NO one can dispute the fact that our education system leaves much to be desired. It has not been able to produce the intended results. The quality of education is terrible, the illiteracy rate continues to be high, and the majority of those entering the workforce after completing their studies are hardly competent candidates for the job they desire. In schools, the stress is on textbooks with little focus on practical education. Meanwhile, the disparity in education is stark. There are no equal opportunities for the children; the poor among them invariably suffer the most.
Given this unenviable state of affairs, reforms are necessary. But, while its intention might indeed have been to boost educational standards and provide a level playing field to all students, will the Single National Curriculum (SNC), introduced by the current government, serve the purpose and bring about the long-desired result? There are several doubts.
The SNC, say those who promote it, will do away with the existing education apartheid. It will provide equal opportunities to every child living in Pakistan regardless of his or her socioeconomic background. In the words of the government, it will ensure that all “children have a fair and equal opportunity to receive high quality education” and the SNC would pave the way for “[E]qual opportunities for upward social mobility”. Sounds good on paper but it is not as simple as that.
The SNC faces several challenges. For example, it aims at bringing madressahs into the educational mainstream. Hence, the children studying in seminaries will be offered the opportunity to get a modern education. They will be taught science and the English language, which so many of our religious scholars have always held in contempt. Plus, madressah students would also take board exams.
Will the SNC serve the purpose for which it was intended?
In fact, attempts to bring madressahs into the mainstream are not new. There have been several experiments in the past, including during the Ayub, Bhutto and Zia eras, and later under Gen Musharraf, to try and introduce reform. Neither discussions on the subject nor actual efforts to reform madressah education bore much fruit (though post 9/11 some mainstream subjects were introduced in seminaries). Rather, many madressahs over time became the breeding ground of radicalisation and extremism. Is the government sure that its plans this time will yield the desired results? How will its efforts be different to those in the past?
Also, in order to make the SNC effective, the federal government has to appoint teachers who are experts in religion because the Islamiat course in regular schools is similar to that taught in madressahs. (In fact, as some have pointed out, schoolchildren will have to memorise far more religious content than they did previously, which raises more questions.) According to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2019-20, the country has 172,500 primary schools. Thus the government would have to appoint at least as many teachers teaching religion, which is a Herculean task as there is already a dire shortage of teachers.
No doubt the induction of madressah-certified teachers in school education would create plenty of job opportunities for madressah graduates. But given the present weak economic conditions, the government may find that it lacks the resources to put its plans into practice.
Moreover, the new plan can also cause disharmony between the provinces and centre. The latter cannot force its implementation in the provinces, for constitutionally, the provinces have discretionary powers when it comes to decision-making on education. And it is in this light that Sindh has ruled out the SNC’s implementation.
These are only some of the issues posed by the introduction of the SNC. Was there a better alternative? In fact, it is not too late to redress the situation and the federal government should consider pushing the provinces towards overhauling their existing educational systems and rectifying the flaws, which are not only found in the course material but also in the dilapidated physical condition of our places of learning.
The centre should stress that the federating units should make up for the shortage of teachers in all subjects and recruit new, qualified teachers and ensure the proper supervision of schools. The centre should work with the provinces to create incentives that can attract competent and highly educated youth towards teaching, which, unfortunately, is often not considered a serious career choice, and it should stress on effective teacher training.
Each province is different in matters of education, and a single prescription, such as the SNC, cannot meet the needs of all. Unless the federal government realises this, its efforts will go to waste.
The writer is freelance columnist based in Larkana.
Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2021