ISLAMABAD-The real principle of any democracy is choice, equity and inclusion; by echoing the populist-political demand for single national curriculum, standardized exams, regimented testing regimes and uniform text books, we shall sponsor a polarized nation-state and thus imposing one size fit all, which brings the big question into picture, which is, do we need ‘uniformity in curriculum’ or ‘unity in learning outcomes’?

This is far from our commitment to the united nations sustainable development goals SDGs 2030, assuring the world on quality, equal opportunity, access, inclusion and choice. Our education and exam provision today must replace an empty mind with an open mind. In today’s time and age, uniformity is a war strategy not a human capital strategy. Choice based quality education and inclusive literacy is the first line of defense for our national and social security.

What many of us do not realize, while we may have 220 million subjects living in Pakistan, we are far from having as many citizens. Education and literacy is the single common denominator for transforming subjects into citizenry. While Article 25-A of Constitution of Pakistan obligates the state to provide free and compulsory quality education to children of the age group 3 to 16 years, it is primarily the responsibility of the state, whereas today the progressive, competitive and vibrant private education sector in Pakistan is bridging the literacy and education gap for the larger good of nation building.

The trust deficient in public education policy viz-a-viz federating units, started to widen with the rushed passing of 18th constitutional amendment, giving constitutional and legislative rights and authority to provinces to shape their education policies, curriculum, text-books, provincial boards and practices, the same amendment has questioned today, the very fundamentals of federation and its influence on education policy for federating units. This brings us to realize the fact that education should not be about ‘testing for nation’; it should be about ‘investing in society’. The major implication of the 18th amendment for education is that the curriculum, syllabus, planning, policy, centers of excellence and standards of education will fall under the purview of the provinces. The amendment was passed unanimously by the parliament, and was the result of a rare consensus between all the major political parties. However, if we contemplate, we will find 18th Amendment itself is the biggest challenge; as education policy, standards, boards and curriculum decentralization was clearly rushed in absence of a consensus-based national education policy framework, pedagogical structure, provision methodology, teaching, learning and assessment regimes.

It is worth an argument that the contents of the curricula should remain with the federation since the provinces could take liberties which may result in putting the unity and ideology of the country at risk in the future. We must ask today, how standards would be maintained across the provinces and how quality would be assured. And what if all the provinces introduced regional languages in schools? Would this weaken the federation or strengthen the federation?

As an educational theorist I would argue, there are two kinds of federations in the world; hold-together and come-together. We need to make a move from ‘holding the provinces together’ to democratically persuading them ‘to come together’. Education in Pakistan is very much driven by suspicion and ideology, and the conflict within educational responsibility has demonized the marketplace, may it be public, provincial or a private provider. As a society and federation, we must build trust for taleem and a charter-of-education before any other charter, our national curriculum requires unity rather than enforced uniformity. Pakistan is the fourth largest English speaking yet non-English speaking nation in world, roughly 1.5 billion people in the world who speak English, over 1 billion people speak it as a second language. There is sufficient academic research and empirical evidence for confidence building measures which the federation can take to build trust among federating units; provinces could begin by allowing rural government school teaching in mother tongue till grade 5 with math, science, general knowledge, Pakistan studies and Islamiyat as compulsory subjects, additional to English language as mandatory. They could take out hate curriculum i.e. gender biases, shaming, sects etc. The concept of Jihad for that matter per se, should only be prerogative of the state, while civic studies, citizenship, sports, arts, skills, peace, Pakistaniyat and conflict resolution should form a preliminary part of the curriculum. I also believe empathy should be taught as a core value to young minds with imbuing concepts of defining a sense of purpose, embracing vulnerability, connecting as human beings, thinking critically and inspiring social change to come to aid for others. Empathetic citizens will give birth to an empathetic society, thereby strengthening the social contract and proving that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, ICTs, digital inclusion, STEM based education shall foster socio-economic prosperity for the coming times as mathematics, technology, engineering and science power nations and contribute towards national security and GDP growth. Our national curriculum, per se, could do without the ‘When and Where’ and be constructive with ‘Why and How’ of learning instead.

Growing South Asian, Middle or Near-East societies are fast moving towards critical thinking, outcome based education, skills based learning, non-standardized tests, choice based curriculum, diversity based exams, thereby spinning job creation, scaling entrepreneurship through digital, social and financial inclusion and nurturing sustainable models of national development, as in my opinion, the best dividend of any democracy is social and human development based on diversity, access, choice and inclusion.

What good is uniformity, in absence of unity or singularity in absence of pluralism, the populist political slogan of single national curriculum shall be the biggest social-experiment of educational history of Pakistan and can be an impediment to innovation, creativity, critical thinking, research, prosperity and growth. If the federation feels that the unity or ideology of our country is at risk, then build trust among federating units or revisit the efficacy of the 18th constitutional amendment; or else we shall be incubating subjects not citizens, as a nation. It is the need of the hour to revisit the social-contract and demonstrate choice and access in our education policy in contrast to standardization and uniformity, thus ensuring a promising, inclusive yet sustainable future for our children, curriculum, classrooms, communities and country.

–Chaudhry Faisal Mushtaq - The writer is an educationist, a former minister and recognized as 500 Influential Muslims of the world. He can be reached at Twitter @FaisalMushtaq18