Last month, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the first phase of the single national curriculum, describing it as a step towards freeing the country from slavery. He lamented that in addition to studying English for higher education, people had also adopted the English culture, which for him has been a major reason for Pakistan’s decline.

The prime minister believes the enforcement of a uniform curriculum will end existing divisions in Pakistan’s education system. There can be no two views that the country’s decaying education system needs reform. It is also important to bridge the widening gap between various systems of education in the country. But the much-touted national curriculum does not serve either objective.

Leap backwards

In fact, it is more of a leap backward than a step forward. Instead of improving standards in public-sector educational institutions and madrasas in order to bring them on a par with elite schools the curriculum does the opposite. What the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government has attempted is to lower the bar so as to bridge the gap. That is, perhaps, the prime minister’s concept of a uniform education system.

Initially, the national curriculum will apply to primary classes starting this academic year. In the second and third phases, it will be extended to the secondary and higher secondary level. All private, public and religious schools are bound to teach the same curriculum and will essentially use textbooks prescribed by the government. Sindh though has not approved of the plan.

The move has made the national curriculum controversial even before its implementation. It is not the use of local languages as the medium of instruction in the elementary classes but it is the content of the prescribed textbooks that is problematic.

In fact, the courses appear to reinforce a closed mindset and have nothing to do with the requirements of a modern education system. The implementation of the national curriculum will further downgrade the educational system. Increased focus on faith and narrow nationalism will not produce an enlightened mind required to keep pace with the modern world. It can fuel bigotry that is not in short supply in society anyway.

The fact is that Pakistan lags far behind even the developing nations in science, mathematics and technology and one expected that the government would attach greater emphasis to scientific learning. A major reason for prevailing inequality in the education system has been the deteriorating standard in Pakitan’s public-sector schools.

That has also been the cause of people preferring to send their children to private schools though the quality of teaching in most of them may not be of any higher standard. Similarly, the reason behind many people sending their children to madrasas is either economic or the lack of access to public schools.

Frozen in history

With little government investment going into education the inequality between the private sector and state-sector institutions has only widened. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government’s approach to the national curriculum is not going to help bridge the gap. In fact, it will lead to further deterioration in education standards thus further widening the social divide that exists.

The basic problem with Pakistan’s education system, as one leading expert points out, is that its books are “frozen in history” and are regressive. There has not been any effort to change them. The new curriculum has reinforced the retrogressive content. So controversial are the new textbooks that the government found itself denying that even those related to science subjects had to be approved by the ulema board.

According to some media reports, those reviewing the science textbooks objected to a picture of Sir Isaac Newton without a dupatta to cover what they perhaps took to be a woman’s long hair. A similar attitude was seen when the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board confiscated a book that included Malala Yousafzai among Pakistan’s heroes. Can the youngest Nobel Prize laureate whose work for girl education has been recognised internationally not be mentioned in Pakistan’s textbooks? And the less said the better about Pakistan’s history books.

Several textbooks have reportedly been confiscated in the province on various pretexts. The authorities maintain that the schools are free to add other books too within the framework of the national curriculum, but it is almost impossible to get an NOC from the provincial textbook board with its strict rules. Its portrayal of women in schoolbooks has also raised a storm of criticism from civil society. In some cases, the authorities’ approach is outright misogynistic.

While Pakistani women today are working in all fields, including in the armed forces, the books show them in a restricted role. Even young girls are supposed to be fully covered. Many see it as a throwback to the Zia era. Is that the way forward Imran Khan has been talking about? Is this what is seen as freedom from slavery?

Retrogressive system

Most shocking is his comment that the English medium system led to “mental slavery”. The English language is universally accepted as the most important source of higher education and acquiring knowledge. But for the prime minister, it perpetuates an alien culture.

One goal of the national curriculum is apparently related to the focus on values. But what are those values? What values are we trying to create through a retrogressive education system and textbooks presenting a distorted interpretation of history?

One gem reported in the media comes from Pakistan’s federal minister of education that “…if in a country people view reality differently it creates tension”. Such an argument defies a basic fact that the main purpose of education is to allow students to think freely and question. Only in authoritarian regimes do we hear about different views creating tension, not in a democracy.

One cannot agree more that the educational apartheid must be eliminated and all citizens must have access to quality education. That can only be done by reforming Pakistan’s state education system. The country has one of the lowest literacy rates.

The government should be focused more on providing education to all. The educational apartheid is perpetuated by the low quality of education in Pakistan’s state institutions. The problem cannot be resolved by a retrogressive curriculum.

This article first appeared in Dawn.