Sustained educational apartheid

December 26, 2021

The introduction of the SNC has adversely affected school education

Sustained educational apartheid

In the year 2021, nearly everything was badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, including school education. However, besides Covid-19, school education in Pakistan was affected by other factors.

There was definitely a loss in learning for all students. Firstly, the pandemic truncated the school year. There were long and short periods of closure of schools, and when reopened, schools were directed to run at half the strength by allowing 50 percent students on alternate days. Mid-term and annual examinations were scrapped, and students were promoted without testing their learning achievement. No remedial measures were taken to make up for the loss. Most students are likely to carry various learning deficiencies with them in their future studies.

Schools faced a cumulative closure for over 5 months, reducing the learning time for students by nearly a third. The closures severely affected their learning, especially in low-income households where family members could not coach them. The discontinuities had their effect: returning students were found to have less motivation for studies. Schools in low-income neighbourhoods complained of nearly 20 percent additional drop-out, which may have been triggered by the families’ need to send them to earn money in these hard financial times. Nobody knows if they will ever return to schools.

A second factor adversely affecting school education was the introduction this year of the Single National Curriculum and model textbooks. That the new textbooks were dreary, uninteresting and full of mistakes has been less of a problem than two other aspects of the SNC.

The first of these is the new policy on the medium of instruction. The SNC now requires science and mathematics to be taught in English starting from kindergarten. Thus, 4- and 5-year-old children, who are not even familiar with Urdu start their learning in a language they do not understand. Implementing the new scheme has also disclosed that teachers in public schools are not equipped to teach in English, so their teaching consists of dictating lessons in English for students to memorise.

The second problem is that of teaching enhanced nazra Quran and Islamiat. The SNC requires nazra to be taught with correct Arabic pronunciation. A few queries in the federal area schools showed that most teachers can teach nazra Quran only in the way they had learnt – without a deep knowledge of tajweed (authentic intonation and pronunciation). Only graduates of madrassahs are masters of this art. Most headmasters are now finding it necessary to hire madrassah graduates as part-time nazra teachers. In addition, the volume of Islamiat content is now at least 50 percent more than before. It also permeates compulsory courses like Urdu and English, forcing non-Muslim students to also learn Islamiat in violation of their fundamental right.

For the first time in the educational history of the country, the judiciary in the Punjab took upon itself the task of ensuring the implementation of the law on compulsory nazra Quran teaching. The Lahore High Court has instructed its subordinate judges to visit and monitor nazra Quran teaching and punish defaulting schools on the spot. Thereupon, district level judges accompanied by a few civil officials and an armed police guard have started visiting private schools in a most intimidating manner, checking to see if the Holy Book is being taught with correct intonation and pronunciation. Finding lapses, they have locked schools as punishment.

As a result of the huge criticism of the SNC for lowering the standards, the National Curriculum Council has now come to describe the new curriculum as defining the floor rather than the ceiling, meaning that what the SNC contains is the bare minimum that all educational institutions must follow, but going over and above the SNC would be permissible. This is meant to accommodate the elite private schools preparing students for foreign examinations.

It is interesting to recall that the main purpose of the SNC was to meet PM Imran Khan’s vision of removing the existing apartheid in education by bridging the gaps among the three kinds of systems – one for the elite, the other for the general public, and the third geared to prepare the clergy. The floor-ceiling concession to the elite schools throws this purpose down the drain. What has been achieved instead is turning the schools that follow the public curriculum closer to madrassahs.

The year 2021 was the third consecutive year when three of the promised four priority areas of education reform were left untouched. Recall that soon after coming into power, the current government had identified four areas of concern in education: the 22 million out-of-school children; the poor and continuously dropping quality of education as seen by various indicators and surveys; the near-absence of technical and vocational education and, lastly, the educational apartheid. The government promised to prioritise addressing these four problems besetting education. The first three remained untouched because they required a substantial financial input. Many challenge the claim that the SNC addresses the last problem.

Three years have passed but the promises remain unmet. No scheme has been devised to put the millions of out-of-school children into schools; no steps have so far been taken to improve the quality of school education; no additional institutions were created to impart technical and vocational education to school children, and the educational apartheid remains where it was.

The writer taught physics at the Quaid-i-Azam University

Sustained educational apartheid