“Political economy, not education focus, behind education policy”

Dr Ayesha Razzaque is an Islamabad-based independent researcher and consultant on education. She has a PhD in education from Michigan State University, US. She has been an early critic of the Single National Curriculum introduced by the previous government. The News on Sunday (TNS) spoke to her on the prospects of the policy in the wake of a change of government in Islamabad and its potential impact on education in the country. Excerpts follow.

“Political economy, not  education focus, behind  education policy”


he News on Sunday (TNS): You have been an active critic of the SNC. Can you provide some context to this policy for the lay reader?

Dr Ayesha Razzaque (AR): The genesis of the SNC is clear. When former prime minister Imran Khan inaugurated the SNC last September, he described it as one of the top agenda items in his political struggle of more than two decades to end the class apartheid. According to him, one of the major reasons socio-economic classes exist is because Pakistan has more than one education system. That is why the initial idea of the SNC was to have a single school system, with a single curriculum taught in the same language. This would have taken away choice from parents and made it look like everyone is being treated equally. Consider the name of the SNC. They interpreted the ‘single’ in the SNC to mean that there had to be one system for public and private schools and for religious seminaries. Early on, they also thought they could rid themselves of the O- and A-level system. Later, they realised that that was a bad idea. It obviously did not happen, and the idea of the SNC evolved over time.

TNS: What has been the impact of the SNC on the children, and schools in general?

AR: The roll out of primary level SNC was full of hiccups. You may recall that the first half of last year was spent doing a lot of back and forth. Especially on the NOC issue where the government instead of facilitating decided to go into a combative mode, especially in the Punjab. The result was delayed printing, distribution and delivery of a new curriculum without equipping teachers to teach it and without changing assessments to meet its needs.

After the massive disruption caused due to Covid-19 related school closures, recent learning assessments, which have been widely publicised, have shown that school children in Grades 4 and 5, especially in public and lower tier private schools, are mostly performing at the level of a Grade 2 or Grade 3 student. This means that the government should have made mitigation plans instead of rolling out a flawed and heavily criticised policy.

The botched roll-out of the SNC and the fact that the SNC books were not that great anyway meant that the hastily implemented policy caused more damage than anything else.

Here I do want to acknowledge that the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training (MoFEPT) is now launching a programme on remediation of learning losses at the level of the ICT when classes resume in August 2022. If that programme is carried out in its true spirit at least some good can be expected.

More than the PM, I blame his advisors who did not counsel him that wishing away learning problems or the class divide using a flawed policy like the SNC is naive and utopian.

There is a need to create economic opportunities so that people can meet their basic needs, including education and to achieve that we have to invest in public schools, rather than forcing schools that have been performing well to adhere to a lower standard. Also, constitutionally speaking, the federal government cannot do anything about education up to Grade 12 (except coordination which should be institutionalised according to the law). It is outside its purview. The previous government tried to implement the SNC in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it led the provincial governments, through direction from the PMO. Sindh did not accept it.

TNS: How do you assess the SNC in terms of content and implementation?

AR: There were many flaws in the SNC. Information available in the public domain suggests that there were issues with the books not only in terms of treatment of religion and gender but also conceptual progression and development. There were typos, spelling mistakes, grammatical errors. Several articles in the public domain have analysed textbooks of various subjects and arrived at similar conclusions. There is undue haste in launching the SNC, especially its second phase (middle school), considering the numerous problems already reported in phase one (primary level) without appropriately managing the feedback from the first phase. This suggests that this was politically motivated.

For example, according to publishers, the government committed to revising its primary textbooks in 2023. The reason for this extended deadline was because publishers were already sitting on stocks of printed books. Forcing a revision earlier than that would have risked backlash from publishers who would have to eat those losses.

The real feedback, whether learning improved or not, will come from schools. Anecdotally speaking, teachers say these are difficult books to teach and challenging when children are already not doing well. Getting feedback from public schools and then revising the curriculum accordingly is now a job for the new government. But the federal government has no such mechanism in place.

TNS: Given that the books have been published for up to middle level and academic sessions have commenced or are about to, what future does the SNC have?

AR: We know that the Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal has directed the MoFEPT to organise a National Curriculum Summit. As yet, the objective of this summit is not clear and it appears to be a check box exercise more than anything else. Because for a political government to decide whether it is in its purview, after the 18th Amendment, to make the curriculum for provinces all they need to do is to read the legislative lists, not hold a summit. I am always blown away by the sheer thoughtlessness that most governments display either because they just do not care to think or because they think that we are incapable of clear thinking.

One immediate change is clear though. They have dropped the ‘S’ from the SNC; the ‘single’ has been removed as per the notification of the summit. It looks like the government is reverting to the old nomenclature that existed for this document prior to 2018, when it was still called the ‘National Curriculum’.

As for what is practically possible at this point, there is very little time to dilly dally and have needless summits, given it is May and schools will reopen in August.

Books have already been developed up to Grade 8. They are only an update of what already existed and was developed by the National Book Foundation. The government should allow book distribution which will be delayed again, given the shortage of time and because the issuance of NOCs is yet to begin.

This government cannot change books now, but it can change the nature of the policy i.e., do not encroach on the turf of provinces like the previous government. This is a coalition government which includes Sindh’s ruling party. Has the government taken the Sindh government on board with its plan regarding the SNC?

Let provinces make their own decision about which books they want to adopt. We are hearing news that the Punjab government may be reversing the middle SNC. If the Punjab rolls back the middle school phase, the SNC will die its own death anyway given that Sindh is already not on board.

TNS: What is the right way forward?

AR: This government is not here for too long. Whether it is three or six or twelve months, they can’t and should not introduce a policy that steps on the toes of the next elected government. The best way to use their time with regards to education would be to ensure that primary textbooks are corrected. Our children are not learning. They can’t read and they can’t write. Focus on that. Frills can come later.

Focus on teachers – train your teachers on the new curriculum so they know what is expected. Fix schools at the level of the ICT and fix the non-formal schooling stream, which is in horrible state. I know that the MoFEPT is now working on devising a plan to address these issues but it is only the beginning and there is a long and hard way to go. Real change requires time, and quick fixes lead nowhere. Be wary of quick fixes.

Keep people informed and engaged and educate them that the desired change will come with good policies, but it will take time. Give them a roadmap and deliver on it. Our last official education policy was announced in 2009. There was one formulated in 2017 but was not officially adopted. Whenever the new elected government comes, it’s very first task should be to reimagine how we want to do education in this country because the current system is obviously not working.

The interviewer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at vaqargillani@gmail.com. He tweets at @waqargillani

“Political economy, not education focus, behind education policy”