THE prime minister has said that having a uniform education system, across the country, is a priority. And this has been added as a key point, one of four, in the terms of reference of the task force that has been set up under Minister for Education Shafqat Mehmood. Within a month or less it seems the task force will give recommendations on the issue to the prime minister.
It is not hard to see what the prime minister is hinting at when he talks of uniform education. He is actually hinting at some notion of equality of opportunity. All children, irrespective of all other things, should have access to quality education that facilitates their development to their fullest potential. Rich or poor, boy or girl, rural or urban, from madressah, public or private school, every child should have access to quality education. This is their right and it is also, instrumentally, good for Pakistan. This is most definitely a laudable and important policy and outcome goal, and it is wonderful to see the prime minister giving it due importance.
But we have to be careful. Equality of opportunity does not mean uniformity. Uniformity is seen more in terms of ‘levelling’. We can always level by pulling down those who are ahead. But this kind of uniformity and levelling would be against the idea of allowing children to develop their potential to the fullest. Surely the meaning of ‘uniformity’ has to be seen in terms of giving a boost to those who are being left behind.
Take the example the prime minister has used a few times: children going to madressahs should have more opportunities for access to mainstream higher education and jobs. Why would anyone dispute this or object to it? But this implies major reforms in madressah education. It does not mean mainstream education has to be made more like madressah education. It is the other way round. The success or failure in achieving this objective is going to depend on making changes in madressah education and not in mainstream education.
The meaning of ‘uniformity’ has to be seen in terms of giving a boost to those being left behind.
Is uniformity about one curriculum, one set of books, one examination, and/or one language as the medium of instruction? Though these are the issues that are usually talked about when uniformity or lack of uniformity comes under discussion, none of these actually get to the problem of equality of opportunity.
What is wrong with having multiple examination boards in a country? Most countries have multiple examination boards at school level. At a higher level, all universities have their own mechanisms for examinations. Schools and parents can usually choose which boards they want to prepare their students/children for. The people and the state have an interest in ensuring that those who study for 10 or 12 years emerge with a certain set of competencies that are needed. But this can be set as minimum standards that are expected from all school graduates. But the boards can be free to go beyond the minimum.
Will forcing all schools to use the same medium of instruction (local language, Urdu or English) create uniformity? We have done this multiple times and we have not been able to achieve anything through this dictation. Punjab turned all its public schools into English medium at one point. This had no impact, as far as we can tell from the data, in the acquisition of English as a language. Some schools still teach languages better than others. And that is what drives the difference. If we want to ensure all children learn Urdu and/or English, we have to improve the standard of teaching of these languages. Changing the medium of instruction for some or even all schools is not going to achieve anything.
Insisting on the same books has the same problems. Some schools do not teach well; others do a much better job. Even if you hold the books constant, these differentials will persist. Again, how does forcing schools to use the same books achieve the purpose of ‘uniformity’ and equality of opportunity on the outcome side? It does not.
The state and society do have legitimate concerns. We do want all children to have access to quality education. We do want children who spend a certain number of years in school to have, at minimum, certain knowledge and skills. We do want to ensure that our children are brought up with certain values. And we do want to ensure equality of opportunity.
The right way to go about it does not seem to be through restrictions on curricula, books, examinations or language. Instead, we should be thinking in terms of setting minimum standards that have to be achieved at various levels of schooling (usually called learning objectives). The key here will be to ensure that all schools, especially government and the low-fee private schools, achieve these minimum standards. Changes in how we examine children are needed to ensure we test basic competencies well, but having the same examination for all is neither needed nor is it the way to ensure uniformity.
The bottom line here seems to be simple. If we want to ensure equality of opportunity for all children, we have to set minimum standards that all schools have to achieve. Practically speaking, this means that the state has to raise the standard of public schools and public education. If public schools can ensure a minimum standard, private schools will have to at least match this quality or do better to attract students. Till the public schools provide the minimum acceptable standard guarantee, how can we have any notion of equality of opportunity? But the raising of public school standards is not going to happen by forcing schools to teach the same books, appear for the same examinations or use the same medium of instruction.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2018