AURORA: The Single National Curriculum (SNC) is PTI’s signature project but it has led to considerable controversy. The government has pushed for it as a means to replace two different Pakistans – one for the elite and one for the ordinary citizen – but will it improve our standards of education?
SHAFQAT MAHMOOD: Curriculum reform aside, equality in education is probably impossible. In the US, for example, moving to a different district can involve different rents and different taxes, because they are all linked to the standard of local schooling. Everywhere, even in the most developed countries of the world, there is a difference between schools. Here, in Pakistan, there is a huge difference between the facilities provided by the government schools on the one hand, the private schools on the other and the elite private schools. There is a significant difference in teaching standards and some of this is due to government regulations – which allow government school teachers to get away with far less work than the private school teachers do. We are not saying that the SNC is the solution to all our educational problems. We are simply trying to correct multiple problems which include the ‘student learning outcome’ (SLO), which should be identical everywhere. What are SLOs? They prescribe what should be taught according to the age and class of the students. For example, in Pre-1, which is called KG or kacchi, every child should know how to count from one to 50. That is an SLO.
A: Won’t the outcome depend on the quality of teaching?
SM: You can call it a goal but the technical term used is SLO. The child has to know the entire alphabet – some will sing and teach ABC, others may use another method of teaching it. But that methodology or textbook is not a curriculum. It flows from the curriculum. We want a SLO or learning objective for all the children of Pakistan.
SM: To end the difference in education standards. On one hand, we have madrasahs that have their own SLOs and their own faculty setup; they teach their own curriculum, which is known as Dars-e-Nizami and are not linked to the Matric and FSC system. They have their own certifications. Government schools are teaching the government curriculum. Then we have the low-fee private schools that teach the private curriculum and finally, there is a very small stratum, three to five percent, of English medium elite schools, which have no link to the Pakistani system. Their SLOs, curriculums and certifications are linked to examination systems based abroad. We are prescribing a single SLO for everyone. It does not mean that we are lowering the standards of the so-called elite schools; instead, we are raising the standards for everyone. For example, schools teach English from Class 1. A child from a village school who does not know English at all will now study English as a subject from Class 1. Similarly, if we talk about a child from an elite private school who appears for O’ and A’ Level Urdu, his Urdu syllabus is rather easy and as a result, the standard of his Urdu is very poor. This difference in education has created different value structures. Many people say that citizens should have the same thinking, but more importantly, we need a similar value structure. One aspect of this difference in value systems or worldview was the violence it has created within our society – it caused the shahadat (martyrdom) of 50,000 to 60,000 people in Pakistan. In this regard, we need to make the great leap forward to where all our citizens have the same way of looking at the world. We also have to consider the injustice of a system where only a few speak English but the business of the state is carried out in it – courts work in English, the government runs its business in English, competitions and exams are in English, yet 90% of the children are at a huge disadvantage because of the language barrier.
A: How do you respond to one of the criticisms of the SNC that it was put together to mainstream the madrasahs – bring them into the larger curriculum – and in order to do so, the government had to make concessions for them in terms of the religious content in the curriculum for mainstream schools?
SM: The elite have two problems. One is that they don’t want the English – “their language” – curriculum to be tinkered with and some subjects taught in Urdu. Second, they feel the quantum of Islamic teachings has increased in this curriculum. This is not true. The curriculum of 2006 had a vast syllabus for Islamiyat, yet no one had a problem with that because the children of the poor were studying it and the curriculum did not apply to the elite class. Now they have a problem because it applies to every institution.
A: Are you saying the objective was not to mainstream the madrasahs?
SM: This is absolutely wrong. Not at all. It is our objective to mainstream madrasahs but doing that does not mean… let me explain… we have developed the curriculum for classes Pre-1 to 5, yet 95% of the madrasahs do not teach these classes. The problem is that people have no understanding of madrasahs. Most madrasahs start after Class 8 and many take students after Class 10. We have also faced criticism over the Quran Nazra – the reading of the Quran. However, in 2017, before our government came into power, the National Assembly made this mandatory and it was adopted by all the provinces. It is now the law of the land that the Holy Quran will be taught to the children from Classes 1 to 5 and from Classes 6 to 12 it will be taught with translation. We are now working on the curriculum for Classes 6, 7 and 8. If Seeratun-Nabi – the life of our Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) – and hadiths (sayings) have been included, what is the issue? However, if in any subject there is a religious reference that goes against the context of Article 22 (which safeguards students from being taught anything other than their own religion), we are open to suggestions. We are also updating our textbooks. I noticed gender stereotyping in some places, which we will update.
A: Does this mean that there are teething problems in the SNC that you are trying to fix?
SM: Yes, absolutely, we are trying to fix those.
A: Could you give an example of what you want to fix?
SM: For example, if girls are being shown wearing a specific type of dress. Girls in our country wear various types of dresses.
A: Are you aiming to change that?
SM: We are aiming to change this. We have been criticised for stereotyping, but in this curriculum women are shown as pilots, lawyers, business women, doctors, nurses and playing sports.
A: There is concern that a number of the images in the textbooks tend to show the female figure in similar attire.
SM: Ninety percent of our women cover their heads with a dupatta.
A: To focus on the crisis in the education sector, where education standards have deteriorated, the dropout rates of school-going children is high and those who go to school are not well-educated. How does the SNC fix these issues? SM: Because, frankly, I believe the standards this curriculum prescribes are very high.
A:This is not a matter of standards or objectives; the problem lies in the larger structure.
SM: The larger structural issues are definitely there. Teacher training is foremost; then there are issues related to the rural-urban divide and income disparities. Almost 20 million children are out of school and this is a massive problem. Learning poverty (the measure of children who are in school but not actually learning anything) is very high. Tests have shown that a fifth grader is barely at the level of a second grader. To address these problems, the provincial governments have to, and are, putting a lot more money into education. The federal government is also working on these issues. In fact, we are launching a large project for out-of-school children. We are identifying the districts that are lagging behind and we are going to help the provinces improve the numbers there. For example, girls do not go to school because of the distances involved and parents are not comfortable with this. Schools do not have boundary walls and lack bathrooms, and this further discourages girl students, as they feel unsafe and uncomfortable. The federal government is launching a Rs 250 million project to build better infrastructures and focus on out of school children in these areas. We have also started the Waseela-e-Taleem project, under which poor families will receive extra cash if they send their children to school, and the amount will be higher in the case of female students. This has been extended up to Class 12. We are trying to put resources into incentivising education. We are also experimenting with technology. We are looking at smart boards, tablets and smartphones as a means of delivering content to students and teachers. For example, using smartphones so that teachers can send lessons or deliver lectures online or use content that has been developed by Khan Academy in the US and which will be translated into Urdu. We are creating content that can be used at our teleschool; we launched the teleschool soon after Covid-19 struck and the attendance is between 700,000 and 800,000 students daily – this figure has been provided by Gallup.
A: It is a bit hard to understand how technology, such as smart boards, tablets, and so on, will reach schools that don’t even have boundary walls or bathrooms.
SM: We will ensure it does. The federal government has launched a programme through the Ministry of IT and the Universal Service Fund (USF) to make the internet available to the entire county, linking towers and schools. Once the internet is available, we will provide the appropriate technology.
A: Is there any deadline for such projects?
SM: Work has begun on some and others have yet to start. We have our project management unit ready and we anticipate covering substantial ground in the next two years, within our tenure. With the help of the provinces, we are going to target the districts that are lagging behind and provide support through specific projects.
A: There has to be some deadline regarding these projects.
SM: This is a World Bank assisted project for five years, but we hope to make substantial inroads in the first two years. Other than this, we have put together a skill set program…
A: A quick question before we speak about the skill set programme. What is the government doing about improving the capacity of teachers?
SM: Teacher training is perhaps the most important issue. We have developed teacher training modules and they are being implemented across Punjab and KPK. The great leap forward in teacher training will come from technology.
A: But is the problem teacher training or teacher accountability? SM: I didn’t want to go into this, but one of the reasons why people work in the private sector is that they can be fired at any time. In the case of the government, firing is not that easy. Be it schools, hospitals or government offices, the people working there are laid-back because the job is permanent and I think that needs to change.
A: What about the skill set programme?
SM: We are training 170,000 people this year in different skills.
A: Does this apply to the normal school system?
SM: It applies to the Tertiary & Vocational Training Commission (TVEC). The TVEC sector oversees a number of institutions in Pakistan. Some are government run and others are private. We do not run these institutions but pay for the training. By December, we intend to enrol 170,000 students in these institutes and some will be in the highend – big data, cyber security, artificial intelligence – fields. About 120,000 people will be trained in different trades; carpenters, electricians, plumbers and so on. We are putting serious efforts in skill development and we are going to regulate the sector through accreditation, after which nonaccredited institutes will not be able to offer certification to people. We are also creating international linkages for TVEC institutions so that graduates will be able to find jobs abroad as well.
Shafqat Mahmood was in conversation with Arifa Noor. Arifa Noor is a journalist and the lead anchor for NewsWise on DawnNews. firstname.lastname@example.org. For feedback: email@example.com.