A confident Waseela Aurangzeb writes on a whiteboard about glycolysis, a process by which body cells break down glucose. One by one, her peers begin to debate, arguing and correcting her.
“When my sister was in school, her teacher never allowed her to have discussions. She would simply memorise what was in the textbook,” says Aurangzeb. She is happy that her study isn’t based on rote-learning, but on research and clear concepts. Other girls in the class nod in agreement.
A teacher stands in the back of the classroom, smiling. This scene from a biology class is mirrored in several schools where the Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB) is being followed, which emphasises teaching through interactive sessions.
When AKU-EB, a privately run board for secondary and intermediate education, was established in 2003, there was apprehension in the education sector. Concerns ran high over its sustainability and if it could change an ingrained system of education.
Nine years later, the board is on a slow and steady path to reform the education system in Pakistan. Over 150 schools across the country are affiliated, but AKU-EB doesn’t envisage replacing the system that has been in place for decades. Director Dr Thomas Christie states, “Our main mission is to improve education in Pakistan and not to take over the government setup.”
Sixty schools are currently following the system. “Initially, schools found it very difficult to cope,” Christie says. “But no one has dropped out in the last two years as children are performing better.”
Given the disparity between the government-run system of education and the Cambridge system, AKU-EB believes it is providing education of the latter’s standard.
“We are twice the cost of the government’s board, but one-sixth of Cambridge.”
AKU-EB follows the National Curriculum of 2006 and recommends schools to use O’ Level and A’ Level textbooks, along with those listed by the Sindh Textbook Board. It also encourages students to use material available online. But there are no set textbooks. “We give the course outline to teachers, and we insist that they decide the way they want to teach,” Christie says. This is a far cry from a form of teaching that relied solely on the government’s textbooks and children mutely nodding along.
AKU-EB has also introduced additional subjects such as environmental and business studies, as well as an art syllabus.
Christie claims that their syllabus overlaps with the Cambridge board’s. The biology syllabus is 65% similar, while mathematics is 92%.
The board is recognised globally and a number of alumni have graduated and gone on to study abroad. A brochure for AKU-EB lists Komal Ali, who is now studying International Relations at the Mount Holyoke College in the US.
AKU-EB is also changing the way of exams. Instead of the age-old formula of filling up answer sheets to score better grades (based on a common myth that the board ‘weighs’ answer sheets, and doesn’t check them), it relies on space-limited questions.
“In our exams, students spend a good amount of time thinking rather than filling up pages of their answers,” he explains.
The Habib Girls School was the first to follow the AKU-EB. Principal Nargis Alavi explains that it was the private schools that pushed for a private board.
“The standard of the government board was declining. Twelve schools requested the government to form a private board and the dream came true after 10 years.”
She admitted that there were concerns when the school broke off its affiliation dating to 1964 with the Board of Secondary Education Karachi and began following the AKU-EB.
“Parents were worried if their children would get high grades. But even today, children are scoring in eighties and nineties.”
Teachers also had a mixed response because of the changed syllabus and lack of recommended textbooks.
But for Arshia Saeed, who has 31 years of experience teaching biology, this was a delight. “There is more understanding than rote learning. The students now understand and are thinking critically.” The challenge is that interactive sessions require more time, but she is assured that “our children are getting the best of education.”
However, private schools haven’t entirely latched on to the AKU-EB as yet. The All Private School Management Association Chairperson Syed Khalid Shah recalls that initially, a number of schools were associated but they withdrew when questionnaires on sex education were distributed in schools. “A religious party raised a hue and cry, and the schools disassociated themselves,” Shah said. According to him, only two per cent of the private schools in the country have opted to follow the AKU-EB. “Education has become more complicated. Now there are three examination systems (Cambridge, the government’s and AKU-EB) in the city. But I believe that the board is on a slow and steady path in achieving its goals.”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2012.