Elections 2013 are just around the corner and election manifestoes are appearing daily in the media. The emphasis on change is a recurring theme and political parties are finally acknowledging issues that face the nation with promises to address them if elected.
Tehrik-i-Insaaf led by Imran Khan has just announced their policy on improving the country’s education system. They have categorically drawn up a roadmap on identifying the gaps that need fixing. The three buzz words used often enough are ‘uniformity in educational provision’, raising the ‘quality’ and ‘upgrading’ teacher education. It seems PTI has recognised and taken up the mantle of education reform as a fundamental stepping stone to getting Pakistan on track again.
Just a couple of days ago, PML-N also declared its manifesto and has promised an increase in the funds allocated to education which at the moment is a paltry two per cent of GDP. However, when we talk of ‘uniformity’ in an education system, the connotation of the meaning has to be addressed at a number of levels. Firstly, across the board every child in the country must be given a fair chance by the state to realise his/her potential for a stable and promising future.
Article 25 A of the constitution has already been passed by the assemblies to provide free education to every child aged five to 15. The underpinning here is providing qualitative education in all schools rather than determining the quality according to the fee structure. Uniformity is best tackled through a public school system but political parties have neglected government schools for far too long.
Consequently, the variety in school systems in Pakistan which have come up boggles the mind. As there is no accountability or monitoring of a standardised education provision, determining of quality is impossible in schools. Secondly, the divide between the medium of instruction is still very much a festering wound in the country’s education policies compromising a level playing field and qualitative teaching and learning. Thirdly, a dual examination system — Matriculation and O/A Levels — goes against the grain of uniformity of access and equity. Lastly, teacher quality also varies across the board in low income private schools; government schools; elitist schools; NGO schools and every other kind of school. To address this, a single hiring policy has to be adopted and a basic teacher certification instituted ensuring that every teacher is qualified to enter the profession and should be hired on that basis.
Moreover, there is also little understanding of what ‘quality’ education means in the 21st century. It is just not enough to put up school buildings with some facilities, hire teachers and then expect teaching and learning will take care of itself. Quality in education simply means that learning must improve the thinking capacity of students to become critical thinkers. The norm accepted in schools is the rote learning method which is the lowest order in thinking skills. To bring up quality in education, rote learning has to be replaced with dialogue, debate and discussion in the classroom right from grade one onwards keeping in mind the cognitive level of students. Access to a library inculcating reading and research habits is another important aspect of qualitative learning mostly missing in our school systems. Moreover, the bottom line for a qualitative system of education are teachers with a sound educational background who are themselves critical thinkers and innovators.
Since all quality provision of education rests on the teacher, improving teacher education has been an ongoing issue where reform has often been attempted but failed to significantly show solid improvement on a nationwide scale. USAID pre-step plan for newly-instituted undergraduate degree and associate degrees in education will only bear fruit if students opt for educational degrees in large enough numbers to service schools and colleges. Furthermore, the question of upgrading skills of in service teachers to a qualitative level is a huge tactical exercise that is essential if the system has to be improved.
Finally, teachers must be certified to teach the kind of methodology which is required for bringing in a qualitative paradigm in educating the youth of the country. This need can only be fulfilled by devising a certification course which is teacher friendly and can be taken without recourse to rote learning of theory. The foundations of the course should rest on self directed learning and research by student teachers with easy access to books on educational subjects. A practical examination or viva taken by a board of three examiners should be the final decision in certifying a teacher along with a written examination that tests critical thinking skills.
The 2006 Pakistan National Curriculum is already in place, it is uniform and compatible with subjects taught worldwide.
However, a revision of the syllabi for Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies is necessary as these subjects are just rote learnt for examination requirements. If the youth of Pakistan can gain anything by having these two subjects in the curriculum, then they must focus on character building and citizenship skills based on a practical application of knowledge. The content must be radically changed to primary sources of knowledge, i.e., the Quran for Islamic Studies and extracts from the Quaid’s speeches, Allama Iqbal’s philosophy and poetry, Sir Syed’s writings and writings of other leaders of the Pakistan movement for maximum impact.
Political parties would be well advised to tackle the education system with a lot of care because all the different components of the system entail in depth reform. Piecemeal reforms such as Danish Schools and laptop schemes will only waste more time and effort with an end result that is minimal. If more schools are built, a whole crop of teachers need to be trained and made ready ahead of time to service the schools. Textbooks on curriculum content based on new methodology must be vetted and prepared ahead of time. Courses and books for teacher education and certification should be readied and made available before potential students are inducted into a countrywide programme.
If sincere and committed reform is the agenda of any political party or government, then a firm and doable five year implementation plan has to be announced in detail. Bangladesh’s one government made education its priority, firmly implemented its educational reform and has since not looked back. Will PTI, PML-N, PPP, MQM, Jamaat-i-Islami and others announce an implementation plan of their education reforms before the elections? Otherwise, announcing their views on reforming education policy is just listing the ills that have to be remedied. The question is — how will it all be done by them?
The writer is an educational consultant based in Lahore.