F for education

February 20, 2022

The Ministry of Education did a great job of identifying core problems in public education. However, it failed to do much to address those

F for education

The prime minister has recently graded the accomplishments of his ministers and their ministries, appreciating some and admonishing others. This exercise, unprecedented in our history of governance, must be welcomed.

We do not know what criteria the PM used for his assessment. It is clear that not all agree on his assessment. And it is not just his ministers and the Opposition. Many in general public have differed with him on his evaluation.

Among those getting a positive evaluation is the Ministry of Education and Professional Training. It is indeed true that, unlike many others, the Ministry of Education has not been quiet. Rather, it provoked a huge public debate by launching first the Single National Curriculum and then, a set of textbooks for primary grades.

In assessing the work of the Ministry, let us begin from the beginning.

Soon after coming into power in 2018, the Ministry issued a National Education Policy Framework highlighting the “challenges and gaps” in the national education. The challenges identified were poor quality of education, low level of enrollment, and low financing and budgetary allocation. It, therefore, identified four areas of priority concern: out-of-school children, non-uniform education systems, poor quality of public education and paucity of skills training.

The concerns were all very valid, and thus, for identifying the core problems of the country’s public education system, the ministry gets 10/10.

Next, let us see what the Ministry did with the identified concerns and what points it earned.

There are 22 million out-of-school children (OOSC), just about as many as those getting education. Under Article 25A, every government has a constitutional obligation to provide free and compulsory education to all in the age group of 5 to 16, as a matter of fundamental right.

What did the Ministry do in this regard? The government has offered no plan or scheme to meet this huge obligation, except for asking schools not to refuse anyone seeking admission. Even to think of it as a solution is a joke. As a result, one witnesses three times as many children in a classroom in federal government public schools as the seating capacity. One can imagine the environment of such a classroom and the burden it puts on teachers. Obviously, it amounts to spoiling the learning environment of those already enrolled.

Clearly, providing education to as many more students as are already enrolled requires either building as many schools and classrooms as are already available, or if done intelligently, by starting second shifts in existing buildings – although that would still require hiring as many more teachers for the second shift as for the morning shift. Keeping in mind that nearly 85 to 90 percent of the educational budget in Pakistan is spent in salaries, putting all the out-of-school children into schools would require doubling the total national educational budget – obviously, a tall order. Thus, since no plan was thought out for putting the OOSC in schools, there may now be many more children out-of-school than were in 2018.

Thus, on count of the first promise, or priority area of the Framework, the Ministry gets zero/10.

The second priority area was the promise of uniform education for all children. No other idea of development could possibly have gotten so corrupted at the hands of this government as this one. There are indeed three parallel systems of education currently running in the country. The expensive elite system prepares students for foreign curricula and foreign examinations, and as Prime Minister Imran Khan has rightly said, these students are in general so well prepared that they become the most successful educated people in the society. The public system is running on a reasonably good curriculum, but practical version of it in the form of textbooks, teachers and examinations does not rise much above the lowest level of competency, i.e., rote memorisation. Lastly, the madrassah system is asynchronous with the modern world and is openly contemptuous of the modern disciplines of learning.

What would have defined the best way to usher in a “uninform education for all” would have been to choose the best curriculum and the best system of teaching and assessment of what is available in the world today and apply it to all three existing systems. That would have been a true road to progress. But that was not done. Instead, an utterly retrogressive step of turning public schools into madrassahs was taken. The school curriculum was heavily loaded with madrassah curriculum while the elite private schools were allowed to continue preparing their students for foreign examinations from foreign textbooks based on foreign curricula.

Thus, in the priority area of a uniform system of education for all, the score is zero/10.

The third challenge that the government took up in 2018 was of improving the quality of education. This obviously meant improving the quality of public education. It is needless to emphasise that quality of education depends upon several factors that include curriculum, textbooks, teachers, facilities available at schools and the system of assessment. Of these five factors, the ministry has no effort at improvement to show for in the last three years. It neither ensured an adequate number of teachers in schools nor their rigorous training. Neither were badly needed basic facilities provided in all schools nor has any change been introduced in the archaic assessment system of public examination boards. The only accomplishment has been in defining a new curriculum (the Single National Curriculum) and bringing out new textbooks for Grades I to V. Ninety percent of the SNC is derived from the Musharraf-era National Curriculum 2006. The 10 percent difference comes from madrassah curriculum that has been added to public education. The new textbooks are as repellent to students as their previous versions were, with the exception that they now violate a fundamental right of non-Muslim students by including excessive Islamiyat content in textbooks for compulsory subjects like Urdu, English, etc.

In short, the much-trumpeted new curricula and textbooks offer a pathetic illustration of uncreative minds at work, enthused only with the zeal of promoting madrassah education in public schools.

For such a retrogressive action also, the Ministry gets a score of zero/10.

On the last challenge i.e. improving skills training, the government has absolutely no claim to make. No policy was announced on how it intended to revive the much neglected technical and vocational stream in public schooling, nor was any budgetary allocation set aside for it.

On this count too, the Ministry gets zero/10.

The net score of the Ministry of Education is thus, only 10/50; an emphatic F.

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

F for education