Ever since it assumed power after the general elections of 2018, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) had embarked on an ambitious plan to develop a uniform system and curriculum of education on the pretext of providing ‘equal’ education to all students whether they are enrolled in madrassas, public schools or private schools. Accordingly, the work on ‘homogenising’ the curriculum was undertaken by the National Curriculum Council (NCC) over a stated period of two years which has now been approved for implementation from Pre-I to Grade V since August 2021.
Although on paper this appears to be geared towards achieving equality, however, it is a populist measure and several serious concerns regarding the manner of development of Single National Curriculum (SNC), its implementation as well as its implications on children, parents, publishers, society and most importantly, on provincial autonomy remain unaddressed. The PTI government hastily proceeded to implement the new curriculum without providing satisfactory answers to the questions raised by stakeholders and experts and without having any open and public debate on this matter in the legislative assemblies. Even though PML-N MPA Bushra Butt submitted a resolution in the Punjab Assembly on 21 December 2020 seeking an open and inclusive debate on this subject, the government disregarded these concerns and went ahead with the implementation of SNC.
These concerns include:
- Suppression of Identity: Pakistan is the sum total of the various ethnic, linguistic, gender and other minorities that make our country beautiful and culturally rich. A single majoritarian curriculum may lead to their suppression and erasure and is also against the fundamental rights of provinces and of communities to preserve their identities (A28 of the Constitution of Pakistan), practice and learn about their religion (A22 of the Constitution of Pakistan) and develop their own curricula that are sensitive to and cater to their unique history, culture and needs. This is in line with the devolution of the subject of education to provinces after the 18th Amendment.
- Blaming Different Educational Systems for Class Divide: A class-based society originates when the means of production and wealth are unequally held. Confusing ‘equality’ with ‘homogenisation’ is a disservice to education and promotes incorrect narratives to extend ‘control’ over what is taught to the students. ‘Sameness’ does not automatically mean ‘quality’. There is a need to recognize that children have different learning needs and require a system that is flexible, inclusive and accommodative, instead of the one that limits their options. Making the curriculum identical will not eliminate the economic inequalities. ‘Uniformity is equal to egalitarianism’ argument is further exposed as a sham as the new curriculum leaves co-curricular activities including, drama, sports, arts etc out of its ambit and places them in the sphere of private sector schools who will each have different resources. So the stated equality will still not be achieved. Therefore, the claim that ‘one nation, one curriculum’ would equalise and get rid of the education apartheid without first fixing the economic inequalities is false and misleading. Indeed, uniformity of thought and ideas at the expense of diversity is an indicator of the concentration of power in a few hands and not of a democratic polity.
- Implications for Children: A well-rounded education must be centred on pedagogical aims of education and inculcate skills necessary for students to thrive in a world that is global, inter-connected and inter-dependent. SNC is instead based on ideological aims of education through which a narrower world view, increased burden to memorise and reduced access to diverse resources is more likely to ensue. These will be critical concerns for the future prospects of students from Pakistan which are at stake.
- Rights of Parents: Parents’ right to choose the kind of education they want for their children is a fundamental human right as per Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Further, Article 18 (4) of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) binds its state parties to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. Rather than taking account of this choice, the SNC actually takes this right away from the parents.
- Rights of Minorities: SNC violates Article 22 of the Constitution of Pakistan under which no person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction other than his own.
- Implications for publishers: A three-tier review process is envisaged by the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) which includes reviews by the External Review Committee (ERC) of Experts and also that of Mutahida Ulema Council (MUC) and finally by the PCTB. The publishers will have to negotiate the review fee with ERC and MUC independently so it is very arbitrary, while the fee for NOC from PCTB is set at Rs 10,000. Any NOC, once received, will be valid for one year in one province per book. All this will result in much higher prices for the books as well as limited access to diverse resources and learning materials.
- Implications for Provincial Autonomy: Education is a provincial subject post the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the SNC appears to be an attempt to bring this subject back into the ambit of the federal government through evasion of constitutional provisions by the acquiescence of provincial ministers alone without the provincial assemblies and wider stakeholders such as teachers, parents, children and publishers having had an opportunity to discuss and debate the motion. It appears that, unlike the Sindh government, which has rejected the SNC outright, the Government of Punjab has played an insincere role as regards the policy domain of the province and has regrettably chosen to ‘concur’ and follow the directions, the model books and curriculum prepared by the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, which had no constitutional mandate to prepare in the first place. This is unacceptable.
The state has a duty to maintain a uniform standard of education as opposed to a uniform curriculum and provide access to quality education in public schools. According to the data by UNICEF, Pakistan has the 2nd highest number of out of school children. About 22.8 million Pakistani children of school-going age are out of school, a large number of whom comprises girls. Lack of safe, affordable transport and functional toilets are among the many reasons for this phenomenon, particularly concerning girls. It is the responsibility of the state to address these issues, including the provision of emergency menstruation kits in girls’ toilets. This duty of the state will not be discharged by shifting the blame of its own neglect on private schools.
In order to fulfil this duty, the state has to ensure that a certain standard of quality education is provided in state schools and the necessary funding to ensure the minimum standards of infrastructure, equipment and teachers’ training is delivered so that the gap between state and private schools is reduced.
Sadly, these have not been the focus of the PTI government. Under PML-N, the education development budget was 61 billion in FY 2017-18, however, PTI brought it down to 31 billion in FY 2020-21 that is a decrease of 50 percent. The share of the total education budget decreased from 20 percent in FY 2017-18 to 17 percent by FY 2020-21. This shows that education reforms under PTI are only meant to acquire political control over what is taught in schools as opposed to an effort to secure any genuine and tangible increase in enrolment and access to quality education for children.