Education in Pakistan: A historical socio-cultural perspective >> Part 4: British Influences

Today’s post is the fourth in a six-part series reviewing the historical and current context of education in Pakistan. These posts include:

  1. Introduction
  2. Ancient India – Hindu and Buddhist Influences
  3. Islamic Influences
  4. British Influences (this post)
  5. A Separate Nation
  6. Education in Present-Day Pakistan

Some of the information in this series is drawn from the book, “Going to School in South Asia” edited by Amita Gupta, interwoven with my own understandings of context, values, and beliefs in Pakistan.

Primary school children in Sindh, Pakistan. Copyright Sadaf Shallwani. All rights reserved.

Primary school children in Sindh, Pakistan. Copyright Sadaf Shallwani. All rights reserved.

British Influences

In the 1600s, Western (mostly European and Christian) influences increased in the Indian region, with the presence of French, Portuguese, Dutch, and British missionaries and traders in India. In the late 1700s, the British, as the East India Company, began gaining control over India. In 1857, after an uprising by Indian locals to take back governance, the British Crown established direct administrative control of India (including present-day Pakistan).

Imperialist Approach

The British aimed to colonize not just the land but also the minds of the Indian population. Towards this end, the British administration took on the task of converting the ‘traditional’, ‘Oriental’ system of education into a ‘modern’, ‘Western’ one (Gupta, 2007). This included changing curricula and teacher training, as well as shaping the values and ideals held by the people in India, particularly the elite. English was adopted as the language of instruction in all schools supported by the British administration, after a debate which deemed ‘Oriental’ education to be deficient in comparison to British/English education. This imperialist discourse and decision-making was explicit and deliberate. In one well-known statement, Lord Macaulay argued against education based in Indian traditions, languages, and literature, and for education based in English traditions, language, and literature. He said, “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” (Macaulay’s Minutes on Education, 2nd February, 1835, as cited in Ali & Farah, 2007).

Western Worldviews and Influences

In contrast to Eastern worldviews, Western worldviews tended to separate morality and philosophy from religion (Gupta, 2007). The British also began to remove Indian philosophy from its place of value within societal discourse and within the education system (Gupta, 2007). The objective of the British education system was to impress European attitudes upon Indian children, and prepare them to work at lower and middle level positions in the colonial administration (Gupta, 2007).

The declaration of English as the medium of instruction in all schools introduced a new era of education in the Indian subcontinent (Gupta, 2007). British administrators also designed and implemented standardized curricula, textbooks, and examinations (Gupta, 2007). This essentially removed teachers’ power to determine what and how to teach depending on the context and the culture, as well as on individual children. This contributed to the gradual decline in value accorded to teachers both in societal status and in compensation.

Employment in public services and private firms depended upon passing school examinations, as well as demonstrating familiarity with English language and literature, and British culture and etiquette (Gupta, 2007). Even today, over six decades after the British withdrew from the region, much of this system remains in present-day India and Pakistan, in terms of the textbook and examination driven nature of education, the ongoing struggle between English and local languages as mediums of instruction in schooling, and the greater status and opportunity available to those who are fluent in English and familiar with Western ways.

Stratification through Education

The education system established by the British administration, in its aim to create a class of people able to serve in government positions, did not reach the masses and for the most part, ignored primary and tertiary levels of education (Ali & Farah, 2007). Locals were encouraged to establish and maintain their own schools, and these schools would receive government aid provided they met certain conditions such as English language and curriculum standards (Ali & Farah, 2007).

Different types of schools served different purposes under British rule (Ali & Farah, 2007). Elite schools – staffed by British teachers and headmasters – served British students and children from elite Indian families, and prepared them for the British certification examinations and higher education in England. Schools in urban areas for the general public – staffed by local low-paid teachers – offered lower quality education, intending to prepare students for jobs such as clerks in public service institutions. This British education system established and reinforced class divisions between the English-speaking elites and the local-language speaking masses.

This distinction remains in present-day Pakistan, where private elite schools teach in English and use the British curriculum, while government schools for the masses generally teach in Urdu or local languages and use the national Pakistani curriculum. Government schools are severely under-resourced and generally low in the quality of educaton offered, particularly in rural areas. Moreover, one of the defining factors for success is still English language proficiency in present-day Pakistan, where most government, legal, corporate, and civil society written communication occurs in English.

Devalued Role of Teachers

As mentioned earlier, the British administration’s management of education adversely impacted the role and status of teachers – particularly at public schools (Gupta, 2007). In earlier educational systems, teachers were responsible for the holistic education of their students. Their role involved setting and teaching a curriculum deemed appropriate for the society and for the children. In the British system however, emphasis was placed on standardized textbooks and examinations focusing on secular subjects. This limited the autonomy and influence of the teacher in deciding what and how to teach, and narrowed the vastness of her/his role in educating their students. Moreover, public school teachers were paid low salaries and held low statuses in the government education system hierarchy.

All of this contributed a devaluing of the role of the teacher – the effects of which remain in present-day India and Pakistan. Public school teachers continue to be paid minimally, are at the lowest ranks of government hierarchy, and are expected to work in low-resource settings to get their students through the government-provided textbooks and examinations. Despite this, parents continue to have high expectations of the role of the teacher and the school in their children’s religious, secular, and societal formation.

Next: In 1947, the British withdrew from India, after partitioning it into two nations: India and Pakistan. See my next post for a discussion of Partition and its effects on present-day Pakistan.

Please share your thoughts and comments below.

Sadaf Shallwani


Gupta, A. (2007). Schooling in India. In A. Gupta (Ed.), Going to School in South Asia (pp. 66-111), Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Ali, S. & Farah, I. (2007). Schooling in Pakistan. In A. Gupta (Ed.), Going to School in South Asia (pp. 143-166), Westport, CT: Greenwood.

See related posts: 

2 thoughts on “Education in Pakistan: A historical socio-cultural perspective >> Part 4: British Influences

  1. Good to see these types of researches regarding the early childhood development. Really it matters because every successful person was a child and only because of the education he becomes successful. Great Job Done

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s