Misplaced priorities

Published August 8, 2022
The writer is senior manager, professional development, at Oxford University Press Pakistan and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, UK.
The writer is senior manager, professional development, at Oxford University Press Pakistan and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, UK.

ECONOMIC disparity has been the oft-cited reason behind the Single National Curriculum, yet a closer look will show that polarisation in society is caused not by the books we teach but the people who lack the training to meet minimum quality benchmarks. A half-baked education that doesn’t inculcate the necessary skills for higher education, or for professional life, cannot offer any hope of addressing the economic divide.

Further disparity is caused when a single breadwinner has to pay for the education of six children while being burdened by taxation, lack of child benefit and lack of resources at the school. In a society with disparate standards, those who send their children to school and are committed to paying fees to educate them are being penalised by lack of quality. Most countries have systems in place to ensure not only the quality of teaching, but also incentives for parents to send children to school and strict measures for infrastructure, hygiene and safety. We haven’t been able to establish such measures in decades while our population rises exponentially, making remedial measures harder by the year as the problem compounds itself.

We’re more interested in complaining about cheating in exams than taking measures to fix our teaching practices. Consequently, we probably have more invigilators in this country than teachers. If the curriculum is taught meticulously, would a student really need to cheat? There are many educational institutions in the world that function on an honour code where students take exams without being under the watchful eye of invigilators. In our society, most of us can’t dream of a world where we don’t need to monitor our students under exam conditions. Our national obsession with monitoring would be better diverted to ensuring that we monitor teachers’ efforts, so that children no longer leave primary school without learning how to read fluently, and don’t go into secondary school scrambling for tuitions in every subject.

Offering remedial classes — for students who find it hard to keep up — is the responsibility of the school. Parents pay fees in exchange for a commitment by the school which includes quality education, pastoral care and co-curricular activities. Yet, remedial classes are a long stretch for many schools who barely meet the minimum curriculum targets, with a non-existent pastoral care system and disgruntled parents.

We can’t dream of a world where we don’t need to monitor students.

The sad reality is that many schools struggle to provide the basics, such as a clean and hygienic environment. They don’t have basic facilities such as a nurse on duty and a sick bay, clean toilets, playground equipment, or comfortable non-rickety furniture. Urgent and pressing needs are often shrouded in a garb of rules and routines, which should only be important if they serve the purpose of advancing the quality of education and the values that the system upholds. An unnecessary emphasis on inflexible routines and procedures makes the daily grind harder for teachers and causes resistance amongst the students.

It is often said that children mirror their environment, and their thoughts and feelings are defined by the narratives that they hear around them. Sadly, in most aspects of our lives the narratives of deprivation shape thinking. Lack of resources, lack of time and system pitfalls get unnecessary attention. It would help to look closely at how we utilise our time and resources and what aspects of our children’s lives we choose to invest in. Often, an emotional investment in a child’s growth pays more dividends than any material resources. Conflicting priorities become the trap that holds back much-needed change. Decision-making sometimes takes months when the most pressing and urgent tasks, if performed quickly and effectively, can successfully overturn a crisis.

After the massive disruption to education caused by the pandemic, and the ensuing learning gaps, it is time to consider what we owe our young generation. Higher education funding restrictions have put PhDs on hold and restricted access to supervisors, piling on the challenges we already face. Economic disparity is worsened by our resistance to change, and refusal to facilitate processes where we can. Proactive and inclusive attitudes, positive communication and teamwork can often help mitigate disparity in ways that seem insignificant at first but can collectively bring about positive change.

Many higher education institutes function without a cohesive plan for monitoring effort, goal achievement and overall student experience. Those that have plans in place have not been able to sustain them beyond the initial phase. Students are at the heart of the learning environment, yet we haven’t learnt to give them a student-centred environment that can prioritise their academic needs and well-being.

The writer is senior manager, professional development, at Oxford University Press Pakistan and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, UK.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2022

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