills and attitude for a peaceful global society.

The writer is a civil servant, columnist and public policy analyst

The curriculum conundrum