How does the government hope to implement a single national curriculum, when even the textbooks are not in place?
A transition to a new system is usually beset with teething problems. It is but natural. However, when a new plan is not thought through, the stakeholders are not on board and there appears to be a conflict of interest, the result is confusion and chaos, and the plan is likely to fail.
Unfortunately, the PTI government’s efforts to introduce a Single National Curriculum (SNC) — one of the pre-elections promises made by Prime Minister Imran Khan — have been marred by controversy, creating more uncertainty for an already pandemic-hit education sector. The SNC’s implementation exercise is making the majority of private schools uneasy and concerned about the education standards, while textbook publishers are worried about the future of their businesses.
So far, only the PTI–led Punjab government has said “yes” to the implementation of the SNC and is trying to get it rolling in the coming academic year, which is expected to begin from March-April, though a delay remains on the cards of decision-makers, because they are ill-prepared for this marathon exercise.
The PTI-led Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa government and its ally, the Balochistan provincial government, are expected to follow Punjab’s example and implement the SNC, while the PPP government in Sindh has indicated that it would continue with the existing system.
However, the Sindh government’s dissent is not the issue at the moment. It is the implementation strategy of the Punjab Curriculum Textbook Board (PCTB) that has shaken both the private schools and publishers.
The PTI government is targeting to enforce the SNC from classes one to five in the coming academic session, classes six to eight the following year and classes nine to 12 in the final and fifth year of its term. So far, the federal education ministry has prepared 30 model textbooks, which the PCTB plans to introduce across Punjab, but the problem is that the provincial authorities have yet to publish them on a mass scale. Consequently, the Punjab government is actively considering the option of delaying the new session till August — a proposal that is being strongly resisted by private school-owners.
“Our last academic year was lost because of COVID-19 and it seems that the coming session will also be wasted because of a hasty and crude implementation of the SNC,” says the owner of a leading school from Lahore, requesting anonymity. “Firstly, any proposal to delay the academic session because of the non-availability of model textbooks is a bad idea. Secondly, the new textbooks may be an improvement on the previously published government textbooks, but their standard is still low compared to the ones used in private schools.”
An educationist affiliated with a leading private publishing house maintains that the SNC indeed appears to be a lofty idea, but the devil lies in the detail. “Till end-January, the model textbooks had not been provided to the publishers, and in the new curriculum, which has been shared by the federal education ministry, there is a lot of repetition of topics in various subjects. While Islamiyat as a subject has been expanded, there is a sprinkling of the topics covered in it in other subjects as well, including English and General Knowledge,” she says.
Concerns regarding the content of the SNC remain rampant. Rather than raising the general standard of education, those schools which are performing better are being dragged down, remarks a private school owner in Karachi.
As the debate on curriculum rages on in the education sector, private publishers and textbook importers are the most worried, as over 60 percent of their business is driven from Punjab. “Nothing is clear… there is confusion all around,” says the head of a leading textbook publishing house.
The Punjab government, in a notification issued on December 9, 2020, directed the public and private schools that they “must get an Approval/Clearance Certificate from the PCTB for the textbooks, supplementary reading materials (SRM) and the books they wish to adopt/ prescribe in their institutions.” The notification further stated that being a “sensitive issue,” these “instructions must be followed in letter and spirit.”
In a meeting with publishers, the PCTB Managing Director, Farooq Manzoor, sternly warned them not to print any textbooks or education-related material without his institution’s approval.
According to the publishers, the only problem with these directives is that the PCTB has neither the human resources nor the capacity to evaluate textbooks for the issuance of No Objection Certificates (NOCs) in a timely manner.
“If we submit our books for approval, we do not know how long the PCTB will take to review them and pass its judgment… a month, two months or even more? We also do not know what we must do in case of a dispute or if we want to challenge any decision. Another question that arises is, what will happen if a minor change is required? Will we start the process from zero each time?” asks the head of a leading publishing house.
Last year, the PCTB banned several textbooks, even for making minor mistakes and, in some cases, arbitrarily.
Further, the PCTB’s decision to increase the fee for a NOC on each book to a massive Rs. 150,000 in one go has also alarmed publishers. Earlier, the NOC fee for a primary-level book was Rs. 2,000 each, a secondary level book Rs. 5,000 and a higher education book Rs. 10,000.
“Now getting NOCs for a textbook series of say five books along with its reading material, will cost us around a million-and-a half rupees,” shares another disgruntled publisher.
The publishers’ biggest grouse, however, is the conflict of interest in PCTB’s operations. On the one hand, this institution is acting as a regulator for schools and publishers, while on the other, it is also publishing textbooks.
“This is the reason why the PCTB is giving such a tough time to textbook publishers; it wants to monopolise the market,” says the second publisher. “It appears that our bureaucracy wants to ensure that the SNC becomes controversial and fails to deliver the desired results.”
If the PCTB refuses to show any flexibility, it will hurt Pakistan’s publishing sector, which is all set to book huge inventory losses and will be forced to slash hundreds of jobs, he says.
In principle, publishers should be allowed to develop and import books according to guidelines provided by the SNC, while regulators need to develop an efficient, inexpensive and transparent procedure for the issuance of NOCs.
The federal government should also consider establishing a centralised NOC-issuing authority for textbooks, though this will not be possible without altering the controversial 18th Constitutional Amendment, which requires a publisher to get separate NOCs from each province in a cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming exercise.
Rather than stifling private publishers, the government should encourage them so that they can at least compete in the region. And as the first step in this direction, they should listen to their grievances, get the stakeholders on board and ensure greater competition under the government’s laid down curriculum framework.
However, for now the primary-level education sector remains in the grip of uncertainty, which if it continues to linger on, would ultimately take its toll on the students.