August 6, 2020

By Zeeba T. Hashmi

Working with street and gypsy children, there is always a chance to see in their eyes, an eager curiosity to learn something new. It is the same in rural areas: the children of these communities possess the same kind of spirit to learn, and their passion is simply heart melting. If you talk to them, you will find their playfulness intact no matter how hard their circumstances are, in fact, this is seen across the world in young children.

This burning flame for knowledge, and acquiring it, is the child’s eternal right. Denying them this right is a violation of their childhood. Corrupting knowledge for them is also another form of unseen tyranny.

But knowledge in Pakistan has long been adulterated to design a certain kind of national psyche to serve the purpose of the few in power. Indeed, this comes with a great loss of the general academic ability of the majority.

For the sake of making a distinction here, allow me to say that ‘knowledge’ and ‘education’ are separate concepts. The former may be said to be food for the soul and consciousness, while the latter is more or less an economic question and is recognized as a fundamental right mandated by all countries in the world, including Pakistan, as free and compulsory for children through different conventions and instruments.

In Pakistan’s constitutional framework, it is enshrined under Article 25-A as a fundamental right meant for children between ages 5 to 16. This means the state is responsible for the provision of free and compulsory education.

Here, one must be careful in understanding the meaning of free and compulsory education and how the government itself perceives it. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Pakistan was an early signatory, clearly states that “parents have a right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Pakistan is a state party, also stresses on the liberty of parents to choose their children’s schools, other than those established by public authorities. This right is again reiterated in International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is also a party and is bound to devise domestic laws in conformity.

Pakistan is also bound to one of the most important instruments, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To understand in detail how it stresses the right to education, its two articles namely 28 and 29 deserve to be understood in essence. Article 28 mentions the state’s responsibility for the provision of free and available education for all, the inclusion of vocational education, making arrangements for higher education based on capacities, providing financial assistance, and reducing dropout rates.

Article 29 elaborates on the direction of education for the child that can result in the development of their personalities and talents, developing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, development of respect for one’s parents,  their own cultural identity, language, and values, etc., incorporating civic responsibility, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.

Though Pakistan is not a signatory, but a UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) – which is also an important tool for enhancing SDG 4 goals – also stresses on state parties to respect the liberty of parents to choose institutions for their children.

To summarize, the essence of parents’ freedom to choose for their children, there is no confusion in international instruments stressing on choices. The direction for the state is to maintain the conformity of minimum education standards, the one that doesn’t infringe upon the individual rights of identity, religion, or personal conviction of the children or their parents.

If we are to understand it in our context, Article 22 (1) of our constitution also abides its machinery to provide a safeguard against receiving religious education other than their own, a fundamental right that stands badly violated when children belonging to non-Muslim communities attend formal schools. This violation comes when they are compelled to receive Islamiyat education as a compulsory subject due to inaccessibility to alternate courses.

A sense of alienation is starkly felt by marginalized communities, who feel hesitant in sending off their children to public schools due to stigmatization by school teachers and textbooks. This is where some self-help organizations, NGOs, and welfare organizations come in with their offering of flexible curricula and schools that address their specific concerns. And it works well in getting neglected children literate and well educated in standard Math, Urdu, English, Science, along with values incorporation through experiential learning – all depending on how well the instructor is in imparting lessons.

The government is adamant in promoting its idea of Single National Curriculum (SNC) and has already made announcements of implementing its first phase in 2021 in primary schools across the nation. This will be followed by phase 2 and 3 in the successive three years for secondary and higher secondary schools.

It is still not clear how SNC will be implemented across all educational institutions and the question of transparency in the entire policy making process persists. We can find some hints on the government’s website which states reservations about different systems that follow their own curricula and standards.

The current government has identified public schools, private schools, deeni madaris and informal schools as four separate systems, and believes that they are responsible for creating various disparities.

It also doesn’t shy away from lamenting the 18th Amendment under which education is a provincial subject and enjoys provincial autonomy in curriculum development as per regional needs. On different occasions, the Federal Minister of Education has called critics of this new intervention “elitists” who want to preserve their high-end private schooling for children coming from privileged backgrounds, although a member of his own National Curriculum Council recently claimed that it is not clear whether SNC will be applicable to private schools.

What the new curricula entail is important to understand because eminent educationists who have seen it in bits and pieces are already expressing their serious concerns.

A lack of transparency in the manner this curriculum is being developed and the extent of its coverage in schools for uniformity raises crucial questions. The most important point of concern is the very idea of uniformity of different systems here. Does it mean a merger of the sorts?

One is compelled to ask this question because deeni madaris employ completely different tools of teaching and have an uncompromising position on certain viewpoints, whether or not it comes in conflict with science, based on their sectarian lines.

Informal vocational centers are purely pursuant to market-based demand for specific vocations and may not be interested in the student having learned religion. Other non-formal schools are working on experiential learning with marginalized children, who will not otherwise understand basic concepts from formal textbooks and lessons.

This leaves out the formal schools, and yes, disparities within formal schooling exist based on quality, but even here, bringing the concept of uniformity in textbooks may not work well unless the teaching approaches and infrastructure at public schools are improved and brought at par with well performing schools.

It is also wrong to assume this as an issue of elitism, as stats have shown parents sending their children to low-budget schools even if a public school was available in proximity. Why is it that a majority of parents lack their confidence in what is offered at public schools?

Is this new curriculum being developed in answer to the very low learning outcomes of the students from public schools? Is the sense of alienation, that has already been felt by students from minority communities and is resulting in hate speech against them in schools, being addressed?

Will making an already over-burdened student of primary school learn more religion in heavy doses help him/her in improving learning outcomes? Answers must be sought here.

Another concern that this government sincerely shows is the issue of mainstreaming hundreds of thousands of Madrassah students in professional life. It may not be known to many, but a Madrassah graduate gets an equivalency for Masters in Islamiyat and is already able to teach anywhere he wants.

An equivalency of their level of classes against formal school classes already exists as decreed by the Higher Education Commission and they can also appear in a different board or competitive exams. One needs to ask why there is a sudden urge to economically merge their schooling system that is based on their specific world view, with that of formal public schools?

Will this not infringe on the parental freedom of choice for the type of education they want their children to have?

When Math textbooks get banned only because they carried pictures of piglets when the publishers of the Science textbook are forced to remove a chapter on “Reproduction”, is this not barring children from having a broadened world view? Is this not barring them from having uncorrupted knowledge?

Zeeba T. Hashmi is a Peace Education Consultant based in Lahore. She can be reached at