Recycling textbooks, ad infinitum

Published: July 28, 2010

Many lukewarm efforts later, government still unable to revise outdated curriculums

KARACHI: Where on one hand ministers’ fake-degrees are making headlines, little debate is taking place regarding the many issues faced by our education system, one of which is failure to update the curriculum.

The National Curriculum Project, initiated by the previous government, is yet to see the light of day. The latest excuse for the delay is that officials are confused over who is now in charge of the project with the abolishment of the concurrent list. With the passage of the 18th amendment, curriculum, syllabus planning, policy, centres of excellence and standards of education are now provincial subjects.

Five years ago, an inter-provincial education ministers meeting was held in Karachi to do away with an obsolete curriculum and improve education standards by publishing new textbooks for public schools and colleges, following which the federal education ministry issued a national textbook policy.

Each province was required to develop new textbooks with the help of provincial textbook boards and private publishers.

Initially, when the policy was announced, provinces were given until August 2008 to introduce a new curriculum for compulsory subjects such as English, Pakistan Studies and Islamiat. The deadline has now been pushed to June 2011.

“The deadline is pushed back each year for one reason or another,” says a senior official at the Sindh Textbook Board Jamshoro, who refused to speak on record. “As it is, we have been facing resistance from private publishers who refuse to cooperate because they want a bigger share of the profits we will earn.”

Meanwhile, education experts remain sceptical that anything will change in the coming year. “For the past 25 years, we have worked consistently for a change in the curriculum at public colleges and universities, but the government has paid no heed,” says educationist Zakia Sarwar, who is also the founding member of Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers (Spelt). It is less likely that anything will change now, she adds.

Releasing the ‘Prisoner of Zenda’

Back in 1985, long before the Bureau of Curriculum prepared a plan for revising the syllabus, Spelt had organised its first international conference, “Evaluating Compulsory English from class 6 to BA Level”, and gave recommendations to the government to discard the outdated Intermediate course books. But the plea fell on deaf ears.

“We especially appealed that ‘Prisoner of Zenda’, which has exceeded its life-term in prison, should be released, but that has not happened,” says Sarwar, referring to a novel which has been part of the curriculum for over three decades now.

Although revised editions of textbooks for optional subjects such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology have been published in the recent past, compulsory subjects have largely been ignored, particularly English language and literature.

“It was a bit strange when my mother, going through my English textbook, came across the chapter, ‘Twenty Minutes with Mrs Oakentubb,’ saying it used to be her favourite when she was a student,” says Irma Azhar, a student of Intermediate at Khursheed Government Girls College. “My mother is 42. She was from a different generation but we still have this book in common.”

The 18-year-old believes that the government should do away with old texts that barely compel students to think, let alone sharpen their analytical skills and ability to question.

“If the government can act efficiently when it comes to overhauling the examination pattern to discourage cheating, I’m sure they are quite capable of revamping the syllabus too, but they just don’t want to do it,” Azhar feels.

Sarwar says that former education minister Anita Ghulam Ali, now the managing director of the Sindh Education Foundation, was the only minister to date who understood the need for change and officially deputed Spelt to prepare manuscripts for textbooks from classes eight to 12. Ali almost succeeded in implementing the new curriculum but faced resistance from the Sindh Textbook Board.

Multifaceted problem

“The Sindh Textbook Board said that assigning authors to write books is their prerogative, and since the project was not commissioned by them, they have nothing to do with it,” verified Ali.

However, present officials at the board say that they have sent about 25 manuscripts to the federal ministry of education which are still under review. “We cannot publish new textbooks till we get a go-ahead from the federal bureau,” says one official.

Ali also blames the attitude of students for the present state of affairs, who she says follow textbooks like slaves despite their frequent lack of relevance or accuracy.

Ali adds that she is not hopeful of any change in the public education system, citing successive governments’ vested interests as another hurdle to change. She also believes that some players in the publishing industry who produce ‘guess papers’ year after year may have a role to play. With the introduction of a new syllabus, they may not be able to predict questions for a few years which will affect their business.

In Sarwar’s opinion, the goal of quality education should be to make students thinking individuals and tolerant citizens of the world. “But whether politicians or military dictators, all have continuously messed with the educational system, using it for their agenda. There is a serious lack of political will to improve the quality of education for the benefit of the people.”

Is the education ministry up to the task?

Experts believe that most bureaucrats who dictate education policies have little or no experience in the education sector as a result of which most of the policies they frame are idealistic and signify nothing.

But Dr Fauzia Shamim, who has formerly worked with the Bureau of Curriculum, ministry of education, defends the ministry by saying that the National Textbook Policy aims at bringing about the much-needed reforms and reflects the government’s commitment. “We have done our job. The matter now rests with the provinces,” she says, failing to elaborate on why no headway was made since 2007 given that the concurrent list was abolished only recently.

“No one will ever give you these answers,” says Ali. Sarwar agrees, adding that after receiving a poor response from the government, Spelt is now working with private schools, many of which are using textbooks developed by their team of academics.

“We will continue to do what we can in the hope that sanity might prevail one day to take education in the right direction,” she says.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 28th, 2010.

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