New national program strikes backlash in Pakistan
FEW IN PAKISTAN would deny that something needs to be done to improve its education system. The country is far behind Bangladesh, India and Iran, and barely above Afghanistan, in UN education rankings. Less than 60% of people over 15 can read and write, having attended school on average for 5.2 years. In Bangladesh, on the other hand, the literacy rate is 74%, with 6.2 years of education.
Headlines hide as much as they reveal. In the country’s elite schools, the children of the rich study in English for international exams and set their sights on the best universities in the world. On the other end of the spectrum, 23 million children are out of school at all, with girls being much less likely than boys to be in school. Public schools, where they exist, have a reputation for rote learning. Private schools of varying quality fill the void. Many poor families send their children madrasas, who tend to skip subjects like science and math. Some convey extremist ideologies. Imran Khan, the Prime Minister, calls this division “educational apartheid” and has promised to get rid of it.
Such a goal is admirable, but the tool of choice has been criticized by academics, educators and parents. Earlier this year, the government began rolling out a single national program (SNC) for all schools, including madrasas. This set of minimum standards aims to improve the quality of education and increase the prospects of students. But its ambitions are even broader. Among the objectives listed by the Ministry of Education is that of increasing “social cohesion and national integration”.
The new curriculum has so far only been rolled out in primary schools, but already some of its diktats are causing a backlash. The SNC has increased the number of subjects, such as general knowledge, which must use textbooks in Urdu or other local languages rather than English. Mr Khan, himself an old boy at Aitchison College, the country’s most prestigious school, is making his case in hard post-colonial terms. “When you get an education in English, you embrace the whole culture,” he says, adding that “you become [a] slave of this particular culture.
Yet resistance to SNCThe imposition of local language learning is not just an elite phenomenon. There have been reports of schools reluctant to implement it. And there is a huge demand for English from parents who see it as a way for their children to stand out in the workforce, teachers say. Mariam Chughtai, director of the national council responsible for developing the program, says the goal is not to abandon English but to elevate local languages. “When we think of ‘multilingual’, we think of French, German and English. But when you say bilingual in Urdu and English, the elites despise it, ”she says. Yet “no one denies the importance of English. He’s here to stay.
A bigger complaint is that the Conservatives are using the program to increase religious education in schools. Rather than turn madrasas into schools, it will transform schools into madrasas, accuse the critics. Indeed, the list of “key considerations” of the Ministry of Education in the development of the curriculum places the teachings of the Quran at the very first place. Non-Muslims do not need to take courses on Islam, but religious content seeps into other subjects, such as Urdu language courses which include passages on the Muslim caliphs. The government maintains that there is nothing wrong with teaching religion in a religious country.
The third criticism is perhaps the most relevant. Pakistan’s appalling learning outcomes are not so much the result of content as of access, says Jasir Shahbaz, an educator in Lahore. A new program will do little to remedy this. “The problem is not so much what the children study, but how many children actually study or actually understand what they are studying,” he says.
The battles are likely to intensify as older students begin the new curriculum next year. Ms Chughtai says it will take time for the results to show up. But the fury, she says, is because the changes affect even the elite: “Whenever you try to make a major political change, for the small minority of people for whom even the broken system was working, they will be afraid. “■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Ditching Down”