Single National Curriculum in Pakistan
TO BE, OR NOT TO BE,
THAT IS THE ‘PROBLEM’
Education in Pakistan is an acrimonious topic, quite literally. With a bunch of parallel streams on offer to various segments of society, in theory at least, leaders and parents ought to have been able to pick the best tactics. In action, however, these streams have long divided education along economic lines, and perpetuated a situation some have described as education apartheid.
Enter the Single National Curriculum (SNC), which was supposed to fix that very thing. Under the slogan “Eik Qaum, Eik Nisaab” (One Nation, One Curriculum), the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government hoped to end the reinforcement of class divisions through standardized education. Two positive and unobjectionable changes that the SNC wishes to bring about with its policies are the promotion of critical thinking skills, analysis and creativity amongst students and the integration of information and communication technology (ICT) into pedagogy. Not only will these changes help to improve our learning outcomes and elevate our educational standards, but they will also aid us in tackling the problem of rote learning, which is well known to hinder effective learning. The government hopes to create equal opportunities for learning and success for all students, irrespective of socio-economic class and schooling.
But noble as this sentiment was, the unified curriculum it finally devised has become a divisive issue on its own. The question of implementing it has reignited the age-old debate of what should be a provincial subject and what should be a federal one. While the provinces under the rule of PTI have announced they will be implementing it for grades 1 to 5 this academic session, Sindh has taken a firm stance against it. Meanwhile, in Lahore, elite private schools, including the Aitchison College, have started their new session without the SNC, even though the government ordered the private education sector to follow suit.
The subject has stirred controversy especially after the Government of Sindh, under its authority in the post-18th amendment scenario, rejected the SNC. Provincial minister for Education and Literacy, Syed Sardar Ali Shah, announced in the assembly that education is a provincial subject and that the federal government, according to the constitution, cannot force them to accept the curriculum it has formulated.
But the debate does not end there. As photographs of the newly published SNC textbooks circulated online, so did concerns raised by seasoned educationists.
The new curriculum was a surprise also for most of the associations under which the schools and the education system operate. Educationists were looking forward to a curriculum that could empower and upgrade the existing education system to bring a good balance between Madaris and schools. But, in the process, the modern education has suffered.
The first issue the experts raise is that the students in each education system come from different backgrounds. So, judging them through one system would not be fair for most of them. Similarly, the rigorous exercise, which the country is going through right now with putting all categories of schools, maktabs, and madaris under one system, is making it difficult for existing systems as well.
Educationists contend that given the Student Learning Objectives (SLO) in the country, almost all education systems are following the same curriculum because students had to appear in grade 5 and 8 board exams until a few years ago and they still have to appear in grades 9 to 12 board exams. The course is the same for everyone. The only students who are not following this system are the ones who take O- and A-Level exams, It means that almost 90 percent of local students are studying the same curriculum with few changes in books that will remain the same.
Subject specialists also seem annoyed with the new curriculum. They assert that keeping in view what the constitution allows and propagates in the country, no one can be pushed to receive religious education. Article 22 (1) of the Constitution of Pakistan states that “No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship, if such instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own.” However, previously the curriculum was being taught in the country and even with the new syllabus, the books have incorporated Quranic verses and Islamic content in Science subjects as well. The books such as Biology or Physics shouldn’t be dealt with in the way the curriculum board is doing. They should only be approved or amended by subject experts. The involvement of Islamic scholars should be taken into consideration in subjects such as Islamiat. There has been much research and speculation as to how much religious content should be taught in school, the law, at present, specifies no exact percentage. The problem arises when religious content is mixed into compulsory subjects. Subjects like Urdu, English, and Social Studies are compulsory for minorities as well and are taught even at the university level. There are no electives for them, and still, even at present, a large amount of religious content is part of the teaching of such subjects in Pakistan.
The new SNC course books have been approved by a committee working under the National Curriculum Council with an Islamic scholar as a mandatory member to point out what is religiously or culturally ‘unacceptable’ in the curriculum. The few topics that have changed include a greater emphasis on climate change and language/words, which are more common in the current scenario. All diagrams and pictures have been amended, but the most prominent change in the compulsory books can be seen in the ratio of progressive writers, which is less than it was before. Especially when it comes to Urdu literature, the work of progressive writers has not been included much. Moreover, in the year 2016-2017, the cabinet approved the Quran Act according to which schools must have Quran class and children have to complete a recitation of the Quran during their time in school. This is why the new curriculum has incorporated Islamiat at a very younger class. “This has made the subject quite heavy but it was due to the act that passed. But, article 22 aspects can’t be ignored and when a specific subject has been introduced in the course already, there is no need to incorporate religious aspects in other subjects such as science and mathematics.
According to the new curriculum set, it is advised that other than English, Mathematics, and Science, all subjects should be taught in the national language, like it is in countries like China and Japan. But that would require a more thorough curriculum development. The policymakers ignored the fact that the textbooks needed to practice this choice may not be as readily available in a school’s language of choice. Additionally, the textbooks written in local languages may not match the standards of those available in English and Urdu that have been developed, improved upon, and taught in schools for decades.
The requirement that every textbook used by a school be first approved by the respective provincial education board raises another problem. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the Ministry of Education and Professional Training to ensure that the provincial textbook boards produce and/or approve teaching books of identical standards to cater to this policy of inclusivity.
Another issue is the training of teachers. Encouragingly, the government has taken a positive step as it has been training teachers after the new curriculum was introduced. Currently, the government is training 300 teachers who will become master trainers and train other teachers but all those teachers are coming from government institutions that cannot take on the private system.
Issues like lack of funds, a dearth of infrastructure and facilities, as well as inadequate training of teachers in public schools will remain unaddressed even if all the provinces unanimously agree to adopt the SNC. In this way, they will continue to perpetuate inequalities between the average public school, private school and madrassah students.
SNC, as a concept, is not a bad notion as it can bring uniformity and equality among students. If children from rural areas, seminaries, private schools, and government schools are learning from the same syllabus, when they step into higher education they have an equal level of knowledge. This can provide a level playing field and opportunities to everyone but only when the outcomes are dependent on the same guidelines.
On a conclusive note, taking some liberty and making some minor variation in William Shakespeare’s words, it may well depict the situation To be or not to be that is the ‘Problem’. It is a big question that a single national curriculum can be fully implemented in the country or not. Only time will tell!
The writer is a PhD scholar (English Literature). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org