Prime Minister Imran Khan recently said that a uniform education system would eradicate the current class-based education system, as all children would get equal opportunities to excel. And, the vehicle for this change is to be the Single National Curriculum (SNC). On the face of it the SNC sounds too good to be true, one all encompassing curriculum that will patch the holes in the Pakistani education system and allow students of any and all backgrounds to stand on equal footing. And, unfortunately it is in fact too good to be true. Put simply, the SNC is just a syllabus and it cannot do anything to tackle the structural problems already faced by the education system. Even, evaluated purely on its own merits the SNC, almost, mirrors the 2006 National Curriculum, except for addition of Islamiat as a separate subject. Previously, Islamiat was part of the General Knowledge course but now it stands separated, and as a subject its course content is greater than it has ever been in any previous Pakistani curriculum. This by itself is not cause for alarm, however the expansion of this subject’s content is being used as a springboard by the government to bring madrassahs and their graduates into the mainstream at the expense of (comparatively) better performing schools.
This is the government’s grand educational uplift plan—in lieu of investing in content enhancement and structural support—it has decided to bring madrassah students into the mainstream whilst setting up their avenue of employment
The SNC, so far, has been approved and announced for grades 1 to 5, it is expected to be rolled out nationwide by April 2021. The SNC is also scheduled to be introduced for grades 6 to 8 in 2022, and for grades 9 to 12 in 2023. The goals of this program are to end the ‘educational apartheid’ in Pakistan and help build social cohesion and national integration. All while moving away from rote learning to a syllabus more aligned with international standards, that fosters critical thinking, creativity and analytical skills in students. Yet, the curriculum that has been prepared for this task is remarkably similar to the one that public schools and some private schools already follow. The only schools that deviate from that curriculum are elite private schools, that are prohibitively expensive. Their students perform better than the average Pakistani student, and the quality of the content of their textbooks is also above that of other schools. This can be chalked up to the fact that they follow international educational programs like the British O and A Levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB), whose exams are conducted by their foreign boards.
The students of low-fee private schools and public schools get a subpar education. And, many madrassahs—despite committing to offering a few contemporary subjects like English, Mathematics and Science etc— still focus primarily on religious education, and any other learning is only provided through the lens of religion, for example, Science is taught without any mention of evolution. Thus, there is a need to bring everyone to the same page. Naturally one would intuit that in order to do so the best out of the prevailing educational systems would be used as a model to be emulated. However, that is not the case with the SNC. Instead, the only major change is that of the Islamiat curriculum which is now heavier than that of the Madrasshs even. For instance, under the new curriculum a third grade student is required to read the first 8 parahs of the Quran (Nazra) in Arabic, memorise 4 Surahs, 8 Ahadith, memorise certain Islamic terms and prayers with their translations and learn general Islamic history etc. This is quite extensive even for madrassahs, (as per their boards’ websites) which require a third grade student to only read the first 5 parahs of the Quran (Nazra) and practical training of namaz and wuzu. Given that the Islamiat syllabus is extensive at third grade level it is bound to get more intense and complicated in higher grades. Which explains why the SNC requires all schools to employ one madrassah trained Qari to teach Nazra.
This is the government’s grand educational uplift plan—in lieu of investing in content enhancement and structural support—it has decided to bring madrassh students into the mainstream whilst setting up their avenue of employment. And with 3.5 million of them, their future prospects are a just concern for the government, but their future must not be secured at the cost of jeopardising everyone else’s. Per SNC requirements, if every school employs even 2 madrassah graduates as Qaris then that is an estimated 520,000 jobs. This would also grant the madrassah graduates significant influence on the education sector as they would make up roughly a third of the 1.72 million school teachers. This influence over the education of young minds is worrying when it is held by madrassah graduates, as many madrassahs have been identified as hotbeds of radicalism, sectarianism and militancy. One cannot help but feel there is larger game afoot. That of control over ideology and the national discourse.
After the 18th amendment, education has become a provincial subject. The authority to make curriculums rests with the provincial governments and the federal government is actually overstepping its bounds by dictating a SNC. If the government is able to curry favour with the madrassah group by providing them with jobs— largely paid for from the national exchequer as the majority of schools in Pakistan are public schools— then it can also exert ideological control over the provinces and the youth by way of these people. The SNC is a major boost for Madrassahs and their graduates, because the madrassah’s will get teachers for contemporary subjects (also paid for by the government) and their students have a guaranteed path to employment. But, for everyone else the SNC is as hollow as the promise of Naya Pakistan turned out to be. The SNC will lead to the madrassah-fication of schools, along with being a nightmare to implement as the government has no clear plans on how to achieve universal adoption of their program. It will also drag down the standards of the few schools that provide a decent education by forcing them to adhere to an outdated curriculum. The SNC needs to be reinterpreted as a minimum standard of education so that no child falls below it, and the government should invest in solving the problems already plaguing the sector such as ghost teachers, outdated course content, and run down schools. At present education spending is a measly 2.3% of the GDP. Yet, because it is easier to roll out a uniform curriculum than to spend substantially to truly have a uniform education system—where everyone has access to the same level of education—the government chose to roll out the SNC.