The Central Superior Services (CSS) examinations have always had a very limited number of candidates passing each year, but this year’s poor showing stood out even by CSS’ own seemingly impossible standards.

Out of the 9642 candidates that attempted the Central Superior Services (CSS) examinations, only 202 managed to pass, and 92 percent of those that failed did so in the written English examination. Are the candidates simply not up to the mark or is the CSS examination itself to blame?

The local educational system does not teach analytical skills to students. Responding to information and being able to independently assess content is replaced by memorising without looking to understand, and is actively encouraged by teachers. Private schools, riddled with their own problems, are an improvement, but do not cater to the masses.

But simply pinning all of this on the education system does not form a clear picture of what is wrong with the CSS exam. Students that studied in foreign universities or quality private schools with English as a medium of instruction also fail the CSS written exam in the language. The format of the examination itself is to blame.

Candidates that received top marks in international examinations in English complain that like every other subject, the essay writing section of the CSS exam is structured along very rigid lines. Tuition centres that help candidates prepare for the exam tell the students that any deviation from the structured examples of essays given would result in failure, and they are right. There is no room for independent thought, no space to write anything beyond what is written in the course books and no tolerance for challenging popular sentiment. This makes it very hard for a student to judge what the examiner wants to read – yes, the marking is that subjective. The smart ones have to leave all their critical thinking at home, and when they can’t, they fail. The ones who aren’t so smart, are so, not because of a lack of intelligence, but because of growing up in a less than ideal educational environment, where all that has to be memorised for the CSS is just too much for the candidate to manage.

The CSS examination and the content taught to potential candidates is extremely antiquated. Those who are making and checking the exam do not aim to find the best and the brightest in Pakistan, nor do they seem to have the skills themselves to do so. The government has to reformulate the process, if it wants intelligent Pakistanis joining the civil service.