For a prosperous Pakistan
Amongst many other things, Pakistan’s future hinges on whether or not our policymakers are able to turn around our education edifice. Aside from the issue of annual budgetary allocations, our education system faces multifarious challenges. An inventory of these challenges can be gauged from the kind of concerns that one reads in the form of articles and letters in the national press. These concerns are a clear indicator regarding the significance of education in making Pakistan a democratic and prosperous country.
Given the nature of issues that various writers have raised, I intend to tackle various issues in this article, issues that would help craft a transformational agenda to put our education, particularly the public education system, on a solid footing so as to make it compatible with the demands of the 21st century.
In Pakistan various controversies swirl around public schooling system. The first of these controversies involve the standardisation of curriculum or, put differently, to introduce and implement a uniform education system. The proponents of this line of thinking base their case for a uniform education system with a view to removing social and economic inequities that result out of an elite-centric private schooling system and a non-elite poorly managed public schooling system. The opponents of this line of thinking, however, argue that since the public schooling system is in dire straits, a uniform education system will destroy the quality education that is being offered by private schools to those who can afford it.
While both viewpoints have merit, personally I feel that since private schools presently are being run purely as commercial enterprises san social considerations, there is a strong case to make a public policy supporting a uniform education system. Since in Pakistan a sharp divide exists between the elite and non-elite, a uniform education system will hopefully reduce this yawning gap. One hopes that the National Curriculum Council, recently formed at the federal level, will look into this instead of making some cosmetic changes in the existing curriculum adopted in both public as well as private schooling systems.
The owners of private schools on their part are convinced that Pakistan’s education system is the response to all current issues faced by the schooling system. Is private schooling system the hope for the future of our children? I doubt it very much. Any casual conversation with the parents raises many concerns about the present model that underpin the working of our private education system. First, the fee structure is very exploitative. Second, the quality of teaching leaves much to be desired since the teachers appointed aren’t of the quality needed to justify the fees being charged. Third, every new expense item is transferred to the parent which is unjustifiable. Fourth, in spite of exorbitant fees weaker students don’t get any special attention.
While one isn’t arguing against closing the private schools, one is certainly asking for a robust regulatory regime for an oversight role to ensure that these schools strike a healthy balance between their profit motive and social purpose of their existence. However, one thing is clear that private schools alone are not the solution to the present issues surrounding our entire education system.
The cynics of public schooling system say that this system cannot be reformed. A number of reasons are presented to support this view. First, it is stated that a large number of these schools are without basic facilities like toilets, drinking water, boundary walls etc. Second, the multiple and anti-reform teachers’ unions make any reform difficult if not impossible. Third, the reform of the curricula to make it compatible with the demands of the 21st century is hostage to the power of the teachers’ unions and the bigoted religious leaders. Both these forces vehemently support the status quo in our education system.
The views of the cynics that say that public schooling is beyond reform are not upheld by the reforms currently underway in the case of Punjab. The roadmap being implemented in this province has lit the candle of hope that after all if there is a commitment at the top, reforms are possible. The process may be slow in their execution, though. The reform areas being focused in Punjab included increase in enrollment and retention, reduction in dropout rate, presence of teachers in schools and review of textbooks.
However, one area that is absent even from the schools reform roadmap in Punjab is the lack of focus on the social development of the students while at school. I think that our classrooms shouldn’t be imparting only bookish knowledge. Instead, these should also be treated as social laboratories where students are being developed to become productive future citizens. For this, adequate stress must be placed on developing critical thinking faculties of the students. This isn’t going to happen if teachers in these schools only parrot out lesson plan without the ability to apply critical thinking themselves.
Those teachers in our schools who have no critical thinking ability turn students’ learning experience into a repressive one. To curb this practice the teachers ought to be trained how to practice democratic norms in their classrooms. This would require restructuring the way teachers are trained.
I am a proponent of applying a ranking system in the public sector schooling system. Many public representatives may oppose this idea. Doesn’t matter. In every Tehsil headquarter if not in every Union Council, at least one boy school and one girl school must be transformed into a centre of excellence by providing affordable quality education to children from poor family background. Surely, the admissions to these schools can be made on open merit. The idea of turning some public schools as centres of excellence being implemented in Punjab on a limited scale, though, merits serious consideration in other provinces as well.
No child left behind approach and the policy of providing free education to children between the ages of 5 to 16 years is an excellent idea. One only hopes that it will not only stay as a decoration piece of law but will be implemented in both letter and spirit. How would it be implemented in private schools will not be easy. Conventional government agencies will be unable to ensure the implementation of this important law. Some regulatory institutional mechanism engaging the private schools operators will be of utmost importance.
The School Councils that were created to involve local community in the affairs of the school, was an important instrument. But unfortunately these committees have not become functionally active and therefore have become obsolete. An alternative to this could be the adoption of periodic parent teachers meeting (PTM), if the government fails to activate and rejuvenate the School Councils.
The area of students learning outcomes (SLOs) needs immediate attention if our policymakers are committed to improve quality of education. At present our examination system which aims at assessing the performance of teachers is not correct. We need to use examinations to gauge students’ learning outcomes. To improve SLOs we need to set some benchmarks against which our students be assessed. For instance, why can’t we adopt a benchmark based on 70-70? What does this imply? It implies that in every class at least 70 percent of the students must master 70 percent of the content taught in a subject.
The current examination system for Class V and Class VIII requires immediate restructuring to make it meaningful. There are too many subjects in which these students are examined. This can be intimidating for children in that age group. I strongly feel that which subjects should be included in these exams shouldn’t be left to the whims of non-reflective ‘mullah’. Instead, the decisions should be left to educationists to determine which areas should be the bases of assessing students in these classes. The exams need to be an enjoyable rather than a fear-injecting experience.
Finally, while reviewing our school curricula a rigorous dialogue is warranted to determine whether or not we are teaching our children to match the requirements of the 21st century. My feeling is we aren’t. This is an area which shouldn’t be left to bureaucrats. Regrettably the present National Curricula Council, charged with the responsibility to reform the curricula, comprises of such elements. Nothing transformational can be expected from such a body.
We need to engage people who know the compulsions of this century and can help make our curricula congruent with these compulsions. One area that I can immediately highlight pertains to instilling in our students attitudes for conservation rather than wasting limited resources which will become scarcer in the future.
Let us pool our social and financial resources together to transform our public schooling system since on it will lay foundations of a prosperous and democratic Pakistan.