Federalism and the Single National Curriculum

Syed Reza Ali
Photo: AFP/File Photo
Photo: AFP/File Photo

In all earnestness, the Single National Curriculum (SNC), even as an “experiment” has merit. Educational apartheid exists, but it isn’t just limited to differing content of education; it extends to teaching, learning and critical thinking. If we remain wedded to the idea that a unified curriculum is meritless without a proper education system supporting it, the issue of disparity would still remain.

The PTI government, to its credit, recognised this. Unfortunately, the peculiar nature of governance entails that you don’t get plaudits for thinking of a good idea; you need to follow it through meaningfully. On the existing evidence, the latter can be charitably described as a train-wreck.

The PTI government and SNC spokespersons have excoriated criticisms of the SNC on the basis that: (1) The Federal Government developed an existing curriculum that was dormant in 2006 and analysed it in accordance with international standards; (2) The SNC itself simply prescribes minimum standards of education that aren’t strictly binding on provinces and that they are free to choose and evolve new standards according to their own needs and; (3) All relevant public and private stakeholders were involved in finalising the SNC and any subsequent criticisms reek of bad faith.

The methodology adopted by the PTI Government in deploying the SNC to the provinces has been legally and constitutionally divisive. It has also been devoid of due process, the bedrock of our constitutional freedoms, which keeps executive and legislative power in check. This is not being stressed enough.

Post the 18th amendment to the constitution, education devolved as the exclusive domain of the provincial legislatures. This meant that provinces were free to evolve curriculum, syllabus, planning, policy and standards in education, for example, through ministerial bodies such as the School Education Department and Statutory Authorities such as the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board, under the Punjab Rules of Business, 2011.

The federal government does have a role to play in regulating education. Except that it isn’t primary or secondary level education, which the SNC seeks to encompass. 

Under Entry 12 of Part II of the Federal Legislative List of the constitution, the federal government has the power to prescribe standards in institutions of higher education, scientific and technical education. This is the extent of its constitutional remit.

The federal government’s legislative competence does not extend to any policies regarding primary or secondary education. Higher education means universities, degree-awarding institutions and vocational institutions, but the SNC targets schools.

By spearheading the rollout of the SNC, the federal government is occupying a legislative field that it has no business to occupy in the first place.

It is misleading to claim that the Ministry of Federal Education is empowered to set minimum standards of the curriculum through the SNC when it is not constitutionally empowered to set these standards at all. Under our current constitutional dispensation, any steps on curriculum or policy in primary/secondary educational institutions may only emanate from the provinces, with the federal government at best, playing a consultative role.

Here the inverse is happening. In many ways, this is unsurprising for a government that championed the decentralization of power when it was in the opposition, but now scarcely pays lip service to the idea.

You could make the argument that the federal government is merely showing the way to the provinces to adopt the SNC; it’s not strictly prescribing any policies or curriculum. There is no evidence of devolution of the SNC in any meaningful manner to the provinces.

The ministry of federal education and professional training has taken the lead as an enforcer of the SNC, through “model textbooks” with PTI- majority provincial legislatures merely acting as a rubber stamp. The resultant reverberations are being felt in schools that cannot teach without the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board sanctioned textbooks.

Private publishers are also in disarray as they have deadlines imposed upon them on printing textbooks without a meaningful consultative process. They have been constrained to file petitions before appropriate judicial forums, where courts are demanding that they be included as part of the consultative process. Chaos abounds.

The steamrolling of the SNC curriculum by the federal government into the PTI-majority provinces may be a precursor to further “corrective reforms”. In the Islamabad Capital Territory, policy decisions in the educational sector now include teachers being policed on their clothing; accentuating an already repressed and stifling environment. This may embolden PTI-majority provinces into taking similar actions, mirroring their “Parent” organization.

The biological architecture of our Constitution rests on the basic premise of federalism, which is envisaged as two governments working side by side, independent of each other and co-operating with each other. 

The Superior Courts of Pakistan have clarified the concept of cooperative or “marble-cake federalism”, which envisages an inter-mingling of all levels of government in policymaking. There is vertical sharing of legislative power, which allows both governments to enjoy legislative competence on the subjects assigned to them.

It is pertinent to question whether the implementation of the SNC captures the spirit of cooperative federalism. Is a provincial legislature duty-bound to debate, question and deliberate meaningfully on a policy that affects all its constituents or should it only show fidelity to the federal government, as a glorified satellite? Has there been meaningful coordination between the federal government and the provinces in getting all necessary stakeholders on the table and making them buy into the idea of the SNC?

The fissures appear to be showing. The Sindh Government does not seem prepared to enforce the SNC. Aitchison College has shown defiance. Other institutions with muscle may follow. Madrassas and military schools have already given the SNC a thumbs down. The PTI government has predictably defaulted to its scorched earth policy, by its ministers referring to any opposition as “mafias”; a recipe for further alienation.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the SNC is replacing content that was progressive and inclusive. No one is disputing that most textbooks predating the SNC was devoid of critical thought, ultra-nationalistic and are riddled with lazy gender stereotypes.

Furthermore, some SNC approved textbooks do include content that raises awareness, is religiously inclusive and not regressive. But the larger point remains that this content is being available to the general public in a piecemeal fashion usually through isolated screenshots on social media, and often after it attains finality by being published in textbooks. The absence of a clear policy or method to amplify the good in the SNC breeds further resentment.

It should not be remiss to mention that under the constitution, inter-provincial matters and coordination is within the policy and legislative competence of the federal government. 

In the spirit of this it is important that the following questions may be considered: Who are the experts that were consulted for the finalization of the SNC? Did they truly and meaningfully represent different facets of society? Is a copy of their report, green lighting the minimum standards proposed under the SNC, public? What stakeholders were co-opted for the finalization of the SNC and who did they constitute? Finally, how is it that a policy, that aims to turn on its head, the educational landscape of the land, is being implemented with a speed rarely unseen in a chronically risk-averse country?

The true nature of federalism is rooted in cooperation and consultation. It thus subordinates the whims of the individual in favour of the collective. That has clearly not happened with the SNC.

The author is a barrister who practices in Lahore. He tweets at @RezaAli1980.