PAKISTAN is a signatory to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one of which obligates the country to provide inclusive and equitable education for all. Once again, the question has been asked: is Pakistan moving towards that goal?

An inclusive education does not discriminate by gender, language, religion, etc. On gender, discrimination is manifest at the outset when income constrained families spend more to educate sons than daughters. The bias is reaffirmed when textbooks offer limited role models for girls. It is argued that Pakistan is a socially conservative country and most women subscribe to the models prescribed for them. This is an assertion made by men speaking on behalf of women who have not been independently asked or consulted. Even if this is conceded, we know that there is a subset of women with different aspirations. At the very least, the Pakistani curriculum has no place for them, reportedly not even for someone as culturally acceptable as Malala Yousafzai. It remains an open question whether it is right to exclude them and who is to make that determination.

There is a forgotten dimension to this discrimination. People who are old enough remember a time in the 1960s when girls in cities commonly cycled to their schools and colleges. No more. Once again, it is argued that this was an inappropriate legacy of British rule that has been rightly done away with. School education reaffirms such limitations on the choices of women without much public debate.

On language, the discrimination is more subtle. Children whose home language is not English or Urdu cannot acquire elementary education in their own language even if their parents want, despite the global consensus supporting its advantages. Outside of Sindh, this aspect is neither fully recognised nor debated. The exclusion of such languages means not only their slow death but also the withering of their associated cultures and identities.

To inhibit free expression is a form of exclusion that disproportionately impacts those who do not belong to the majority.

On religion the exclusions are more obvious. A curriculum cannot be inclusive when religious content of one religion is diffused throughout textbooks prescribed for secular subjects.

This practice is justified by the argument that Pakistan is overwhelmingly Muslim (97.5 per cent), which makes it alright to propagate predominantly Islamic content. The difficulty with this justification is that Pakistan was not so overwhelmingly Muslim when it was created. It is a consequence of religious discrimination that non-Muslims feel unsafe in the country and many who were or are able to leave have done so. This includes Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, Parsis, and Christians. A justification of majoritarian values is incompatible with the goal of inclusion.

Instead of addressing this issue, the proposed solution is to have non-Muslim students leave the class when Islamic religious content is discussed in secular subjects. But this constitutes the most extreme form of exclusion, one that embeds othering right from early childhood.

One example should suffice to highlight the kinds of avoidable issues that have been created. The Single National Curriculum textbook for Grade 4 English has an exercise in creative writing on page 12 in which students are asked to write a paragraph about a religious subject particular to Islam. What is to be gained by choosing a religious subject in an exercise of creative writing in a class meant to teach English? It would be more inclusive to have a neutral subject for the essay in which all children are equally equipped to express themselves. Creativity would also be enhanced if every student could write something personal, instead of reproducing an approved text from which even inadvertent deviation could be considered risky. To inhibit the free expression of views is a form of exclusion that disproportionately impacts those who do not belong to the numerical majority. The obligation to be inclusive calls for reconsidering the content of all textbooks for subjects other than religion.

Is education in Pakistan equitable, even if it is not inclusive? This question is easier to answer. To start with, how can it be equitable if 40pc of school-age children are not in school to begin with? The Constitution guarantees them a free education, but no attention has been paid to the exclusion. If a country does not honour its Constitution, will it pay heed to the goals of the UN?

What about the children who are actually in school? It stands to reason that when education is offered as a commodity in the market, those with more money are able to buy a better quality of the product. How can education be equitable in such a scenario? A natural outcome is that there are a limited number of high-quality schools to reproduce the ruling classes and a huge number of low-quality schools to reproduce the masses to be ruled. Unsurprisingly, it is also preferred that in the face of such inequity, the latter do not question the legitimacy of the unequal distribution. This in turn drives the content of public school education, whose primary aim becomes to sustain the status quo. Hence its mind-numbing quality. Anyone claiming that a mere curriculum can yield equitable education in Pakistan cannot be taken seriously.

Pakistan’s school education is neither inclusive nor equitable and is departing further from these objectives. Is this because Pakistan’s ruling elite is just playing along with the UN? The SDGs were preceded by the MDGs for 15 years. None were attained in Pakistan without any analysis of the reasons for the failure. Instead, the country signed on to a new set of goals with a fresh lease of 15 years during which officials would continue to hold meetings and participate in conferences. Meanwhile, the people in whose name the exercise is being conducted are largely excluded from the conversation. In fact, there aren’t even comprehensible terms for MDG or SDG in any of their local languages.

It is a surreal situation where rhetoric masquerades for reality, which all but ensures that innocuous questions (Are we there yet?) will continue to be asked while difficult answers (We are going in the wrong direction) would continue to be ignored.

The writer is the author of What We Get Wrong About Education in Pakistan (Folio Books 2022) and Pakistan ka Matlab Kya (Aks Publications 2022).

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2022

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