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Pakistan's education reform | The language enigma

Whither education reform?
Islamabad, Sep 03: It has been our great misfortune that, for decades, our political bosses have been products of military influence – some through nurturing, others by coercion. While the military may have been sincere, in its own perception, in choosing political masters for us, still given its very institutional culture, it imposes views, ideas, strategy, tactics etc. Hence, only closed minds willing to pursue pre-determined courses are amenable to accepting such a drill. While such politicians may be clever, they cannot have a transcending vision.

While Ayub Khan picked up his political protégés for promise of calibre, in addition to loyalty, the dictators after him developed a strategic framework for enlistment of politicians chosen for the army's patronage. They were required to accept the fantasies evolved by the military's ideologues and not vent their intellectual capabilities to develop a vision of what they wanted this country to be.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was, perhaps, our last visionary leader; unfortunately his evidently tragic flaw led him to end in a Shakespearean tragedy. Ziaul Haq had a strategy for intellectual enslavement of the people under the heavy burden of ideology; essentially as a ploy to prolong his power. He fed the army on fantasy and the common man on submission.

So what do we have now? A breed and generation of politicians entirely engrossed in the daily chores of retention of power. They are clever people: power savvy, street smart, adept at mutual protection across political divides, masters of manipulation and traders of intrigue. But they have no vision. They cannot revolt against the limiting myopia of thought imposed upon them by their handlers, both domestic and foreign.

Consequently, the governance seems focused merely on remaining in power. Public policy is, therefore, limited in extension and interest. The government takes decisions primarily under compulsion of circumstance. Their policies are reactive and not proactive. While, per force policies are worked out in the fields of economics and security, there is little interest in long gestation policies of the social sector, though they are more fundamentally pervasive.

Let us refer to the much pursued education policy, pending now for four years since a review began under the last government. Between 2007 and 2008 the policy exercise was sacrificed at the altar of the whims of a self-righteous, egotist Federal Minister. Since this government came in, the draft policy has been lying in the cold storage of disinterest and inefficiency.

Education is a fashionable interest of politicians. Hence, every other government formulates a new education policy. But the favourite governance culture of our governments – autocratic, supply driven imposition of whimsical ideas – inhibits a visionary approach to education with a breadth of perception.

The civil society has been clamouring for an education policy cleansed of the garbage of prejudice and dogma, focused on the state providing the environment and resources essential for the citizen to acquire knowledge through learning processes that help him or her realise his or her full potential.

A new education policy now awaits cabinet consideration. The draft betrays that the present government is trying to impose a hotchpotch by stealth – as if to get rid of a discomforting burden by producing an innocuous document of impressive verbiage, grandiose promises but little efficacy. While the 1998 document represented one individual's private agenda through a propagandist policy for a gullible public, the current document is lost in a directionless, wayward, wandering. The government seems to have no understanding of the issues and the constitutional obligations of the state. It merely uses MDGs, EFA and Vision 20-30 as fashionable crutches on which to build a policy.

Some space is provided to make the right noises about quality, access and relevance of education. But no desire is concrete for universal, free, publicly-funded education up to secondary level, as guaranteed by the constitution. Instead plaudits are showered on the for-profit private sector's contribution of 35 per cent in this sector. That only caters to the needs of the elite. An achievable framework for quality public education is sorely missing. Therefore, the masses are damned.

The policy rightly identifies poor implementation as a major stumbling block to realisation of goals in the education sector, but provides only simplistic answers to the problem. Governance and management are recognised as a major issue, but no identified, agreed and committed answers are provided. It promises to ultimately expend seven per cent of the GDP in this sector. But on whose commitment and guarantee can such a claim be made? Have the Ministry of Finance, the Planning Commission, Economic Affairs Division (the donors' commitment) and the provincial governments committed to such a provision in an agreed time frame? Have we developed the capacity to plan, implement, monitor and evaluate an outlay of that size? Who is the government trying to fool? The ordinary citizen, really.

Simultaneously, there is a cowardly acquiescence to the peddlers of dogma, in the name of Islamic education. It appears that, for the sake of convenience, the Ministry of Education is trying to repeat the 1998 document in a new parlance. Our great religion provides the moral bases of our lives. Though religious education remains primarily the responsibility of the family, it is imperative that school education ensures an enlightenment of young minds with the ethical values that Islam demands. The state should be concerned with only such religious education.

Giving in to merchants of blackmail, the latest document fails to chart ways for the ethical development of the school child. It merely plans to provide for learning the Quran by rote without understanding it. That will only provide employment to turbaned thugs who were till recently killing women and burning schools in Swat. Are these the ushers who will lead us into the Garden of Eden?

Education is so fundamental to a society's upbringing that we should not deal with it with a flippant hand. To ensure that -- and also to ensure ownership by all stakeholders -- and evolve a mechanism for full implementation, the policy must be taken to the parliament. If we have wasted four years already, a month's parliamentary debate will only yield something positive.

Javed Hasan Aly - The writer is the author of the White Paper on Education, 2007. Email: javed. (The News)

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The language enigma
Islamabad: The fate of the National Education Policy (NEP) continues to hang in the balance. A revised draft was to have been taken up by the cabinet in early August but it was not.

Meanwhile, some NGOs working in the education sector and grouped under the umbrella body called the Pakistan Coalition for Education reacted strongly to the new document.

This should have provided an opportunity for a public debate on the policy. Unfortunately it didn't because education is too mundane a subject for our media.

The draft that has been posted on the Ministry of Education's website, and which will presumably be considered by the cabinet, should be taken up not just by educationists but also parents, the youth and enlightened citizens who care about the future of Pakistan. The fact is that many issues addressed by the NEP need to be debated fully so that there is a broad national consensus and not simply an agreement between the governments in Islamabad and the provinces.

One issue that needs careful consideration is the language policy that could well become politicised and cause serious harm to the growth of education in Pakistan.

The NEP's current draft speaks of the government developing "a comprehensive plan of action for implementing the English language policy in the shortest possible time, paying particular attention to disadvantaged groups and lagging behind regions". Fine. There is no disputing the now universally accepted fact that English is the international language of diplomacy, science, commerce and communication. It must be learnt.

Our English-language teaching is not at all up to the mark and the NEP admits that. Hence the problem has to be addressed mainly by training good English-language teachers. Correct.

Thereafter the policy draft stipulates that English will be taught as a subject from class I onwards and the curriculum will include Urdu, one official regional language, mathematics and an integrated subject. From class IV onwards science and mathematics will be taught in English only.

However, the provinces have been given a grace period of five years to effect this change-over. They are expected to train the teachers to teach in English. Until then they can use Urdu/an official regional language as the medium of instruction for science and mathematics. Theoretically correct too, though it would make greater sense to change the medium in science and mathematics after class V at the secondary level when the child is about 10 and would have had five years of English-language learning.Next comes the core issue that has been cloaked in ambiguity. What is to be the medium of instruction in the primary section? The choice has been left to provincial and area education departments with no guidelines provided.

No marks for guessing that things will continue as presently. Given the commercialisation of education in the private sector which is also the trendsetter - both good and bad - every institution will naturally vie to be an English-medium one, including those with signboards that proudly announce in Urdu that the school is 'English-medium'.

In view of this calculatedly indifferent approach to language, can we expect any change for the better after the NEP is announced and implemented? Language is basic not just to the development of the education system but also to a person's mental growth. Therefore the government's hesitation in adopting a clear-cut position on the medium issue is difficult to justify.

Given the appalling standard of English-language teaching in all schools, with the exception of a few private elite schools, it will prove to be a formidable exercise to upgrade the knowledge of English of thousands of language teachers as well as thousands of those teaching science and mathematics to ensure their proficiency in English. Most of the latter also require courses to teach them their subject anew. But without this effort no strategy will work.

It would be best to make it compulsory for schools to adopt the mother tongue as the medium of instruction at the primary level. Simultaneously there must be a lot of stress on language teaching as a subject (Urdu, English and regional languages) and developing communication skills. There is no reason why a child being taught in his mother tongue with which he is familiar cannot be taught excellent English as well.

It is time the language controversy was laid to rest. The failure of our educationists generally to understand the integral link between language and the mental development of a person is shocking. Language is the basic tool for thought. It is instrumental in expanding a young child's mind and developing his creativity at an age when his faculties are growing and his thought-language (to use Paulo Freire's term) is being formed. As the White Paper on Education in Pakistan (2007) observed, learning in the mother tongue allows for better self-expression and conceptual understanding.

Dr Maria Montessori is another expert whose observations about language and the child are most relevant. In her monumental study The Absorbent Mind, she writes that in a child a special mechanism exists for language, which responds to speech and accumulates the words that the child hears. Thus the environment - especially the verbal one - makes a deep impact on the language learning process in a child.

Not surprisingly a child's mental growth is slowed down if education involves comprehending new concepts in an unfamiliar language, mastering that language and its vocabulary as well to enable him to express himself. It is for this reason that students of elite schools are also found wanting in terms of 'critical thinking', a quality Freire considers so vital.

The students in these schools are taught in English and get good grades because as Ismat Riaz, a Pakistani educationist, aptly points out the focus in these schools is on the acquisition of knowledge and memorising. One may add, English as a medium of instruction at an early age stunts the child's capacity to think critically and isolates him from his surroundings. By Zubeida Mustafa, (Dawn)

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