PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan may have his heart in the right place where education is concerned, but his views on what is wrong with Pakistan’s education system and how to set it right, lack nuance and understanding. Indeed, so black and white are some of his opinions on the subject that they could create further divisions in an already divided polity.

On Wednesday, while addressing the Punjab Education Convention 2021 in Lahore, the premier praised the provincial government for “doing what no other province is doing”. That was a reference to the Single National Curriculum which Punjab has been the first to introduce in the madressahs and from grades one to five in the public and private schools within its jurisdiction. He then proceeded to strongly criticise the English-medium education system, saying it had “evolved in such a way that there was less emphasis on education and more emphasis on creating desi vilayati [local foreigners]. The attitudes and mental slavery of another culture were absorbed”. The focus of this system, he contended, was elsewhere rather than on developing the nation.

That is a sweeping statement, to put it mildly, with a blatantly populist slant. It unfairly disparages students of English-medium schools, many of whom are as invested in building this nation as are those from other systems of education. In fact, the premier may want to consider that barring a couple of exceptions, his entire cabinet is a product of English-medium education. Many expatriates that he considers Pakistan’s “biggest untapped asset”, and whom he has asked to participate in the nation’s development by investing in major infrastructure projects, also emerged from this system before settling overseas.

Read: Dissecting the single national curriculum

Certainly, the prime minister is correct when he says the education sector has been sorely neglected. In this connection, the PTI government from the outset underscored four priority areas: putting all out-of-school children into school, improving the quality of pedagogy, introducing a uniform curriculum, and boosting technical and vocational education. Of these, it has only made progress in designing an SNC, most likely because the other areas require a massive infusion of funds for building more schools, investing in teacher training, etc.

But in projecting this curriculum as a major step towards ending Pakistan’s ‘educational apartheid’, the government is completely off course. Indeed, the SNC, by requiring math and science to be taught to all students in English from the point these subjects are introduced in school, may well exacerbate this ‘educational apartheid’. Quality of education and access to it are the foundational issues that must be tackled. Consider that most parents, even when they can scarcely afford it, prefer to send their children to private schools because learning outcomes even in low- and medium-fee paying private schools are far better than in public schools. The SNC is not even a partial solution. It may even have deleterious consequences.

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2021

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