NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 24

Uniform national curriculum: a great initiative

Preparation for a single national curriculum by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led federal government for class one to five initially, and its introduction across the country from the next year (2021) was announced last month. A detailed plan was presented by Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood, which was duly appreciated by Prime Minister Imran Khan, and widely published by the national media.

However, before the actual curricula are made public, an Islamabad-based professor of physics published a scathing criticism of the plan and the content of the textbooks, in an English-language daily last week, on the basis of some questionable reasons.

The professor believes the new system, being introduced by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, will spell disaster for the country’s education, like the one let loose by “the extremist regime of Gen Ziaul Haq” through his education policy. The critic believes a morally attractive idea of a uniform national curriculum “has been hijacked, corrupted, mutilated and beaten out of shape by those near-sighted persons now holding Pakistan’s future in their hands”. According to the professor, these people, like their boss (Imran Khan), kowtow to the madrasa establishment. He has serious objections to the single national curriculum “massively prioritising ideology over education quality and acquisition of basic skills”.

Before the issue is discussed in little detail and the critic’s objections are analysed, the education policy, ideology and the roadmap, given by the ruling party in its manifesto need to be looked at carefully.

The PTI’s agenda for education, as stated in the party manifesto, outlined four priority areas in its National Education Policy Framework (NEPF) 2018: (i) decrease the number of out of school children and increase school participation, (ii) ensure a uniform education system across Pakistan, (iii) improve quality, and (iv) enhance access and relevance of skills training.

In the following lines, the second priority area, “Ensuring a uniform education system across the country’, would be the main focus of attention, being the most objectionable thing by the critic. In the words of the prime minister, whose guidelines played crucial role in making the party’s education policy, the aim behind the enforcement of a uniform educational curriculum was to equip the young generation with skills to help them cope with the challenges of the technological age, and to instil in them social values that highlight a distinct national character.

Speaking in the National Assembly, he emphasised that the teachings of Holy Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (Peace be upon him), guidelines of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the philosophy of Allama Muhammad Iqbal should be made part of the curriculum. He stressed that the curriculum should cater to the needs of modern times. Currently, he added, there are three education systems in the country: English medium, public schools and madrasas, in which different education is imparted to students. According to the premier, lengthy consultations were held with private schools and other stakeholders for a uniform education system. He believes that the present class-based education system has not only divided the educational institutions, education standards, teachers and students, but also created a system based on a social and economic structure, which is serving the interests of a particular class. The system is creating a diverging mindset in society and dividing national consciousness and psyche.

The premier also stressed the need for bringing seminaries into the mainstream as 2.5 million Pakistani children are pursuing education in seminaries. He said religious leaders were also consulted so that they could start teaching contemporary subjects to provide an opportunity to their students to excel and compete in society.

Should we take all these statements merely as verbosity? Perhaps, a large majority would not agree with the assertion, as there seem some practical efforts in line with the party policy also. It means the party and its chief are pursuing the implementation of their education policy sincerely, leave aside the assertion, for the time-being, whether the policy has some substance or not.

Soon after coming to power, the party formed the National Curriculum Council, comprising representatives from all federating units, besides representatives of the private sector and madrassas. The rationale behind the decision, what the party chief says, was to eliminate the disparity between curriculum, facilities, mediums of instruction, teachers and students’ performance, which had resulted in differing mindsets, causing a fractured national psyche.

Returning to the criticism of the plans, the professor has objections to “the huge volume of religious material the books contain beats all curriculums in the country’s history.” However, in the same write-up, he negates his own claim in the following lines. “When teaching any secular subject such as geography, social studies or science, all streams have to cover the same topics. While details and emphases obviously differ, each must deal with exactly seven continents and water being H2O.”

There might be some more pages, or chapters, in Urdu or social studies books containing the religious material, but portraying the curriculum as that of some religious seminary could not be justified in any way. Of course, English, general knowledge, general science, and mathematics would also be taught to all students under the plan.

Another objection is about “summoning (of) an army of madrassa-educated holy men – hafiz and qaris – as paid teachers inside schools”, of course for teaching students Islamiat. The professor wonders “how this will affect the general ambiance and the safety of students”.

Should the critic be reminded of the incidents of a Lahore school, a Khairpur (Sindh) teacher raping a child, a lot of such incidents taking place in all types of schools across Pakistan? Should we blame only madrassas for affecting the general ambiance and the safety of students?

The professor is hundred percent right in saying that “modern education rests squarely upon critical thinking, and success/failure is determined in relation to problem solving and worldly knowledge.” But that does not mean at all that efforts should never be made to bring madrassas into the mainstream, and madrassa students should never be told that critical thinking is the mainstay of modern education. Until and unless madrassa education is mainstreamed, the education goals of its students could not be changed, or modified. If “reasoning is sparse and authoritarianism dominates” in teaching even secular subjects in madrassas, whose responsibility it is to set the courses right. And if the PTI government is taking the first and crucial step in the direction, it should be appreciated, not criticised for the sake of criticism.

Another “bigger change” the professor sees “around the corner” is the Punjab government making teaching of the Holy Quran compulsory at the college and university level. Without passing the required examination, no student will be able to get a B.A., B.Sc., B.E., M.E., M.A., M.Sc., M.Phil., Ph.D. or medical degree.” Here, the critic needs to be told that there’s nothing new to it. The religious topics students start learning from the primary level and continue till the master’s level. However, Quran learning is not compulsory for non-Muslims. They would be offered ‘Ethics’ as a subject; therefore, the professor should not be so worried about it.

Minister for Federal Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood told Cutting Edge by telephone that the single national curriculum programme was being launched after years of preparations. He said that extensive consultations were held with all stakeholders and workshops were conducted in all provinces. In the workshops, more than 400 experts participated, including members of the Ittehad Tanzeem-ul-Madaris. Giving the timeframe of the implementation of the plan, he said the uniform education system would be introduced in three phases: At the start of the academic year 2021, the government will introduce the uniform education system across the country at the primary level. Then, in April, 2022, it will introduce the uniform education system for class 6 to 8 and, in the final stage, at the start of academic year 2023, the PTI government will introduce the system for class 9 to 12.