A dark future

November 7, 2021

Students emerging from the Single National Curriculum’s shadow will be hugely disadvantaged in a competitive global environment

A dark future

What awaits children studying under the Single National Curriculum (SNC) in the years ahead? The SNC is an ideological project conceived by Prime Minister Imran Khan that conjoins all regular schools with madrassahs. Doing so, he contends, will level the playing field. But now that implementation is proceeding rapidly in three provinces, parents of school-going children are worried.

The pre-SNC situation was bad enough. Pakistani children stand at the bottom end of global educational achievement, with surveys showing sinking learning levels. Inferior to their counterparts in Iran, India and Bangladesh, they are often absent from competitions like the international science and mathematics Olympiads. When they do compete, they perform poorly. The solitary exception is invariably an O-A level or IB student linked to a foreign examination system. Non-elite school students are generally unable to express themselves coherently and grammatically in any language.

This under-achievement is severely restricting employment possibilities at home and abroad. Although many students do get higher degrees later, yet, bad early education means few do well as practicing engineers and scientists. Last year, Pakistan’s software exports – a measure of brain power – stood at only $2 billion (India’s were $148 billion). Our overseas workforce is mostly unskilled or semi-skilled labour. The GIZ-ILO statistics show that only 3 percent is high-level (engineers, doctors, teachers, top management, etc); the remaining 97 percent includes labourers, house helpers, bus drivers, carpenters and electricians etc.

Poor learning habits start from Pakistani schools where kids learn examination techniques, and are taught just enough to get by. Students with low reasoning ability but high memorisation capacity – or illegal access to smartphones during examinations – emerge as “toppers”. Presently, dozens of students are scoring 1,100 out of 1,100 marks in examinations held across the Punjab. Cheating is socially tolerated. Parents – including those who emphasise religious rituals – encourage their children to cheat as a way to get ahead.

The SNC will drag down standards further. Here’s why: rote learning is a bane for modern education but is central to madrassah education where holy texts must be committed to memory. The SNC has made the rote system stronger. On one hand, everyone will need to memorise much more religious material; on the other, a single official textbook is specified for each subject. A student memorising selected parts of that book can get full marks.

What the SNC’s clueless managers do not understand is that the world has zero use for a hafiz-i-science or hafiz-i-riyazi. He will not be hired. Instead, businesses, industries and research laboratories want people with a broad scope of knowledge, reasoning capacity and ability to navigate new situations.

Of course, everyone agrees that mathematics, science and English should be taught in madrassahs. Without these, one cannot know how the modern world works. But 99 percent of madrassah students will never use mathematics or science in any significant way. So why set equal standards for both? And have the same books? The SNC requires students of both streams – madrassah and regular – to take the same board examinations and be graded similarly. Examination setters know that any “out-of-course” questions may cause hell to break loose on the streets.

Actual equity in education needs major government investment in public school facilities, teacher training and books.

It makes no sense to conjoin madrassah and regular schools because madrassahs have a very specific mission objective – that of preparing one for life after death. This explains their permanence, and is why the dars-i-nizami curriculum, developed in pre-colonial India, was never changed to accommodate new ideas. You cannot have a student asking why this or that is true. Therefore, critical faculties must be deliberately dulled; a student must accept and obey. To do otherwise could be dangerous.

Regular schools cannot function as madrassahs (and vice versa) because worldly subjects – art, business, science, mathematics, poetry and literature – have diametrically opposite requirements. Here, good education means encouraging curiosity, enhancing reasoning powers, exposing the student to a wide variety of writings and helping create new forms or new thoughts.

Experience of the Ottoman Turkey and Mohammed Ali’s 19th Century Egypt shows that yoking madrassahs and regular schools into a single hybrid system is futile. This is why Arab countries today are fast changing their curricula into modern ones. Pakistan is trying to be an exception, but it will pay a heavy price. Masses of the SNC unemployed graduates – even those with PhDs – will be the result of a failed experiment.

Can a uniform national curriculum level the playing field for all Pakistanis, rich and poor? This idea appears hugely attractive, striking a lethal blow to the abominable education apartheid that wracked Pakistan from day one. Beneficiaries of elite private education became widely separated from those crippled by bad public schooling. So, what could be better than having the rich child and the poor child study the same subjects from the same books and being judged by the same standards?

But this is wishful thinking. The old curriculum actually never stood in the way of equity. In fact, any curriculum is just a list of things to be done. Across countries that list is identical when it comes to teaching languages, geography, arithmetic and basic sciences. Actual equity in education needs major government investment in public school facilities, teacher training and books. Pakistan has extreme wealth disparities; education equity also demands these inequities be ameliorated. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government has taken no steps in this regard.

The SNC is a fake, cost-free, propagandistic solution to a fake problem. Hypocrisy is written across its face. As affirmed by Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood, the SNC will not touch Cambridge O-A levels and International Baccalaureate. Thus, the children of parents paying a monthly fee between Rs 15,000 to Rs 45,000 per child in O-A level and IB schools have no cause for worry. The SNC is opium for the masses. The sooner we see it this way the better.

Today, some Muslim countries are trying hard to meld modernity with tradition. While their curriculum does include some religious education, they have sharply decreased the amount of time reserved for memorisation. Instead, the emphasis is on building cognitive capacity, comprehension, critical thinking skills and citizenship issues. For Pakistani children to have a future, our education system must move in a similar direction. The curriculum changes introduced by the PTI government are a menace that should be abandoned forthwith.

The author is an    Islamabad-based physicist   and writer

A dark future