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The Chinese way

January 01, 2014

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I BEGIN with a prayer for 2014. May our rulers realise the importance of good education for all and may they acquire the wisdom to know how to go about providing it. Amen.

The concern expressed the other day by the federal minister of education about discrepancies in standards of students from different provinces on account of the lack of uniformity in the curriculum all over the country shows why the above prayer is so timely. It is not quite clear what is upsetting the honourable minister.

If he is worried about diversity in the syllabi, which is inevitable in view of the autonomy the provinces now enjoy, he must guard against our traditional love for conformism. Let a hundred flowers blossom, Mr Minister.

If Mr Balighur Rahman is really worried about disparities in the academic abilities of students, he would do well to understand how the education system in Pakistan encourages that. If Sindh, with the highest number of ghost schools in the country — said to be 7,000 — cannot produce competent performers, is it surprising? The fact is that standards depend on how the curricula are implemented, the quality of teachers and the management of the school system.

Now that someone in authority is speaking about equity and discrepancy, it is time to remind the powers that be that differences in academic quality produced by the multiple systems that operate in the country are more if not equally dangerous. Their impact is widespread. Mao Zedong’s hundred flowers are blossoming in Pakistan not in the content of education and the ideas it stimulates but in the methods adopted to sustain inequity in society.

Setting aside the madressahs which are untouchable holy cows and operate in a world of their own, we have private schools for the super elite, private schools for the middle class elite, private institutions for the poor, state supported-cadet institutions where only the privileged can go, and of course the huge public-sector system that caters to the children of the lesser gods.

One common feature in the schools for the elites of all varieties is the examination system and the curricula prescribed by the foreign examiners that they follow. According to British Council sources as cited by the press, in 2013 nearly 16,000 Pakistani students appeared for their O- and A- Levels exams, sitting for 180,000 papers for which a sum of Rs720 million was collected. Obviously this sum can only be spent by the rich.

But can they be blamed? A look at our local exam systems would explain the malaise that has crept into the education sector. There is organised cheating in exams, substandard assessment of scripts and question papers that encourage rote learning from keys. With the entire system so exam-centred, it is inevitable that this sector is corrupted. This has fostered the trend towards foreign exams that enjoy credibility although they alienate one class from the majority.

What should be done? Exhorting the local boards to pull up their socks is futile. Banning the foreign exams will irretrievably damage education by levelling down the standards. The Aga Khan Examination Board offers a good alternative, though regrettably it has not been given a fair chance.

Why not try the Chinese model? After all, China-Shanghai topped the rank in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA (Programme for International Students’ Assessment) results announced recently for the 2012 tests. China’s 15-year-olds outperformed youngsters from the Western economies in maths, science and reading, in which the students’ capacities are tested.

Chinese diplomats are reticent to a fault. Hence my sources of information had to be unofficial. Two schoolteachers who have worked in China answered my questions. Both confirmed that all Chinese children (with the exception of foreign passport holders) are required to put in nine years of compulsory schooling (that leads to the Gaokao — the local college entrance test). Thereafter they have the choice of joining foreign-owned coaching centres that have mushroomed offering IGCSE courses and exams. These are strictly regulated by the local authorities.

True, the wealth factor also figures in China as these institutions are expensive and unaffordable for the average Chinese child. But indigenising the first nine years of school education for all at least ensures that the local language and culture is preserved. Besides, those who go on to appear for the IGCSE are not alienated from their compatriots as we find in our society where children are studying in separate streams from the start.

When the children of the elite are required to study in the mainstream system, there is bound to be pressure on the educationists to improve the system. In China the legacy of the equity of yesteryear is still strong. This has a positive impact on the mainstream education system. What else could one ask for?

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