Classless education up ahead?

Updated 29 Aug 2020

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The writer teaches physics in Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Islamabad.

IT is official now: Cambridge O-A levels and International Baccalaureate will not be touched by the PTI’s Single National Curriculum (SNC). This is fantastic news for those who once feared privileged education for the rich was in danger. Parents paying monthly fees between Rs15,000 and Rs45,000 per child in O-A-IB schools are breathing easily today. Talk about equal opportunities for all turned out to be just talk — opium for the masses.

Personally I am pleased foreign certification hasn’t been banned. Having taught physics, mathematics, and sociology across a swathe of Pakistani universities and colleges for 47 years, I know there’s a world of difference between the analytical and reasoning abilities of O-A level certified students and those of local boards. Yes, I’ve seen many brilliant exceptions. But exceptions are, well, exceptions. So, although the government’s decision reeks of hypocrisy, I’m still happy because I dread a total collapse of standards.

The federal minister of education, Shafqat Mahmood, puts things differently. In multiple TV interviews and Zoom meetings he denies hypocrisy. His government is merely allowing elite schools the right to choose, he says. In just a few years, he claims, the PTI’s superior local system will render foreign examination systems unneeded. Sure! Didn’t we all hear Imran Khan’s announcement atop his container that Pakistan’s revitalised economy would never need the IMF again?

Read | Education: PTI’s plan exposed

Let’s see what makes foreign systems so superior to local systems. It is not a matter of curriculum. Blaming inferior education quality upon this is a political stunt. In secular subjects like science and general knowledge all systems cover almost identical topics. The difference is entirely in their education philosophies. Foreign systems stress comprehension, reasoning and problem-solving. Local systems build around rote memorisation.

Yoking ordinary schools to madressahs will impair the reasoning capacity of children and job competitiveness.

What is SNC and why must it be feared? Parts of it are perfectly innocuous. The new stuff regarding secular subjects is actually rehashed old stuff. Cutting through the verbiage one sees that the released PTI curriculum is a near perfect copy of Gen Musharraf’s 2006 curriculum. Of course, neither was accompanied by implementation plans or financial outlays.

What’s dangerous and different is that — for the first time in Pakistan’s history — ordinary schools will be yoked to madressahs. Students in both streams will use the same curriculum and books, and take the same exams. But this is like forcing someone to board two trains at the same time, one going north and the other south. It doesn’t matter which train’s engines and carriages are in good condition or bad. What matters is that they have different destinations. The analogy is not far-fetched.

Modern secular schools aim at preparing doctors, engineers, businessmen, scientists, etc. Inquiry and questioning are fundamental and exams test conceptual understanding. But madressahs prepare students for the hereafter. Memorisation and a passive mindset are crucial and duly rewarded while questioning and critical reasoning are frowned upon. Were a madressah student to put hard questions to his teachers he would likely be chased out.

Teaching science will not be straightforward. A widely watched religious TV channel recently featured young students being lectured to by a madressah head. He told them emphatically that the sun goes around the earth, not the other way around. One wonders what else they have learned.

Hybridising madressahs with secular schools has been tried but failed. Modern-era progressive Muslim leaders like Muhammad Ali of Egypt and Kemal Ataturk of Turkey discovered this well over a century ago. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are following. They’ve figured out that worldly success in the 21st century is difficult for students who go through the 11th-century education system of Nizam-ul-Mulk.

Pakistan wants to buck this trend and prove that hybrids work — and that too without a pilot test project. But it will pay dearly for such wild experimentation. Except for ones with foreign certification, our students are at the bottom end of global educational achievement. Few succeed as practising engineers and scientists. Just look at the composition of Pakistan’s overseas work force. This is mostly unskilled or semi-skilled labour. According to GIZ and ILO, only three per cent are high-level (engineers, doctors, managers, teachers, etc.) while the remaining 97pc are mostly labourers, house helpers, drivers, carpenters, electricians, etc.

In its eagerness to bring madressahs into the fold of public education, the PTI government is lowering standards and thus damaging Pakistan’s national interests. It knows that madressahs had resisted reforms in the years after 9/11. In fact, some were pinpointed as sources of jihadist fighters, a fact that they did not deny. Under American pressure, reform plans were made by Musharraf’s government. They flopped. Most madressahs refused his government’s entreaties and enticements knowing it would lead to their disempowerment.

So why have madressahs accepted a deal now? First, the changed situation on Pakistan’s borders, together with FATF, has hugely reduced the need for extra-state fighters as well as their funding. Second, the government welcomes madressah education as ideologically desirable. Public schools will henceforth teach much more religious content than before. In fact the amount exceeds that presently taught in madressahs. Readers can check by comparing the published SNC document with curricula on various madressah websites.

The madressah-poverty nexus can be broken if there’s a will. There are roughly 25,000 madressahs and 250,000 ordinary schools in Pakistan. That translates into a one to 10 ratio for students. What if resources were saved by buying fewer tanks/aircraft or launching fewer prestige projects? What if these resources were instead used to make regular schools that give free board, lodging and a learning environment to the poorest of our children? This would amount to truly caring for the downtrodden.

A classless education system isn’t just a beautiful ideal. Approximations exist in parts of the world. A government that’s serious about levelling the playing field for all Pakistani children should not go for cheap shots like single national curriculum. Instead, it must develop what every modern education system needs: school infrastructure, a proper student assessment and examination system, trained teachers who can teach the designed syllabus, and good textbooks. Pakistan is severely deficient in all these areas.

The writer teaches physics in Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2020