Reforming Pakistan’s Education System

Educational reform is certainly the need of the hour in Pakistan. The Ministry of Education is under pressure to produce results. But the development of a single national curriculum that lacks the consent of the provinces is counterproductive.

Posted on 01/11/21
By Ikram Sehgal and Dr Bettina Robotka | Via ViewsWeek
Group of grade 6 students, CAA Model School in Pakistan working on their project in GCE media lab. (File Photo courtesy iEARN-Pakistan, CC license)
Extension of improved education to all Pakistanis is one of the central demands cited as a precondition for economic progress, decreasing poverty and stabilizing the Pakistani state. One should not forget that it needs a strong economy and political stability to implement such plans. Modern education will not only certainly undermine the still existing pre-modern tribal and feudal structure of Pakistani society and the existing political but also socio-economic power relations. Tribal, feudal and religious elite will see their power endangered its implementation.

In a WEBINAR entitled “Challenges in Education in Pakistan” on Jan 06, 2020, organized by the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations (KCFR), the Federal Minister of Education Shafqat Mahmood was emphatic about the Imran Khan government’s determination to ensure universal education for all Pakistanis.

He spoke about how he was engaging with the Provincial Education Ministers on a common cause to rationalize and coalesce the education initiatives – and how he was coping with the crisis created by the pandemic by using technological tools for online education to ensure continuity in the resulting gaps.  He addressed most of the questions by participants but was certainly hampered by the confusion caused by the 18th Amendment.

When asked about the vast discrepancy in the policy about the textbooks since they are devolved to the Provinces, he was not sure about the way forward.  Obviously, changes, if any, to some clauses the 18th Amendment will not be possible without changes in the composition of the Senate elections in March giving PTI the necessary majority (i.e. along with its coalition partners). One did encourage a Common Minimum Program to ensure that education remains in a similar national grid that promotes unity over diversity.

Obviously encouraging Madrassa reforms to include mainline subjects in the Single National Curriculum (SNC) was most welcome. It must be noted that it is not in the interest of a significant number of clerics that their students study disciplines that open their minds to possibilities in life other than rigid religious dogma.

‘Naya Pakistan’ certainly needs modern education, this is going to be a rather longish and hard path to achieve. Many hurdles must be overcome. Apart from more money to build more schools and equip the existing ones with proper facilities, to increase the number of teachers and upgrade their qualification, there are political hurdles to overcome. We should also seriously also think out of the box to double the capacity of mortar and brick schools by having double shifts as well as going the cheaper alternative afforded by the pandemic by having alternate on-line classes.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution has made education a provincial subject because of our extremely diverse economic, social and cultural fabric. There are highly developed urban areas as against underdeveloped rural and tribal ones. Because the provinces have a strong ethnic character connected to different languages and cultures, a ‘one size fits all’ educational plan is certainly counterproductive.

On the other hand, this diversity and the emphasis on ethnic, religious and other differences over the decades has prevented the development of strong national coherence. The Pakistani nation is torn by ethnic and religious quarrels and the attempts of the founding fathers of Pakistan to create a unified nation by eradicating the differences that have developed over centuries has created the mess that we are currently confronted with. The idea of ‘unity in diversity’ – accepting the differences while pointing out and strengthening the common characteristics – has not taken root in Pakistan, and will not.

The current government’s intention to create a unified educational framework that is based on the common aspects of all Pakistanis and still gives room to live and cherish the differences has to be welcomed and is a step in the right direction. But the document named “Single National Curriculum” published last year is certainly more than a framework; it tries again to unify education without giving enough space to diversity which, accordingly, has triggered massive critique from the provinces. SNC is all set to be implemented in the coming academic session and the government has ordered the publication of textbooks for the purpose.

The provincial governments have been requested to start the publication of books in the light of the new curriculum. Unfortunately, many hurdles have been overlooked by the Federal Ministry. The coordination process between the Federal and Provincial levels seems to be faulty; Sindh, for instance, has expressed reservations and refuses to implement the SNC because they think their updated educational program is better suited.

While trying to implement the government order the leading agencies for publishing school books have detected more hick-ups for publishing school books according to the SNC.  The authority to issue ‘clearance certificates for textbooks/supplementary Reading Materials (SRMs) rests with the Provincial Textbook Boards. Given the fact that Sindh is reluctant to implement SNC the clearance of textbooks is going to be delayed if not prevented.

In addition, Punjab has issued a notification that requires all publishers to get clearance certificates for their Textbooks/SRMs under their PCTB Act 2015. The review fee for Pre-Primary/Primary Textbooks/SRM has been raised from PKR 2,000 to PKR 150,000. Other provinces are instituting a similar fee structure as Punjab will result in rising prices for the produced textbooks. The rise in price will be passed onto the parents who already pay a hefty amount for private schooling.

Following points listed by Publishers need consideration (1) ambiguity regarding the approval process for textbooks following the UK/International curriculum, examination such as GCSE, IB etc should either be exempt from clearance certification or need to be evaluated against the respective curriculum. Math and Science should be taught in English while all other subjects would be taught in Urdu or the mother tongue.

Benefits of teaching in mother tongue aside one suggestion is a Central Body being formed at the Federal level to act as a single-window for reviewing textbooks and issuing Clearance Certificates to be effective nationwide. SNC should be implemented in a phased manner. The textbook boards should thoroughly evaluate the manuscripts submitted by private publishers and grant them clearance certificates. In year 2, the curriculum should be rolled out to all private schools following the Pakistan curriculum.

Textbook Boards

Concerns have been listed about the existing Textbook Boards as well textbook boards review process assessing the textbooks/SRMs should be documented and a step by step guide provided with clear timelines for review and approval. Several publishers have supplementary learning material accompanying the textbook and such should be considered as a single submission. Separate approvals for Supplementary Reading Material accompanying the textbook will raise the cost again.

Educational reform is certainly the need of the hour in Pakistan. The Ministry of Education is under pressure to produce results. But the development of an SNC that lacks the consent of the provinces is counterproductive. In addition, implementation on the provincial level needs to be considered by the Federal level. What is needed is a framework that provides a common outline for all of Pakistan but includes space for individual provincial content.

The obviously missing consent of one (or more?) provinces endangers the success of the whole exercise. The Yugoslav example is a sorry lesson to be learned by all where the constituent states fell apart violently with hundreds of thousands killed and total destruction of civics on the same devolution pattern as has been mandated by our 18thAmendment. Intelligent policies based on logic and reason rather than those based on emotions are necessary to remove any confusion about ensuring ‘Unity in Diversity’.

Ikram Sehgal is a defense and security analyst. Dr Bettina Robotka is a former Professor of South Asian Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin and Editor of the Defence Journal and a Consultant to c.

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