Multiplicity of views and opinions nurture constructive debate and help societies develop and prosper under democratic norms and principles. Democracy is known to work best when its key tenets’ voice enables determination and articulation of societal aspirations, and accountability is upheld by the strong shoulders of chosen leaders and public servants. Every voice in a society matters and when it comes to social development, imperatives like education, the voices of intellectuals and thought leaders, amongst others, matter the most in not only shaping the discourse on education but also in success of well-intended reforms. Dissonance among intellectuals on the nature and content of reforms may often become a cause for concern, particularly when dissenting elements are driven by the desire of recognition or because of their own absence in the process itself. Such elements become worrisome when they air misguided and uninformed opinions in print, audio-visual and social media and create confusion and uncertainty amongst parents, educators and other relevant stakeholder groups. In their frenzy for their own acknowledgement, they relegate the value of the reform process and use it as a tool for personal gain.

The Single National Curriculum (grade pre-1-5) fell into a deep debate and scathing criticism in some intellectual quarters as has been seen in the print, electronic and social media well before its publication on the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training’s website on August 14, 2020. When one ponders upon the detailed account of the process adopted for the development of SNC and examines the subject curricula uploaded on the M/o FE&PT, one can’t help but wonder what all the noise is about. Could one disagree with the vision of eliminating the pronounced disparities that children studying under the different educational streams in Pakistan currently suffer in terms of education content, approach, teaching methods and learning outcomes? After all, a look around reveals the likely winners and losers of this unfair and unjust machinery being spewed out as citizens, most of whom land into deep crevices of deprivation and not on a level playing field.

Prior to the SNC, all curriculum reform processes were adopted only by the public sector institutions and those private institutions which followed SSC and HSSC streams in their systems. Elite private schools procure the services and follow the international curricula of the exam boards like Cambridge, Edexcel and International Baccalaureate (IB) which are offered through hefty tuition and exam fees. On the other hand the madrassah stream of education has remained outside government regulations with no recourse to a standard core curriculum.

The vision and aspiration of SNC is to standardise the core education content and hence provide the foundation for moving towards the proverbial level playing field for all children to pursue learning and achieve standardised outcomes. As a step in this direction, the National Curriculum Council was reconstituted with the inclusion of education ministers of the provinces and areas, heads of provincial curriculum authorities, representatives from public and private sector institutions, experts of different streams of education including the public and private school systems, the religious seminaries (Deeni Madaris) and representatives of minorities and armed forces educational institutions.

Before initiating the development of SNC, multiple studies were conducted to generate a rich knowledge base on international best practices in curriculum development and content. The SNC Phase I (grade Pre 1-5), as is envisioned for all phases, was completed through a participatory approach involving experts from all federating units and other relevant stakeholders. This rich participatory and inclusive approach was to ensure dialogue for consensus building and accounting for all societal concerns as is globally done for deciding upon educational content enshrined in the curriculum. A galaxy of 400 plus star performers and educationists from the public sector, the private sector, the armed forces schooling systems, experts representing minorities and the Deeni Madaras from all over the federating units, came together in subject curricula committees to deliberate and reach consensus on the content of SNC. It is pertinent at this point to praise the tireless efforts of these experts from varied backgrounds to enable the development of the SNC Phase I in such a short span of time.

The three globally-recognised important components of curriculum i.e. knowledge, skills, and attitudes have been interwoven in each subject curriculum in letter and spirit. For meaningful learning, the curriculum propounds hands-on activities. Inclusion of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) and critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication skills research/probing, decision making, inquisitive learning and leadership have also been ensured in the curriculum right from Early Childhood Care & Education onwards. ICT has been integrated across subject curricula through inclusion of web links and project work to develop the 21st century skills.

A review of the English language SNC reveals a heavy emphasis on language skills development and a dilution of heavy literary content to enable the child in development of basic proficiency in English language during primary education. Lesser content and more exercises clearly bring out the intent of a focus on language skills development with a heavy interlacing of contemporary needs such as gender awareness, climate, hygiene and sanitation, conservation of resources, to name a few.

The voices reverberating the loudest have been those of left-wing intellectuals and purported education sector experts. The key opinions sifted from within the noise from these quarters include a dissatisfaction with additions in the Islamiat curriculum (which purportedly is heavier now) and similarities of the overall subject curricula with the National Curriculum 2006. Criticism of the SNC has been scathing and accusatory in tone and content and riddled with misstatements of facts relating to curriculum development and process thereof to paint a doom and gloom picture of the future of the education system in the country.

Many have not read any of the Single National Curriculum documents and hastily plunked a singular focus on how the new curriculum is amassing an inordinate amount of religious content is misguided and misplaced, if viewed in the light of ground realities. Apart from being probably less voluminous as compared to what is currently taught in the high cost private schools in Pakistan, it has been developed with an eye to creating relevance of Islamic teachings to Muslims Students’ lives. Two new strands; “Husn-e-Muamlat o Muashrat” and “Islami Taleemat aur Dour-e-Hazir ke Taqazay”. Special attention has been given to highlight the essentials of the Islamic faith that include respect for diversity, tolerance and other such moral values. An additional feature of the curriculum is the additional structural elements which now also entails clearly defined standards, benchmarks and student learning outcomes, which wasn’t the case erstwhile. This feature particularly makes the Islamiat curriculum more suited to the children’s learning needs and processes and to the development of textual material that is confined within an intellectual and social frame, thereby eliminating the space for multiple interpretations and treatment of concepts and content.

For students from religious minority groups, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, in line with the Article 22-A of the Constitution, a curriculum development team prepared the curriculum for the subject of “Religious Education”. This subject is to be taught from Grade 1 to all students from minority groups. Moreover, it has been ensured that no student from minorities would be at any kind of disadvantage while studying any subject. While writing instructions for the authors of textbooks and teachers, it has been mentioned that if any exam question in the subjects like English and Urdu is on any Islamic topic, it will be ensured that an alternate question is provided for the students from minorities. SNC is driven by the principle of zero tolerance for hate material of any kind.

From the recent articles and social media posts it appears that those who criticize the single national curriculum seem to believe in the existence of a magic wand that would make a new curriculum appear out of thin air with no resemblance to its predecessor. This belief or mindset—or assertion for self-recognition, at best—indicates nothing but ignorance of how the curricular development or revision occur in the world.

Some have tried to put the cart before the horse in pointing out anticipated implementation issues and linking them to the content of SNC, perhaps in a bid for self-promotion or due lack of knowledge of curriculum development and implementation. True that SNC implementation will be riddled with challenges, such as teachers’ low capacity, inefficient monitoring and follow up mechanism, and collection of feedback for updating the SNC. Re-orientation of the teachers’ professional development and assessment practices are of utmost importance and require a re-haul of the present training and assessment system in a gradual stepwise process.

The essence of the development of the Single National Curriculum is the consultative process with the engagement of stakeholders including the public sector, the private sector, the Federal Government Educational Institutions (FGEIs), Cantts & Garrisons and the Deeni Madaris. It is indeed a national effort of all federating units and other stakeholders. As far as raising the standard of public schools and teachers’ quality is concerned, similar to this national effort of Single National Curriculum, it too will be achieved through collective efforts of all provinces and other stakeholders. The federal government is well aware of its role and will do whatever is necessary to achieve these goals.

Muhammad Ayub Sethi

The writer is a student at the University of Essex and interned with the Ministry of Education.