Moving beyond the Single National Curriculum
The Constitution of Pakistan mandates that the state provide free education up to the age of 16 for its citizens. This is a promise that has been continuously ignored by consecutive governments. Pakistan’s national literacy rate stands at 58 per cent in contrast to India and Bangladesh, both of whom will cross the 75 per cent threshold soon. The dynamics of gender disparity illustrate a gloomier situation: a female literacy rate of 46.5 per cent. Pakistan has nearly 22.8 million children between the ages of five to 16 out of school – a figure that is the second highest in the world.
This is nothing short of a disaster waiting to unfold. Education reforms were a core focus of the former Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government and the development of a single national curriculum (SNC) is lauded as an exemplary initiative by their supporters. Despite the praise the PTI government received, there are a plethora of problems in the schooling system that ought to be addressed.
Pakistan’s schooling system can be divided in to three distinct categories. These include more than 120,583 private schools that meet the aspirations of the middle class (some also cater to low income households); approximately 137,079 government schools that serve the general public and almost 32,000 madrassahs and religious seminaries which function as the only abode for the underprivileged (figures may vary annually). The former prime minister publicly proclaimed his desire to bring all three classifications in alignment. However, the SNC by itself is not enough.
The easy task of designing minimum standards for curriculum has been achieved. Now comes the hard part of implementing these throughout the country. This would entail addressing some of the most glaring shortfalls in the public education system, primarily the lack of schooling infrastructure in public schools, especially in the under developed areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa(KP), Balochistan and rural Sindh. Visiting these schools would alert observers to the absence of science and computer labs, the dearth of stationery and school books, and the blatant neglect towards accessible sanitation, especially when it comes to female bathrooms.
Additionally, there are thousands of schools that exist on paper but in reality are mere heaps of brick and mortar. A study in Sindh exposed almost 10,000 ghost schools with teachers drawing salaries, but with no students or classes. This is exacerbated by the thousands of teachers who do show up at schools but only for a day or two. Sindh alone has such 18,000 teachers with abysmally low attendance rates. Even if teachers do show up, there are serious questions about the quality of instruction students obtain. A few years ago, a prominent news channel featured a documentary on public schools in rural Sindh. Unsurprisingly, the documentary exposed how many Grade 3 students failed to spell the words ‘cats’ or ‘dogs’ correctly, let alone compose a paragraph. When grilled about the performance of these students, a representative of the Education Board responded by pointing out the scarcity of proficient teachers and further remarked that teachers who were employed owed their appointments to political connections, not their academic/educational aptitude. Schools are only as good as the teachers they employ.
For the millions of rural children, any hope of a bright future remains a distant dream. Predictably, regions with the lowest literacy rate such as Dera Bugti (six per cent) are also hotbeds for violence and social strife. The disproportionate divide between male and female literacy rates hinders gender empowerment. Kohistan in KP, with a female literacy rate of three per cent, features some of the highest statistics of under-age marriages in the country. The pitiable state of affordable education in undeveloped regions simply inhibits any chance of social progress there and aggravates the urban-rural divide. Compared to this, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in improving female literacy, the effects of which can be seen by the increasing prominence of women in their economic development.
Madrassahs and religious seminaries have their own set of issues that require inspection. Quite a number of seminaries are not registered with the government and operate with no oversight. It’s uncertain as to how many would actually embrace the curriculum. We also have to address the narrow world view and xenophobic tendencies that a few of these seminaries inculcate in their students. Simply teaching a few classes in English will have no benefit if they continue to indoctrinate their students to view Pakistani Christians, Hindus and Sikhs as ‘disbelievers’, instead of as fellow citizens that enjoy the same rights. Successful countries require egalitarian societies where citizens are not discriminated against on the basis of their religious beliefs.
Not all seminaries inculcate bigoted views, but the ones that do need to be reprimanded. Madrassahs that do adopt the new curriculum will require trained teachers. Simply handing seminaries a copy of the new curriculum wouldn’t work and many would struggle in the absence of government support such as funding for science and computer labs or training programs for teachers
Finally, we have to address the problem of the 22.8 million children out of school, i.e. the nine per cent of urban children and 23 per cent of rural children who never get the chance to attend a single class. This indicates that 61 per cent of children in Sindh, 78 per cent of children in Balochistan and 65 per cent of children in KP are deprived of any shot at social mobility, resulting in severe inequalities between and across the various provinces of Pakistan. The result is a sense of injustice and animosity among the citizens who reside in these regions – sentiments that are often directed at the state itself. Moreover, there is the assumption that students enrolled in schools actually attend classes regularly. As many studies indicate, a significant number of students in government schools have their names in school registers but haven’t attended classes for months. Dropout rates are also high, with many children from low income households leaving school after two or three years.
Simply updating the curriculum standards or building additional schools will have little impact on these statistics. It is unrealistic to expect a child between the ages of 10 and 16 to enrol in Grade 1. When it comes to the aspiration of ensuring accessible education for these unfortunate individuals, the state has failed them. But this doesn’t mean that we abandon them. A better solution would entail establishing technical training institutions that offer job market-oriented training programs. This would focus on preparing students for jobs related to technical careers, for example, electricians, plumbers, construction workers, carpenters, chefs, tailors or surveyors etc. The National Vocational and Technical Training Commission (NAVTTC) supervises several such institutes and assures quality standards through its ‘Takamal Skill Verification Program’. Expanding this program and establishing more institutes by increasing government investment would improve prospects for children over the age of 10.
Though the desire to implement uniform curriculum standards is a noble one, a comprehensive approach to the educational crises requires government investment in good quality school infrastructure. Not to mention an increase in the education budget. When government authorities do invest in school infrastructure, the results are laudable – improvements in education standards and enrolment rates in KP serve as an example.
Simultaneously, the government must pay significant attention to teacher training programs aimed at improving the scholastic proficiencies of teachers. This could be accomplished by partnering with the local industry, non-government organisations (NGOs) and international organisations such as UNICEF, USAID and the EU. This ought to be followed up by working with publishers to improve the quality of affordable textbooks accessible in the market. Attendance rates of both school teachers and students can be improved by adopting digital monitoring apps and technologies such as Sindh School Daily Monitoring System (SSDMS).
Private schools and charities can play a part by offering scholarships to students from underprivileged backgrounds in return for tax breaks. A comprehensive strategy would address the shortfalls of public schools and madrassahs by improving their quality and bringing them on par with private schools, not by dragging private schools down and vitiating them for some political point scoring about social equality.