Last spring, Pakistani Twitter went abuzz with the idea of Isaac Newton wearing a dupatta — a traditional shawl. And while even the oddest of trends can strike a chord amid the noise of online Pakistani discourse, this one seemed to hit deeper than most. The image was a reference to a new and controversial school curriculum that has triggered debate on linguistic and religious identity, poverty, and equitable access to education in Pakistan.
Under the banner of “One Nation, One Curriculum,” the slogan that’s been associated with the new School National Curriculum (SNC), there has been a major push to create an education system that is standardized across the country. The new curriculum, set to take effect when schools reopen in August, prioritizes teaching Urdu over English and bolsters Islamic teachings in schools. It has also had the consequence — perhaps unintentional — of tripling the price of textbooks. Originally touted as improving quality and equitable access to schooling, the new curriculum is now being criticized for undermining both of these goals.
For one, the changes in the curriculum include a marked increase in the amount of religious content — at least four times as much, according to Peter Jacob, a public policy expert and executive director of the Centre for Social Justice. “There’s a lot of religious matter in nonreligious textbooks. No one attending schools should have to study religious matters not their own,” he told Newlines, adding that providing non-Muslim students with no alternative to Islamic teachings while in school is a violation of the Pakistan constitution.
Critics have expressed concern about the effect this new, narrowly focused curriculum will have on a population that is linguistically, religiously and ethnically diverse. Nida Usman Chaudhary, a diversity and inclusion advocate who has been working on the SNC, told Newlines that teachers are not trained to deliver the new “prescriptive” curriculum in the best and most equitable way.
“I strongly believe there is a need to place more emphasis and resources on improving the capacity of teachers both in terms of an informed, rights-based participatory learning but also in learning to be less judgmental and more accepting of cultural, ethnic and religious diversities,” she said.
It doesn’t help that the Textbook Publishing Association announced that prices for the proposed new textbooks could increase as much as 300%, chalked up to expenses it claims to be outside its control.
Chaudhary further worries that this new hike in prices will not only severely disenfranchise children from middle- and lower-income brackets, but also adversely affect girls. “In such scenarios, girls are more likely to suffer as their enrollment in school is likely to disproportionately drop … and to cause a disproportionate impact on their access to education,” she told said.
Pakistan suffers one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, with only 46% of women literate (compared to 71% of men), according to figures from the World Bank for 2017, the latest year for which data are available. Before the pandemic, there were 22 million children not enrolled in school, and girls’ education, in particular, remains taboo in many rural areas. It is possible that an additional 1 million children may not return to school after the disruptions to schools caused by the pandemic ease.
When Prime Minister Imran Khan first formed his government in 2018, he promised a Naya (new) Pakistan. The slogan envisioned a utopian Islamic state, which was flouted at events and sit-ins in the election campaign. Two years later, discussions about revamping the curriculum began, and the promises resurfaced in the form of the SNC.
Described by Education and Professional Training Minister Shafqat Mahmood as “a floor, not a ceiling,” the SNC aims to replace the 2006 National Curriculum to create a unified schooling system across public and private institutions.
The move is reminiscent of the education agenda pushed by the government more than 70 years ago, following the newly independent country’s National Education Conference in late 1947. Under the guise of revamping the existing education system, which was described as too traditionally “bookish,” the proposal aimed to bolster a sense of nationhood — a unified population that shares one linguistic and ideological/religious identity, Urdu and Islam, despite its underlying diversity. English was still the official language of the land, a hangover from British rule that was never fully reversed.
Even in higher education, where universities were meant to be autonomous, programs and degrees that focused on Islamic studies were promoted, and there was a push for Urdu to become the national language — even though Urdu was not an official language of the newly formed state. It also prioritized a curriculum in Arabic over Pakistan’s 75 indigenous regional languages and dialects, which include Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, Punjabi and Saraiki.
Nonetheless, while the conference boasted lofty goals, the financially strapped government of the time could not allocate the resources to fully realize them. And money remains a big challenge today, along with a flimsy commitment by elected officials.
A.H. Nayyar, a renowned Pakistani physicist and educational consultant, told Newlines that at least 4% of a country’s GDP should be allocated to education. “For 70 years we’ve never invested more than 2%, and so our backlog is quite high. We need to invest at least 10% if we are to invest in our future,” he said.
Nayyer said that a lack of investment led to varying standards of education and caused the number of private schools to grow; meanwhile public schools remain substandard and fail to reach marginalized children, which further exacerbates disparities in education.
The new SNC aims to impose a mix of teaching in Urdu and English in schools across the country. Currently, only 8% of Pakistanis speak Urdu as their first language, while English and regional languages remain the lingua franca of most of the population. Particularly in private schools , the reliance on English goes hand in hand with an elite international curriculum that is limited to well-heeled families. And it is this stratum of society that is most vocal in their opposition to the SNC proposal to bolster Urdu in schools, as they worry this may hold back their children.
One such parent is Ayesha Inam, whose two young daughters attend a private school in Lahore that offers the international baccalaureate or the British O and A levels curriculum. Inam lamented to Newlines about the SNC’s push for Urdu within the curriculum. “As a parent, my concerns are almost the same as my students’. Although I’m silently happy that my children will be enhancing their Urdu language skills, and there’s a dire need of bringing Urdu back as our mainstream language, I’m also highly apprehensive of the gaps we can see in the proposed implementation of SNC and the curriculum itself,” she said, referring to the SNC’s apparent dismissal of the regional languages and dialects spoken by the population.
Given that Urdu and English are not languages the majority of students in Pakistan are comfortable using, many educational experts have indeed been asking what the true intention of the SNC may be: Is it to make Urdu more facile to the populace or simply to impose a (poorly thought-out) singular identity on Pakistanis in the same way that educational reform sought to do after partition?
Aanya Niaz, the co-founder of The Maple Advisory Group and ab independent education researcher, said that if the goal is to promote Urdu as a more commonly used language, then it is difficult to see how this may be achieved under the proposed curriculum.
“The focus is not linguistic development. The skills the curriculum aims to develop are not built on each other,” she said. Niaz was alluding to claims from the government that increasing education in Urdu will help promote Urdu learning and use in the country. But she argues that the SNC will actually make it more confusing for children to learn other concepts.
Neha Raheel, an educational expert who is currently consulting with the World Bank, believes that teaching primary school students in their native language is vital for children’s well-being. “When the child is in their youngest stage, teaching them in their mother tongue prevents them from feeling alienated, and as a school our role to our child is to make them feel comfortable,” she told Newlines.
For a young child who knows neither Urdu nor, say, fractions, she explained, it is that much more difficult for them to learn fractions in Urdu. “Compare that to teaching them the concept of fractions in their mother tongue, and then telling them that this concept is called kasur in Urdu. That way they don’t have to re-understand the concept,” she added.
And when the very basis of the existing education system provides little support to students and teachers, such learning goals become that much harder to achieve.
Nayyar said that little change can be brought about when most of the rural educational system remains so informal. “Around a third of primary schools in Punjab are single-room, single-teacher schools, where a woman from the community who is not formally qualified is given the public school curriculum and asked to teach any number of students in the village in return for a small monthly stipend,” he said, adding that another third of rural schools don’t fare much better, consisting of two rooms and two teachers.
In addition to questionable language development, Niaz says that structural problems such as the lack of infrastructure and a shortage of trained teachers will make it that much harder for the curriculum to be put in place.
As for the increase in religious content, there are many more challenges. For students ages 5 to 10to learn 40 Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) as well as complete the recitation of the Quran, as the new SNC proposes, they are put under an undue amount of pressure. And while SNC proponents claim that neither religious teachings nor Islamic references in the new curriculum have to be taught to non-Muslim students, there are practical issues that make this impossible.
Reports by the Centre of Social Justice found that Islamic content in subjects like English, Urdu and social studies ranged from 36% to 50% of the syllabus. According to Pakistani law, which exempts non-Muslim students from having to sit through class on Islamic teachings in school, this means that under the new SNC, students with different religious beliefs will be asked to leave the classroom for a significant portion of the curriculum, without having access to alternative learning while in school.
For Niaz, whose work has long focused on educational development and countering structural barriers, having to single out non-Muslim students who might already be marginalized in society makes the new curriculum fundamentally flawed. “Most teachers in public and low-cost private schools are not equipped to maintain equality. Teachers won’t be able to differentiate with empathy,” she said.
Elaine Alam, who works on educational development from a human rights perspective and runs a school for migrant children and host communities under FACES Pakistan, believes that setting a curriculum has a lot to do with normalizing exclusion. She firmly believes that religious leaders should not be involved in setting a national curriculum. The stringent policies and regulations being put in place may do just the opposite of what the government intends them to do.
Despite Mahmood’s suggestion that the curriculum represents a “floor” and not a “ceiling,” as the review process takes longer than expected and publishing prices skyrocket, the floor may remain the only possibility for everyone except those in elite schools. What is certain, however, is that if Isaac Newton’s image in a dupatta is the most talked-about part of these conversations, students who are about to start the academic year may very well be worse off than before.