By Sher Afzal
The varied system of education existing in Pakistan is inherited from our colonial past. Classified into profit-making elite private schools, non-profit making low fee paid private schools, state-run public schools and madrasa school system, they cater to the educational needs of different classes across the social spectrum. The profit-making schools provide quality education to a handful of elite charging high fees. Most of the non-profit-making private schools have also managed to provide quality education to the low-income group. The public sector provides comparatively low-quality education to the majority of the students belonging to economically disadvantaged families. The madrasa school system provides religious education. Consequently, the poor of the country is getting poor day by day and the elite continues to enjoy dominance over the resources as well as the political landscape of the country. Therefore, any slogan for leveling the existing education disparities in the country would undoubtedly attract huge appreciation especially by the academician, intellectuals as well as from the general public. However, when such mantra of eliminating educational apartheid is manifested in the form of a new version of the existing curriculum in the name of Single National Curriculum (SNC) then acerbic criticism is obvious as currently seen in Pakistan. Critics believe that it is the same proverbial old wine served in new bottles.
The current government initiative of the unification of varied education system in the country through developing SNC raises many questions. The most important one is; why have we not been able to improve the quality of education in our country after implementing the National Curriculum 2006? Then, how it would be possible to improve the quality of education to the level of elite private schools through SNC, as most of its contents are copied from the national curriculum 2006. The curriculum, as commonly (mis)understood, is not limited to only written documents. That is a very narrow and shallow understanding. On the contrary, curriculum is much more than that; it is the overall learning experiences of students materialized by schools irrespective of whether that takes place inside or beyond the walls of a school. Students not only learn from what is there in the curriculum documents but most of the learning can take place from interaction with the teachers, peers, school environment, culture, structure, norms, values and textbook. Hypothetically speaking if the same written curriculum is implemented at the University of Oxford and in any public sector University in Pakistan the learning outcomes are not likely to be the same as the other factors like teachers, learning resources, school infrastructure, environment etc. being different play a very fundamental role in students’ learning. Similarly, the elite private school in Pakistan purportedly provide better education as not only they have upgraded curriculum (document) but also trained teachers, upgraded learning resources, improved school infrastructure, conducive and encouraging learning environment. Therefore, for uniform education it is extremely imperative to prioritize these variables to achieve sustainable reforms in public sector education to bring them to the level of elite private school.
On top, this would require out of the box solution for teachers’ continuous professional development within the limited resources as the other variables like school environment, culture, structure, norms, values are influenced by teachers. If the teachers are properly trained then they will not only be able to implement the curriculum in its true spirit but also enrich it further. Otherwise, teachers may not be able to decipher the difference between curriculum and textbooks and expect students to memorize content rather than achieving learning outcomes. Besides, in most of our primary schools, there are two or three teachers for six classes. The issue of the inadequate number of teachers in our primary schools and interventions aimed at teachers’ development is neither in sight in the government plan for implementation of SNC nor in the subsequent debate that has it followed. In response to criticism, even the government withdrew its tall claim of levelling education in the country. The federal minister for education, Shafqat Mehmood, in Nadim Malik’s live program on Sama TV on August 24, 2020 commented as “the system (of education) and curriculum are two different things. The unification of the system (education) may take 50 years….what we are initiating is equalizing curriculum (learning outcome) for the students public, elite private with low fee private and madras”. It means that the ambition of the current government to level the education system in the country may end with an attempted inclusion of madrasa students in mainstream education.
In order to make the inclusion of madrasa students possible the expansion of religious content in the Islamiat subject resulted in harsh criticism. It is feared that such an expansion of the theological content may result in further exacerbate the existing intolerance, radicalism, sectarianism and discrimination towards minorities in the country. The nervousness of religious extremism among those who are concerned with the future peace of this country worsened with the speculation of hiring madrasa trained graduates in government-run schools. Given the past experience of violence in the name of religion, this seems a seemingly plausible concern. However, it is not necessary that teaching including more religious content would yield unwanted outcomes and promote hatred towards the fellow human being. It solely depends on the approaches applied to the interpretation of religious scripture. For instance, if the aim of religious teaching is refuting other interpretations based on the theological ground then for sure worse divisiveness result. On the contrary, the contemporary circumstances demand a humanistic approach towards the interpretation of religious scripture to promote ethical principles which are common among faith-based communities like generosity, compassion, pluralism, tolerance, respect for diversity, integrity, honesty, etc. Therefore, it is of prime importance to have a serious consideration and critical deliberation while selecting religious content and its interpretations for primary, middle, secondary and higher secondary levels.
In sum, the claim of uniform education for all through SNC could be misleading unless other factors most importantly teachers’ development followed by quality learning resources (textbooks), school infrastructure, etc. are not taken into account. Similarly, if the space for accommodating the diversity of religious interpretation and promotion of values shared by humankind is shrunk in the SNC than the inclusion of one may result in exclusion for others.
The contributor has a Master in Education (MEd) degree, with specialization in Educational Leadership and Management.