BACK to school this August was a momentous occasion for primary school students in Punjab. The province became the first to implement the Single National Curriculum in madressahs and from grades one to five in both public and private schools within its jurisdiction. Aside from Sindh, which has refused to adopt it citing the 18th Amendment according to which education is a provincial subject, the other provinces and the ICT also plan to introduce it as soon as possible. The SNC for grades six to eight will be introduced next year, and up to Matric in 2023.

From the outset, the merits or otherwise of introducing the SNC have been hotly debated. One thing is certain, this may be the most revolutionary step taken in the education arena since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s nationalisation of schools and colleges in 1972. That measure had far-reaching repercussions, and general consensus holds that it proved extremely detrimental to educational standards. Pakistan cannot afford another ill-thought-out experiment in this sector.

The PTI government projects the SNC as a silver bullet that will magically resolve Pakistan’s educational woes, or at least the bulk of them. Unfortunately, the problem is far too complex and the SNC is unlikely to address the more important aspects of it. It may even make matters worse, bringing down standards across the board.

Read: Dissecting the single national curriculum

To be fair, the PTI during its electoral campaign also spoke of putting all out-of-school children in classrooms, improving the quality of education, and emphasising technical and vocational education. However, it has only made progress in introducing the SNC. It has billed the SNC as a way to end the ‘education apartheid’ in the country — which, on the face of it sounds commendable.

However, the educational apartheid is not only on account of different curricula pursued by different strains of education linked with socioeconomic status. In fact, it has far more to do with access and quality. But to put some 23m out-of-school children in school requires twice as many schools as we have at present, along with the associated human resource and funding requirements. Improving education quality means investing far more in teachers’ training than we do. Then there’s the issue of missing essential facilities. All this requires a massive infusion of funds. The cheapest option was the SNC.

Nevertheless this was at least a golden opportunity to improve the existing curriculum. However, the SNC remains content heavy, which encourages rote learning rather than critical thinking. The subliminal messaging is problematic and non-inclusive. More religious material has been included in subjects other than Islamiat, which is unfair to non-Muslim students. Girls and women are always dressed conservatively, and families are invariably stereotypical two-parent households. Single parents do not exist in these depictions of ‘respectability’ that are completely out of touch with contemporary Pakistani society. There is, in short, little to commend the SNC.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2021

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