The Chinese way

By Zubeida Mustafa

I BEGIN with a prayer for 2014. May our rulers realise the importance of good education for all and may they acquire the wisdom to know how to go about providing it. Amen.

The concern expressed the other day by the federal minister of education about discrepancies in standards of students from different provinces on account of the lack of uniformity in the curriculum all over the country shows why the above prayer is so timely. It is not quite clear what is upsetting the honourable minister.

If he is worried about diversity in the syllabi, which is inevitable in view of the autonomy the provinces now enjoy, he must guard against our traditional love for conformism. Let a hundred flowers blossom, Mr Minister.

China. Picture courtesy: Wikimedia
China. Picture courtesy: Wikimedia
If Mr Balighur Rahman is really worried about disparities in the academic abilities of students, he would do well to understand how the education system in Pakistan encourages that. If Sindh, with the highest number of ghost schools in the country — said to be 7,000 — cannot produce competent performers, is it surprising? The fact is that standards depend on how the curricula are implemented, the quality of teachers and the management of the school system.

Now that someone in authority is speaking about equity and discrepancy, it is time to remind the powers that be that differences in academic quality produced by the multiple systems that operate in the country are more if not equally dangerous. Their impact is widespread. Mao Zedong’s hundred flowers are blossoming in Pakistan not in the content of education and the ideas it stimulates but in the methods adopted to sustain inequity in society.

Setting aside the madressahs which are untouchable holy cows and operate in a world of their own, we have private schools for the super elite, private schools for the middle class elite, private institutions for the poor, state supported-cadet institutions where only the privileged can go, and of course the huge public-sector system that caters to the children of the lesser gods.

One common feature in the schools for the elites of all varieties is the examination system and the curricula prescribed by the foreign examiners that they follow. According to British Council sources as cited by the press, in 2013 nearly 16,000 Pakistani students appeared for their O- and A- Levels exams, sitting for 180,000 papers for which a sum of Rs720 million was collected. Obviously this sum can only be spent by the rich.

But can they be blamed? A look at our local exam systems would explain the malaise that has crept into the education sector. There is organised cheating in exams, substandard assessment of scripts and question papers that encourage rote learning from keys. With the entire system so exam-centred, it is inevitable that this sector is corrupted. This has fostered the trend towards foreign exams that enjoy credibility although they alienate one class from the majority.

What should be done? Exhorting the local boards to pull up their socks is futile. Banning the foreign exams will irretrievably damage education by levelling down the standards. The Aga Khan Examination Board offers a good alternative, though regrettably it has not been given a fair chance.

Why not try the Chinese model? After all, China-Shanghai topped the rank in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA (Programme for International Students’ Assessment) results announced recently for the 2012 tests. China’s 15-year-olds outperformed youngsters from the Western economies in maths, science and reading, in which the students’ capacities are tested.

Chinese diplomats are reticent to a fault. Hence my sources of information had to be unofficial. Two schoolteachers who have worked in China answered my questions. Both confirmed that all Chinese children (with the exception of foreign passport holders) are required to put in nine years of compulsory schooling (that leads to the Gaokao — the local college entrance test). Thereafter they have the choice of joining foreign-owned coaching centres that have mushroomed offering IGCSE courses and exams. These are strictly regulated by the local authorities.

True, the wealth factor also figures in China as these institutions are expensive and unaffordable for the average Chinese child. But indigenising the first nine years of school education for all at least ensures that the local language and culture is preserved. Besides, those who go on to appear for the IGCSE are not alienated from their compatriots as we find in our society where children are studying in separate streams from the start.

When the children of the elite are required to study in the mainstream system, there is bound to be pressure on the educationists to improve the system. In China the legacy of the equity of yesteryear is still strong. This has a positive impact on the mainstream education system. What else could one ask for?

Source: Dawn

6 thoughts on “The Chinese way”

  1. Respected madam,
    i read your article on education. You have very correctly brought out the precarious condition in which our future is getting education. System was introduced by Gora Sb once he was ruling us and till today we are continuing this where as they have changed thier system. Question is who is going to bring the changes as this has become complete industry and mafia and this requires a serious and concerted effort at govt level to regulate and reform the system. Madam you have mentioned about cadet colleges and as per you only elite class can join these cadet colleges here I would dare to differ you as it is opposite to that most of the students in these colleges are from middle or lower middle yes the procedure is little tough which may sift away many from the test etc.The other important issue is that now private schools have become a mafia and they are quite capable to black mail govt on any issue they like as there is no govt regulation and check from govt side and whenever they feel like they increase feel like. This is right of every parent to get best for his child due to which private sector is lucrative for every body. It is very unfortunate that status of a teacher is very low. in our society a teacher should be getting a hand sum amount of money so that he should concentrate on education. Media can play an effective role for betterment of education system which should be our top top most priority.

  2. Madam , I approve of this system : "—-all Chinese children (with the exception of foreign passport holders) are required to put in nine years of compulsory schooling (that leads to the Gaokao — the local college entrance test). Thereafter they have the choice of joining foreign-owned coaching centres that have mushroomed offering IGCSE courses and exams. These are strictly regulated by the local authorities. – — …. But indigenising the first nine years of school education for all at least ensures that the local language and culture is preserved. Besides, those who go on to appear for the IGCSE are not alienated from their compatriots as we find in our society where children are studying in separate streams from the start. – …"

    You are RIGHT, for the first 8 years ALL must study in a common system. After that , those who have the ability and the money may go to specialized coaching centres.

    About this part : "……There is organised cheating in exams, substandard assessment of scripts and question papers that encourage rote learning from keys. With the entire system so exam-centred, it is inevitable that this sector is corrupted. – .."

    Allowing the kids to CHEAT , is one national bad habit that can surely be put down. It creates total non-achievers !!

    Lets look at * studying from cheap 'keys and guides". If the quality of teaching is good , the teachers can inspire the students to study from their own NOTES from the first day of the academic year. The tendency to grab a *KEY* occurs when the teaching is poor and when the kids start looking at the subjects 1 month before the final examination.

    Last year ( please excuse this personal recital ) , for a couple on months, I was asked to teach Physics to 2 higher Secondary classes . I taught them how to make NOTES and i gave them my own notes as a (possible ) model.

    Then instead of a routine test , we had an OPEN BOOK EXAM. I asked them conceptual questions and they were allowed to consult as many books as the wanted , while answering the paper. the only strict limitation set by me was that they should NOT consult their fellow student, sitting in the class.

    The feed back received from the keener students was that it was a real TEST of their KNOWLEDGE !!!

    The theory behind an OPEN BOOK TEST/ Exam is that you can only be quick and efficient if you have mastered the topics. Otherwise looking at 3 textbooks is a waste of time.

    To avoid giving the pupils any temptation to cheat in a class exam , I always have 2 sets of exam questions. While one kid is writing Test Paper A , the student next to him/her is writing answers from Test Paper B.

    The CBSE Delhi , always has 3 sets of question papers : SET A, SET B , SET C > The seating arrangement in the examination hall is such that the student answering Set A , sits next to the answering Set B or Set C .

    The problem is that setting 3 sets of questions becomes UNFAIR to those who get SET C . Why so ?

    Suppose i am asked to set question Paper in mathematics. So for set A, I ask my favorite questions. Then for Set B , one picks up those remaining non-favorite questions which become Set B. That leaves * what to ask in SET C *. So Set C tends to be always a bit tougher than set A

    What the country wants is QUALITY education . That's the crux of the matter. Many students from the ordinary vernacular medium government schools do much better than their elite-school counterparts in mathematics >>> that's my experience.

    The ability to do mathematics does not follow the income level of ones parents !!!

  3. excellent prayer to begin the year with…& yes, I totally agree…when the children of the elite will be made to attend mainstream schools, they will improve dramatically & quickly…but will this only remain a prayer and a dream?

  4. Dear Madam,
    Since I am now quite deeply involved with education system, I always read your write-ups with great interest.

    You have highlighted some of the major flaws which has further flawed after Education was totally handed over at the mercy of Provinces. What Federation needs to do is to issue a Basic National Education Doctrine to be designed and approved by the National Assembly. It should lay down basic standards, curriculum guidelines, text books, examination system, system to discourage rote learning and emphasize on understanding concepts, teachers standards and qualifications for public and private sector schools and above all a regular system of education audit and inspections of all schools. Based on this doctrine Provinces should manage their private and public sector schools.

    Obviously the above system will only work if the Provincial Education Ministries are serious in their approaches to Education. Dissimilarity has to be done away and doctrine implemented across the board in true spirit if all students are to be afforded basic qualification to contest in national level entrance examinations for admission in the professional colleges and universities and in the Federal Government entrance tests. If we do not adopt such methods children of Provinces weak in education system will always be found absent from the mainstream national activities.

    Of the many aspects that are flawed, I would mention one only that needs an exhaustive studies, debate and arrive at a standard track to proceed forward. And this is the Examination System which is far behind acceptable standard that truly tests the actual calbre of the students. Papers are set by incompetent teachers, are marked by favourites of the Boards to enable them additional financial benefits. The standards of paper setting is also not even and the marking standards differ widely. All this needs to be attended to seriously.

  5. Zubeida's prayer brings to one'e mind the name of Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran popularly known by his initials "MGR". The first film actor to become chief minister of any Indian state, MGR placed greater emphasis on education, although his political career was not without some major flaws. His popularity could be gauged from the fact that his party — Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (later named All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam)–that he formed won every state assembly election as long as he was alive. Benazir Bhutto was one of his great admirers, although her `achievements' in social sector were always a matter of debate. Pakistan would always need an MGR.

  6. Likewise a machinery one should not try to import the system as a whole. A system whether it is of education or of other field should match the prevailing conditions and requirement.

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