More than once the new federal education minister has been reported in the newspapers as saying that a uniform educational policy might be imposed throughout the country. And the reports have echoed around the country. Many people have commented in the papers that there are at least two educational systems, one for the rich, one for the poor, one for those who send their children to private schools and one for the children in public schools, one for rural children and one for city children, and they have also implicitly and/or explicitly attributed a number of our economic and social problems to these multiple school systems.
The English-Urdu or local language divide creates two classes in the country. If you have been to the right schools and have the right accent of English, it is easier to move up in Pakistan. More doors open and more easily if you sound as if you have gone to one of the pedigree English medium schools.
A lot of the new jobs that have opened up in the economy, especially in the last couple of decades and in the new service sectors, need people that sound sophisticated and comfortable with the English language. And these “professionals”, a relatively small percentage of the overall school going population of the country, have enjoyed fairly large returns over the early investment in the fees for the right schools. So the language divide definitely shows up in creating inequality in the economy, it creates some social and political tensions in the country as well.
The language divide is complicated with the private-public divide as well. Most English medium schools are in the private sector and most of these schools charge profit maximizing tuition fees. While the public sector schools are largely Urdu medium, and/or have poor standards of English language teaching. So those who have money, and can afford private education, or good private education, get to ensure that the differences between their children and the children that go to public schools get even more entrenched in the next generation.
Finally, even the third cleavage, of rural versus urban schools, in many ways reinforces the earlier mentioned divisions. All top English medium private schools are in the larger cities. It is the city folks who can send their children there or it is rich people from rural areas who can afford to do so
All of the cleavages mentioned above, combined and reinforcing each other, makes for a messy educational landscape indeed. Children are being educated in a number of languages, with a large variety in quality and with a huge variety in curricula (matriculation, Ordinary Levels, American high school, French baccalaureate). It is hard to know what we are trying to achieve through our educational system. It is no wonder then that we have problems solving human resource problems of the country as well. We have no control over what children are being taught, what they are being trained at, what they are being conditioned with and for, and what values are they being given. Does the Oxford curriculum works for us? Does the Punjab government one work for us? Neither seems to have compelling evidence to support that conclusion.
So, the talk for a uniform curriculum makes sense in this environment. But it is not clear what a uniform curriculum would mean and it is also not clear how, even if we have a uniform curriculum, whether we are going to implement a uniform curriculum.
Education up to secondary level is a concurrent subject. Some provinces want to teach in their local languages, others do not. The quality of education in the rural schools, by and large, and in a large number of government schools is not very good. They do not have good English teachers so they cannot really use English as a medium of instruction. A lot of public schools do not have teachers at all, or have de-motivated teachers, a lot of public and low fee private schools have poor quality of teaching in science and mathematics. How is a uniform policy going to paper over all of these cracks?
In a way the quality bottom line is currently being drawn by some of the public schools and especially rural area public schools. When we impose a uniform educational policy are we going to tell all schools that they are only allowed to do what some of the worst public schools of the country are doing? Or is the uniform policy going to be based on what some of the best private sector schools are currently doing? Clearly we cannot base the uniform policy on the best schools because then almost all of the public sector will have to be discarded and/or closed. And since sixty-five to seventy percent of all school going children still go to the public sector schools, this is not really an option that we have.
On the contrary, we cannot make the worst schools be the basis for the uniform policy or we will have to pull the better private and even some public schools down. A levelling of the playing field, if it means pulling people down or holding people back, is clearly not the right background to demands for uniformity and equality.
It is hard to think what a uniform curriculum really means. We know a lot of public schools are not good. Even if the government decides to put in a lot of resources, physical, financial and human, into public schools over the next few years, most of them are still not going to reach the level that some of the private schools are at already. And even if they do, the private schools are open to offer new things that allow them to distinguish themselves from other schools in some new fashion or way. If we have a private sector that is as large as the one we have, we have to live with a certain degree of diversity of educational standards and curricula.
So, is the talk of a uniform educational policy a red herring? It need not be. If instead of thinking of a uniform educational policy, we think about a minimum standard educational policy, we could have some of the same results that we want (removing the cleavages discussed above) but without the need to posit impossible standards or pulling people back. The government can stipulate what at the bare minimum a child should know by grade 5, grade 8 and grade 10. We can set standards on the medium of instruction as well as other facilities. These minimum standards should be informed by what the country needs, what we think children should know, what our national and local goals are.
Any worthwhile minimum standards that we set will mean a lot of work for the public sector. A lot of schools in the public sector are not even close to meeting any meaningful quality standards. This will mean a lot of investment and government will have to give education a very high priority. But then, all good things require effort.
It will also mean that the government will have to set-up a credible and believable quality assurance and testing mechanism. It will have to check the quality of both public and private sector institutions and ensure that the minimum standard is met.
The education system in Pakistan is messed up, there is no doubt about it. It is leading to outcomes that are almost the opposite of what we, as a nation, would like to see. But uniform education policy, if it means setting the same standards for everyone, is not a feasible and more importantly the right option for tackling the problems of the education system. We would be better off thinking about minimum acceptable standards and then ways of making public as well as private sector meet these minimum standards. We can keep raising the minimum and adjusting it in line with our needs. But we should allow better schools, whether public or private, to go beyond what others are doing. We hope we have a more robust discussion on the issues surrounding uniformity before the new government actually takes any steps.
Courtesy: The Nattion, 28/4/2008