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One curriculum across Pakistan?

By Faisal Bari

Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mehmood has, on a number of occasions, talked of his desire to see a uniform curriculum being taught for grades one to 12 across Pakistan. The Punjab education minister has also announced that a uniform curriculum for grades one to five will be implemented in the province by the next academic year. It is still not clear what the conversation is about, what the objectives of this effort are and what Pakistani children will gain out of uniformity.

Read: Uniform syllabus for education institutions, madressahs approved

Let us leave out the debate on mandate, or lack thereof, of the federal government post-18th Amendment in the area of education. This is an important debate in and of itself, but we will keep that for another time. Here I want to focus on the substantive debate about uniformity and what it implies and, more importantly, what it does not. And then some debate on what is meant by ‘curriculum’.

From what I have been able to gather, it is thought that uniform education/ curriculum/ books/ examination will allow us to reduce or eliminate disparities among children across the country. Children from across provinces, cities as well as the rural areas, across gender, and across socioeconomic status will read the same thing at more or less the same time and will be tested in the same way. Many believe that this will remove disparities among children and create a ‘level playing field’.

But the problem is that a uniform curriculum, however it is implemented, will not reduce disparities. Children come from very different socio-economic backgrounds, from different households where parents have different levels of education. They have different endowments, they have different language skills, they come from different cultural and religious backgrounds, and they live in very different geographical environments. The same curriculum, the same books and even the same examinations will not reduce disparities. In fact, they may even increase disparities.

The government is seeing the uniformity matter as a means for addressing issues of equity.

If examinations are too difficult, they will create disparities between those who can pass and those who cannot. This disparity between Matric-pass and Matric-fail, when institutionalised in terms of who can or cannot have access to jobs, will increase disparities, not reduce them.

If uniformity of the language requirement (Urdu for all, say) ignores the home or mother language of some children as opposed to others, we put some children at a disadvantage in terms of learning.

If the curriculum and books are uniform, the children in Sindh get the same books as the children in Punjab, and their regional cultures, traditions, history and literature get ignored (should Bulleh Shah not be taught at all or should he be taught to all?).

A couple of days ago, the prime minister said that a uniform curriculum was essential for creating ‘one nation’ in Pakistan. Though it is not clear what the prime minister meant, I presume the unity aspect of the nation has to do with not only the removal of inequality, but with some notion of ideological uniformity as well.

Again, there is no evidence that I know of where one curriculum, set of books and/or examination has moved a large and diverse group of people towards being an ideologically more homogeneous or harmonious group. Has the compulsory study of Islamiat and Pakistan Studies facilitated this? Is there any evidence of this? What makes us think that one curriculum, even if we can implement it, will allow us to achieve something as difficult as ‘one nation’?

An experiment of this sort has a cost as well. We cannot just say that maybe it is worth trying something of this nature as there is no downside to it. We will be spending a lot of money and political capital in trying to get all schools to move towards a uniform curriculum, a prescribed set of books and an examination system that we approve of. There are alternative uses of resources. We can use the political capital on other things as well. There are plenty of other education-sector reforms that are crying out for attention. Should we not prioritise these over the effort to move to a mythical ‘one curriculum’?

Twenty-two million or so children between the ages of five and 16 remain out of school in Pakistan. The majority of children in schools, whether in the public or low-fee private sector, are getting poor quality education. Rather than focus on these issues, we want to spend resources, time, money and political capital on issues of uniformity.

We should be clear that one curriculum, set of textbooks and even examinations, even if we can implement it, are not going to resolve the issues of access and quality mentioned here. How will one curriculum allow the enrolment of 22m more children? Higher enrolments require more schools, teachers, transport facilities and incentives for enrolment. None of these will be impacted by uniformity of curriculum. Quality of education has to do a lot with quality of books, pedagogy and content knowledge of teachers, teacher motivation, and quality of assessment tools, but what can uniformity do to bring improvements in these areas?

The government is seeing the uniformity issue as a means of addressing issues of equity. But I have argued here that even equity issues cannot be addressed through uniformity. Equity issues have to be addressed while remaining within the framework of diversity of the circumstances, needs, abilities and ambitions of children. A uniform curriculum will do nothing here. In fact, to the contrary, it will exacerbate some of these equity issues even more.

The area of education needs a lot of reforms, and very deep ones, to address issues of equity, access and quality. There is no doubt about this. But having a uniform curriculum, books and/or examination system is not the reform that we need. It will not address any of the issues that are of interest to us. It will take a massive effort to implement such a reform, even if possible, and this will hurt work in other areas.

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