A critical analysis of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) (2020) proposed by the government of Pakistan reveals that it has been constructed with a view to achieving the state’s ideological imperatives, rather than pedagogical aims and goals. The overriding theme is the construction of a majoritarian religious nationalism, underlined by the national security narrative.
The 18th constitutional amendment devolved education to the provinces and declared it to be a fundamental right (Article 25A). Fearful of the loss of control over what is taught to our future citizens, many in parliament propagated the need for a centralised curriculum in the interest of national integration. The proposed SNC is aimed at centralising curriculum construction so that the national security paradigm, based on a singular religious nationalism, is reproduced. This violates the principles of federalism, democracy and provincial rights, reinforces majoritarian politics at the cost of both minority sects within Islam and non-Muslims. It also undermines the 18th Amendment.
Pakistan’s educational policies of 1959 and 1979 emphasised a homogenised religious nationalism to achieve ‘national integration’. A highly centralised state required a centrist religious nationalism to erase the myriad differences of religion, caste, class, ethnicity and sect. As such, education has been the means to ideological and political ends, and not tailored to the child’s holistic development that would meet the goal of universal education and equip schoolchildren for informed, self-aware and responsible citizenship.
Religion — Inclusion and Exclusion
The SNC places an enormous emphasis on religious material and reduces the time and energy spent on secular education, which is necessary for students’ effective functioning as economically productive and socially aware citizens in modern times. While religious content is necessarily the primary focus in Islamiat, it also forms a substantial part of the social studies and language curricula and includes the mandatory rote learning of the Quran, Hadith, surahs and ayats in both Arabic and in Urdu translation. Rote memorisation discourages debate, critical enquiry, understanding and analysis.
The overburdening of students and teachers with rote methods and heavy course content leaves little room for cognitive growth through experience and activity-based learning, including music, dance, theatre, play and other creative activities. Further, though lip service is paid to diversity, mutual cooperation, social cohesion and interfaith harmony, there is an overemphasis on one religion at the expense of the beliefs of non-Muslim citizens and their right to impart their own knowledge to future generations.
The Women’s Action Forum Lahore argues that the proposed Single National Curriculum is based on ideological imperatives rather than pedagogical ones and will seed society with divisive thinking...
The Minister for Federal Education has stated that the Ministry has no plans to compel private sector schools to employ madrassah-trained qaris for Nazira-i-Quran and correct Arabic pronunciation. However, no such assurance has been given with regard to public sector schools that are under direct government control and cater to the bulk of Pakistan’s school-going children. If applied to public sector schools, the presence of qaris in place of mainstream Islamiat teachers would seed the system with madrassah teachers and introduce a monovisual, coercive and ‘jihadist’ culture to all public sector schools. At the same time, it would render children vulnerable to abuse (both sexual and physical) as is the case in so many madrassahs. This would also impinge on the children’s right to freedom from fear and a safe learning environment. It would also have immense negative impact on non-Muslim children and female students and staff.
Sectarianism – Perpetuating a Singular View of Religion
Not only is the religion of the overwhelming majority emphasised at the cost of Pakistan’s essential plurality and diversity, a singular interpretation of Islam is accepted. The state uses a Sunni/Hanafi version of religion over all the other sects, interpretations and articulations of religion. There are several sects and sub-sects of Islam, along with varying interpretations, such as those of Deobandis/Wahabis and Barelvis.
While madrassahs teach their own sectarian versions, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) fails to understand the grounds on which the state feels it is qualified to define and select one as the ‘true’ interpretation of Islam. When the state aligns itself with one sect or a singular interpretation of religion, it opens the doors to sectarian conflict, which can turn violent. It is inevitable that sectarian conflicts will be reflected in the classroom and school campuses. The state must remain neutral in matters of faith, as it represents all citizens irrespective of their religion or belief, and not use the SNC to further religious nationalism, homogenisation and centralism.
Gendered Curriculum – the Absence of Women
The curriculum is blind to the existence of women in society. In the Islamiat curriculum, only two women, Hazrat Khadija (RA) and Hazrat Fatima (RA), are mentioned, with an emphasis only on their role as submissive and subservient wife and daughter. Though mention is made of Hazrat Khadija as the first convert to Islam, there is no mention of her as a successful independent businesswoman prior to her marriage. The large number of strong and independent Muslim women, beginning with Hazrat Zainab (RA) and throughout later history, are completely overlooked.
In social studies, the vast contribution of women leaders, scientists, thinkers, writers, sportswomen, pilots, singers, dancers, actors is absent. As in the past, women’s representation is limited to their reproductive role (household, childcare) or to the socially accepted professions that are an extension of the nurturing category, such as doctors and teachers. It is not hard to predict the gender bias in the content of the model textbooks planned by the Ministry of Federal Education as part of the SNC.
The entire history section of social studies glorifies males, particularly military ‘heroes’ and those in positions of power. There is no concept of people’s social and subaltern history. History is taught as a series of personalities rather than as a process of social change over time. The history of women, peasants, workers and minorities is completely absent, as is the history of colonialism and popular movements and struggles for peoples’ rights.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government in Punjab has already introduced compulsory Quran classes at the college and university level. It is logical to assume, therefore, that history students will have access only to the officially sanctioned version of history and the model textbooks will be based on the singular perspective of the state’s official narrative. History teaching will provide no space for the development of question-based enquiry and critical thought, or of learning from the past to understand the present and influence the future.
Human Rights Education
The social studies (civics) component is completely silent on fundamental rights. This is a serious omission that sabotages the SNC’s own stated aim of enabling children to develop an understanding and respect for the beliefs and practices of others as well as a sense of responsible citizenship ‘in community, country and the world’. The civics curriculum should be mandatory for all students. This curriculum must focus on the fundament rights enshrined in the Constitution as well as international conventions and agreements to which Pakistan is committed. At the same time, the civics curriculum must emphasise the plurality and diversity of Pakistan and ensure that citizens recognise and respect differences of faith, sect, ethnicity, language, class and gender.
Class and Curriculum
The rhetoric of the government around the SNC is that it will overcome the class divide by creating ‘one, not two Pakistans.’ It is hard to understand how the curriculum, or even the education system, will change the class structure of Pakistan. In class-based societies, education follows and reproduces the class structures that produce it. Different social classes follow differing educational trajectories and end up reproducing pre-existing class structures.
The SNC cannot possibly close this gap. It seems that while well-to-do children will continue to study secular subjects which prepare them for leadership positions, the children of the poor will be exposed to a hyper-nationalist, militarist and religious curriculum designed to inculcate the ideas of jihad so that they can become cannon fodder for the state’s warrior ambitions.
The fact that the curriculum is blind to the class divide shows up in the economics part of social studies, which is focused on the function of the State Bank of Pakistan, its governor and the role of the stock market, but does not allude even indirectly to issues pertaining to economic inequality. There is no proposal to teach children about the unjust distribution of societal resources, poverty and its causes and deprivation and hunger. It is supply and demand economics and the stock market within a neoliberal paradigm where only the rich invest.
Methodological and Practical Problems
Apart from the main ideological problems of the SNC, there are a host of methodological and practical issues that will make it difficult, if not impossible, to realise it in practice. Keeping in mind that this section of the SNC has been designed for preschoolers and Classes 1-5 (ages 4-10), it places a heavy burden and conflicting demands on the children that will inhibit, rather than facilitate, learning:
Apart from the enormous amount of rote learning, the SNC subjects children to two oppositional systems: an enquiry-based approach for secular school subjects, and the Dars-e-Nizami predicated on memorisation, preservation and respect for Islamiat. Taken together and combined with a syllabus that is too heavy for preschoolers and classes 1-5 (ages 4-10), attempts to fulfil the SNC’s objectives will not only expose children to a process that will destroy their interest in learning, it will also kill creativity and intellectual curiosity. The pressure this arrangement will put on them would come within the purview of serious psychological and emotional abuse, including vulnerability to physical and sexual violence.
There is an inner contradiction between the proposed participatory learning and the current book-based examination system. The SNC makes no provision to change the latter. Assuming that teaching is activity-based and examinations are based on rote-learned pencil and paper tests, how will any child pass the exams?
Poor teacher-student ratio: many government schools are one- or two-teacher schools. In others, there are often 80-100 students per teacher. This is antithetical to creative learning as the half-hour teaching period is almost over by the time order has been established and roll call taken.
Dearth of appropriately qualified teachers: our teachers are the product of the established rote-based system of learning; without appropriate, sustained and systematic initiatives for teachers’ education and capacity building, it will not be possible for them to operationalise the SNC.
The Education Budget and Infrastructural Issues
Many of the infrastructural and teachers’ education problems are because of the low priority accorded to education. Pakistan has historically spent less than two per cent of its GDP on education. Most of the allocation is consumed by recurring expenditures and there is little left over to improve quality. Despite being a fundamental right, education has not been prioritised in Pakistan, as resources are spent on unproductive sectors.
Discounting the need of the 22.8 million-plus out-of-school children that the SNC does not mention, public sector schools face serious infrastructural and practical problems. Many schools lack access to clean drinking water, toilets, boundary walls, adequate lighting, fans and appropriately ventilated classrooms. A deterrent for all students, a lack of toilets poses a serious problem particularly for girls, especially at puberty, and constitutes a known cause of absenteeism or post-puberty school dropout.
Further, while it is easy to blame socio-cultural reasons for the low enrolment of girls, among the real causes are: (i) distance between students’ homes and middle and high schools; (ii) safety and security issues; (iii) lack of safe and affordable public transport.
In the light of the above, it may be concluded that the proposed SNC has not been formulated in accordance with pedagogical imperatives of the development of a child’s cognitive skills or to promote intellectual growth and social and economic productivity. Instead, it has been designed to further religious nationalism, homogenisation and centralism.
There is lip service to the ideas of diversity, inclusion and mutuality but, in reality, a SNC that is gender-biased, sectarian and class-based, will sharpen social differences, undermine minority religions and sects, and violate the principles of federalism. There are a number of methodological problems related to how it is to be implemented, given the lack of basic facilities, teacher training and infrastructural deficiencies. As long as education is not declared a priority, these problems will persist.
WAF Lahore rejects the SNC and its forced imposition on every province. WAF demands that the government honour its commitment to provide free education responsive to the social and economic needs of the time, and ensure quality based on a minimum standard of education applicable to all school systems. While ensuring adequate financial and infrastructural support, the government should involve educationists and teachers with on-the-ground knowledge and experience of classroom contexts for realistic and child-friendly educational policies.
Pakistan’s essential ethnic and religious diversity must be respected in any educational process. To this end, WAF believes that the provinces should develop their own curricula in line with their own histories and cultures, and in accordance with the 18th Amendment of the Constitution.
This policy brief has been prepared through the collective efforts of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) Lahore. The primary authors are both educationists
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 6th, 2020