By Bushra Rahim, PhD student.
“If we start speaking other languages and forget our own, we would not be we, we would be clones of an alien people; we would be aliens to ourselves” (UNESCO, The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education, 1958)
The Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) announced that the medium of instruction would change from Urdu to English in public schools from April this year. The arguments put forward for the change were to make public schools the same as private schools in the province and to provide a uniform education to all children. But did the government of KP take into consideration the following questions? 1) What is the preferred medium of instruction of parents, students and teachers? 2) What is the impact of changing the medium of instruction on educational outcomes? 3) What does international research on the subject tell us?
In order to understand people’s perceptions about their preferred medium of instruction we need to know first about the most commonly spoken languages in KP. According to the 1998 Census, 74% population of KP speaks Pashto, 3.9% speak Siraiki, 1% Punjabi, 0.8% Urdu and 20.4% speak other languages. A more recent household survey by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2012 shows that the four commonly used languages in the province are: Pashto (77%), Hindko (11%), Siraiki (3.5%), Chitrali (3%) and others (5.5%). Changing the medium of instruction to English, therefore, means that most children are learning in a language that is not their own.
Parents, teachers and students are opposed to the change.
Research conducted on the subject in Pakistan and especially KP shows that parents want their children to be educated in mother tongue. For instance, one of the recommendations of a 2012 British Council Report was that: “There is evidence that many people are strongly attached to their languages and wish to educate their children through those languages” (p. 8).
Another study by the ASER, 2012, based on a survey involving 13,702 households in 23 districts of KP, showed that 45% households in KP preferred Pashto as medium of instruction in schools whereas 39% percent preferred Urdu. These surveys indicate that the decision of the KP government to change the medium of instruction to English is not aligned with the demands of the parents and others in KP.
Even primary school students and teachers are opposed to the change. Last year I visited a girls’ primary school in Peshawar had two female teachers teaching six grade levels (from katchi/pre-primary to grade 5). The only language the teachers could speak was Urdu, even though the students could not understand Urdu as their mother tongue was Pashto. The students of grades 4 and 5, who were sharing the same classroom, complained that due to the language barrier their precious learning time was being wasted. If the students have problems in understanding a teacher speaking Urdu, one can imagine how difficult it would be for students to understand their teachers when they are speaking English, especially given that most primary school teachers are unable to speak a single sentence in English.
The second question, which is usually ignored in policy discourse, is about the impact of the medium of instruction on children’s educational outcomes. My research on the subject due out early next year revealed that teaching in Urdu reduced the completion rate by 0.7 percent during the 2007-2012 academic cycle in comparison with the previous academic cycle. The shift in the policies of the successive governments from Urdu to mother tongue (Pashto) and from mother tongue to Urdu during the two academic cycles is one of the factors responsible for declining educational outcomes. The impact of these political shifts is also manifested in the annual Education Census statistics: the ratio of Urdu versus Pashto medium schools was 52:46 in 2005 which increased to nearly 60:40 after 2007.
Being taught in your mother tongue increases your cognitive skills in the future
Researchers argue that the best medium for early education is the language a child already knows and to which a child is naturally exposed in his/her social environment. Their argument is that once a child develops conceptual knowledge in a mother tongue it helps them to then understand and gain proficiency in another language. Studies also indicate that teaching in mother tongue improves access (attendance and attainment) to education. An analysis of data from 26 developing countries and 153 linguistic groups revealed that children who had access to mother-tongue instruction were significantly more likely to be enrolled and attending school, while a lack of education in mother language was a significant reason for dropping out of children. Furthermore, studies indicate children especially girls who learn in native languages stay in school longer, do better on tests, and repeat grades less often than students who do not get instruction in familiar language.
Changing the medium of instruction will not make private and public schools the same
Finally, the argument that changing the medium of instruction will make public schools equal to private schools in the province is also shaky. Many factors contribute to improving educational outcomes such as school resources; instructional time; curricular focus; teacher motivation, training and accountability; parental education and socioeconomic status. Simply changing the medium of instruction will achieve little unless these other influential factors are addressed as well.
The Government of KP needs to reconsider its decision and take steps to implement the decision of the previous government to embed mother tongue as medium of instruction in primary schools across the province. Parents, teachers, researchers and the evidence in educational outcomes cannot be ignored.