The Government of Pakistan has recently announced the introduction of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) for grades 1 to 5, as a promise to eliminate apartheid in education, one of the priority areas in the Education Policy Framework introduced by the sitting government at the beginning of its tenure. While the SNC has been received with a lot of criticism by educationists in Pakistan, it has much to offer for Madaris.
The educational landscape of Pakistan consists of three types of schools: public schools, private schools and Madaris. Madaris is derived from the Arabic word Madrassa that literally means ‘a place of learning’ but in today’s world, the word Madrassa is mostly associated with institutes that educate its students on Islamic teachings i.e. Quran, Hadith and Fiqh. The number of Madaris has increased from 200 at the time of independence in 1947 to 35,000 today, according to the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training. However, many analysts believe that the actual number is far more than this.
Almost 3 million students are being educated in these Madaris, mostly free of cost, as most of these students cannot afford nor have access to public or private schools. Since the government does not have enough funds to establish schools in every village or district of the country or provide free education to all, it heavily depends on Madaris to cater for a large portion of the population. Madaris provide free education, food, clothing and lodging for almost all of its students who are usually from low socio-economic backgrounds and cannot afford to pay for private schools. In addition to catering to millions of students, Madaris have thousands of employees working for them including teachers, instructors and mentors. The role of Madaris in our society is more than that of just educational institutes as they work like non-governmental organisations providing shelter, food and clothing to the poor.
While most of the Madaris generally focus on delivering Islamic studies in their curriculum and other educational activities, they do not teach contemporary subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry, English and other subjects. In some of the Madaris that do include contemporary subjects in their curricula, the concepts taught are either outdated or variations of these subjects are taught that are in line with Islamic teachings, for example, the discoveries of science mentioned in the Quran. Hence, students learn concepts that have no exchange value in the marketplace or workplace as compared to concepts that other students learn in public or private schools. The gap that exists between Madaris and public and private schools has caused a lot of problems for graduates of Madaris as they do not possess the skills to compete in the job market and are left unemployed.
This calls for policy reform that could help bridge the gap between the two systems of education and provide equal opportunities for the youth of Pakistan in terms of education and jobs. Policy reformation will also help regularize Madaris to ensure that their funding is coming through legal channels and known donors, and is used for the correct reasons. In the past, many governments have tried to modernize Madaris to introduce students to contemporary subjects and modern methods of teaching but have failed each time. With the introduction of policy reforms for Madaris, how has the current government brought Madaris on board with the SNC?
On one hand, through the SNC, the government aims to provide job opportunities to Madrassa graduates, stimulating the creation of more Madaris. Every primary school would be required to hire one Madrassa certified teacher to teach Islamic teachings in the manner that it is currently taught in Madaris. Considering the large number of public and private schools in Pakistan, thousands of Madrassa certified teachers would be employed. Not only will these Madrassa certified teachers have a high influence on the school environments but they will also have a great influence on the overall academic environment in the country. With Madaris widely cited as an important contributor to extremism that Pakistan is still not completely rid of, giving Madaris a strong position in education policy-making and political influence in the academic environment may not be very useful in producing more responsible citizens.
On the other hand, the SNC envisages the government to provide each Madrassa with three teachers, who will be paid from the public exchequer, to teach students contemporary subjects in the 35,000 Madaris across the country. Educationists have pointed this out to the government that providing teachers to Madaris for contemporary courses might not be possible considering that this will be done at a cost to public schools who are already facing a shortage of teachers.
Many critics believe that the SNC will not lead to the modernization of Madaris, but instead to the Islamization of public and private schools. While the curricula of contemporary subjects remains more or less the same in the SNC, major changes have been introduced in the Islamiat curriculum, making it heavier in content – even heavier than the content currently being taught at Madaris. Schools will be heavily dependent on Madaris certified teachers and every Madrassa will try to impose its interpretation of the Quran, Fiqh and Hadith. The SNC requires young students to memorise Quranic passages rather than training the youth on how to interpret Islam in relation to the demands of the modern world. The fact that non-Muslim students and Muslim students from various sects will have to learn the same Islamiat curriculum not only singles out minorities but could also worsen the sectarian divide.
Therefore, it appears that the newly developed SNC has only led to a boost to the Madrassa system in the country with far-reaching implications for the youth of Pakistan that form 64% of the entire population. It does not provide students with any additional knowledge or cognitive capabilities that could help them engage critically, promote creativity, develop civic values or prepare them for the future of work. The government needs develop an environment where different educational institutes can co-exist with different curricula to try and eliminate apartheid in education, rather than compounding the already existing sectarian divide and promoting extremism in the country.

Written By: Ali Haider Lodhi

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