The progress of a country is a multifaceted phenomenon that is seen and measured through different indicators of the economic, social and political segments of national life. While economic progress in terms of GDP, reserves and balance of payments determines the financial wellbeing of a country, positive social-development indicators demonstrate how the people are benefitting from the nation’s wealth.
Satisfactory health, education and livelihood opportunities for residents living in different communities and geographies of a country reflect the state of national progress, which is equitable and meaningful for all citizens.

Citizens with relevant knowledge and skills appear at the top of the list of factors that accelerate a country’s progress with respect to economic growth and social development in today’s knowledge economies. This brings equitable access to quality education – that provides learners with relevant skills and abilities to adopt productive roles in the global economy of the present and future – at the centre of any effort for national progress.

The incumbent government of Pakistan started its term in 2018, with the promise to accelerate progress in the country. In this context, the education roadmap of the government should primarily focus on the quality of the learning experience of all students in the system. Looking beyond the issues of access, the policy direction should be based on the notion that enrolling all students at a low-quality ‘uniform’ education system is not going to move the needle of national progress in any positive direction at all.

A uniform education system, which has been built-in as one of the five pillars of the new government’s education roadmap, is drawing a great deal of attention these days. I am sure this element has been carefully thought through and the education minister’s team has not included it in the national priority list as a mere populist slogan and the panacea for all ills affecting the country’s education system.

Effective school education is linked with multiple prerequisites, such as curriculum; teachers; pedagogy; textbooks and other teaching/learning materials; the classroom environment; infrastructure and facilities; the school management; education governance structures; education-management capacities and processes; the assessment system; and parental involvement. This list is not comprehensive and can be extended or expanded.

When the government’s education team talks about a uniform education system, they should clarify some fundamental dimensions. First, will the drive for ‘uniformity’ be implemented across the board, including public, elite-public, private, high-end private and international joint ventures as well as the madressah systems? Second, what elements for effective school education will be made uniform across these systems?

Third, will children who attend public schools in Qilla Saifullah and Thar, Aitchison, cadet colleges, divisional public schools, Army Burn Hall College, Beaconhouse make use of the same furniture; be taught by equally qualified, trained and adequately paid teachers; and have the same books in their hands? Fourth, what is the roadmap to achieve the objective of a uniform system of education in terms of the processes, responsibilities and timelines? Fifth, who will be involved in developing this roadmap?

A thoroughly critical consideration of the basics is essential to guard the education system and the future of our generations from populist sloganeering for political expediency and dogmatic re-engineering on the whims of few saviours – as done by self-declared messiahs in the 1980s. Early signs of confusion are evident from the political statements that have appeared in the national media on the resistance to a uniform system from some stakeholders.

Without exhibiting clarity of vision and purpose and sharing a detailed action plan with all the relevant stakeholders, the notion of a uniform system of education will remain dipsy-doodle, contentious and mutable through competing interpretations. Those whose aspirations, dreams, careers and life trajectories will be impinged upon by these changes deserve more information than what is being shared in the form of bullet points and block statements in the media. Teachers, principals and parents, whose destinies are invested in the shape, form and direction of the education system, also have a right to know and to voice their opinions in this debate.

If this is not done, major changes in the education system will be informed by the whims of a select few, with no technical background in education, and the process of creating a uniform education system will be both led and opposed by those educated in elite private schools in the country and leading universities across the world. As silent spectators, learners, teachers and parents will only remember the following words by Shakespeare: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport”.

All of us must have come across parents who earn meagre incomes from low-paid jobs and send their children to private schools. Families with relatively high incomes are also under pressure to bear their children’s educational expenses at private institutions. If families have faith in the quality of education provided at public schools, they will not have to spend substantial portions of their household income on paying private schools a steep to educate their children.

Pakistan’s education system is already facing serious issues because the learning outcomes of students are abysmal as compared to the global education landscape. Nothing less than a commitment for a uniform quality of learning for all students will help improve the pace of national progress.

If the true intention of the education roadmap is to improve learning outcomes, the government should salvage the public education system as a priority. Improving the quality of education at government-funded schools will be a concrete step towards creating a uniform education system in the country that works equally for those who attend private schools, a cadet college, or a government school in rural Pakistan.

The writer is a researcher and international development professional.