Beyond the content

07 Aug 2020

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

THERE has recently been much debate on the issue of the Single National Curriculum (SNC). The debate is mostly focused on the content of the curriculum for each grade and what has been or has not been added to the requirements that a child in a specific grade is expected to know. A lot of the debate has been focused, predictably, on Islamiat. That debate is warranted, but we will come to issues in the curriculum at another time.

In this article I want to focus on some of the larger issues that the SNC debate has revealed. Purportedly, the main aim of the SNC is to reduce and/or remove class distinctions in Pakistan. It has been argued that children, especially those going to madressahs, do not have access to mainstream subjects and a good curriculum in these subjects. The SNC remedies that, and with agreement from madressahs, it mainstreams all madressah-going students. Now, supposedly, after the implementation of the SNC, all students in a given grade and across the country will have the same learning objectives.

Having equality of opportunity for all children and giving access to quality education to all children are promises that we have made to all children in the Constitution. So, there is every reason to work towards these goals and to applaud efforts that take us in that direction. But a single curriculum is not a necessary condition for achieving this. More importantly, it is not even a sufficient condition for achieving these goals.

If the goal is to provide quality access to education to all children in Pakistan, we should worry about the more than 20 million five- to 16-year-olds who are out of school. Do these children have no rights? Should we not strive to provide for them? Even though Article 25-A on the right to education was added in the Constitution as part of the 18th Amendment 10 years ago, successive governments have done almost nothing to realise this universal right. How will the SNC help here?

Can the SNC really achieve its purported goal of reducing inequity in education?

It is estimated that some 10-12 per cent of children in any country have some form of disability (physical, mental, or learning related). Will the state ensure that this SNC is tailored to the needs of such children? Will these children also get the same rights, or will they remain children of a lesser god? Again, scant effort has been made in the area of inclusive and/or special education over the last few decades and the SNC is going to be of no help in this.

One could argue that the SNC is about children who are in educational institutions or who will be in educational institutions later. But even here, the arguments for a single curriculum are not clear. Madressah students should have access to quality mainstream education. Who can argue with that? But this could have been done using the 2006 national curriculum too. Why do we need a SNC to mainstream madressah students?

Some have argued that the SNC is a ‘floor’ and not a ceiling on what children are supposed to know in a particular grade. If that is true then why call a floor a ‘single national curriculum’? Why not call it a ‘minimum standards curriculum’, which sets the standard that every child in any educational institution is supposed to meet? If some schools want to do more, so be it. It should be clear that this is not just a semantic distinction. The government has purposefully chosen to call this a single national curriculum and not a minimum standards curriculum.

If the objective is to reduce inequity, a guarantee of a minimum standard of education for all children would be more effective than a SNC. Differences in child achievement and progress are determined by many factors including household income and home environment, ability-related factors, school environment, quality of teachers and teaching, books, assessments and others. The curriculum is a small part of the equation. To put pressure on a small variable to deliver a very large result seems counterintuitive. But it might be that the state feels that it cannot do much in other areas and has more control over curriculum and so is trying to do what it can.

The problem is that using the curriculum to reduce inequity, when other variables are not being looked at, can have many other and some unintended consequences too. Is the SNC debate a battle to take back some space from the provinces that was devolved to them through the 18th Amendment? Is this a move to centralise certain things again? One could argue that the federation should have a voice in setting minimum learning standards for children across Pakistan, and that this should not have been devolved in the first place. But if that is the case, this space should be taken back through a constitutional amendment and not the SNC. More importantly, the distinction between a minimum standards and single national curriculum should also be kept in mind.

The state has always had a deep interest in managing the national narrative. This has usually been done by using religion and nationalism to suppress alternative voices. These alternative voices could be from an ideological (left), geographical (Balochistan, erstwhile Fata), gender based (women), or other perspective. If they do not fit the religious/nationalistic frame that has been forged by some elements of the state in Pakistan, they would be rejected. And education has been a battlefield for this rejection. Will the SNC play into the same dynamic and allow these elements to continue that game? There is a danger of that. Whether this is an intended or unintended consequence, I leave it to readers to judge.

There should be more discussion on the SNC. This is an invitation to that debate. We will come back to some of the SNC’s content-related issues later. But larger SNC issues also need to be aired and heard.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2020