If Pakistani parents were free to choose their children’s O’ and A’ Level subjects without any resistance, we’d probably only be producing doctors and bankers. All other professions pale in comparison by social status and financial reward and woe betide anyone who wishes to branch off on their own. You want to study Marine Sciences? Perish the thought. Mummy won’t speak to you for months.
August happens to be the onset of the O’ and A’ Level season when thousands of teenagers have to choose what subjects they will sign up to study for two years before sitting the expensive Cambridge International Exams. It is a commitment you can’t back out of and will most likely dictate what you do at university. You can’t swipe right on this one…
Given the pressure to make the right choice, inter-generational battles have erupted in homes, ratcheting up teen anxiety. Some young people want to have the freedom to choose what they want to study because they know that if they aren’t interested in a subject they will never do well in it.
Parents feel students are too inexperienced to know what is good for them. The reality is that both of them, and their schools, are operating with a lack of jobs data. What degrees will be in demand in five years? Will it be IT? Or should you just opt for Medicine because it is a safe global choice? What should creatives do given that poor perceptions of careers in the arts in Pakistan?
The O’ and A’ Level exams are administered by the UK-based CIE but the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan has made it compulsory for every O’ Level student to take at least eight and at the most 14 subjects.
Five subjects are fixed: Islamiyat, Pakistan Studies, English, Urdu and Math (unless you are not a Muslim). You can take anything else for the remaining three subjects. At most schools, though, the options are limited to pre-medical, pre-engineering and business streams.
Pre-medical: Chemistry, Biology and Physics
Pre-engineering: Chemistry, Computer and Physics
Business: Accounts, Economics and Business Studies
And so, your parents and school limit your choices. Depending on the owner’s philosophical leanings or its business model, the school will either make some subjects mandatory (everyone must take English Literature to become well-rounded citizens) or just offer fixed baskets of choices (you can only take Science, sorry).
According to Ahad, a class nine student at Karachi Grammar School, English Literature is compulsory for them. “If a student still wants to take up more subjects, the choices are restricted to Add Math, Sociology, and World History,” he said.
“Our school had, from day one, made it compulsory for us to give Add Math as an extra subject,” says Imran who did his O’ Levels from Jaffar Public School in Karachi. “I was already struggling with Math and this subject didn’t help me at all.” He scored less than 60%, which according to him, was both a waste of time and money.
Of course, the CIE offers more than 40 courses such as Art and Design, Agriculture, Environmental Management, Travel and Tourism, World History and Bengali, Fashion and Textile. But schools don’t offer these subjects (you can take them as private candidates). We lack specialist teachers to teach them. And there are too few students willing to sign up for them for schools to be able to cover their costs.
The result is that far too many teenagers are being pushed into fixed age-old career streams at an age when they can’t predict what they want to eat for breakfast tomorrow let alone what they want for a career.
Regret and confusion can emerge later. Ali Imran struggled to select his A’ Level subjects in 2016. After multiple sessions with his career counsellor and all-nighters in front of the computer screen, he finally picked Business, a decision that he thought at the time “may open future avenues for him”.
More than two years since his A’ Levels, Imran, now a 22-year-old Media Sciences student at Iqra University in Karachi, occasionally wonders whether he made the right move. “It might have been easier had I opted for Social Sciences,” he said, “because it would have introduced me to diverse cultures and given me the base I needed for my field of study today.” If he had the chance to do it all over again, he would probably still choose business but would also take more Social Sciences and do an internship or two. He feels it is extremely hard for O’ Level students to make such important career decisions at an age when they are “just beginning to understand themselves.”
Educator Ahmed Saya argues that optional subjects are a playground where students can explore their innate abilities. The O’ Levels are the first step. “If students are stopped here, how will they realise what they actually want to do?” he says.
But not all parents have the patience or pocket to let their children “find” themselves. School fees are steep. The average monthly fee of an O’ Level school ranges from Rs17,000 to Rs22,000, adding up to a yearly expenditure of over Rs200,000. These are not the only expenses. Monna, the parent of an O’ Level student, told SAMAA Digital that she spends an additional Rs25,000 on tuitions, notes and fuel.
So, education is an investment that needs to yield a good return. It isn’t a vehicle for personal discovery. The investment is pegged to ability to score as this is linked to university admissions. “In most circumstances, students deliberately opt for subjects that are ‘scoring’ i.e. Business Studies and Sociology,” explained Irum Ali, who worked as a counsellor at KGS. The Humanities subjects are seen as subjective—scoring at the mercy of the whims of the examiner. Math and Physics are different: everyone has to get the same answer.
For Pakistani society the focus has gone from education being knowledge-based to grade-based, says Saya. “Most parents are happy as long as their children are getting As or A*s,” he adds. “Even if a school is offering diverse subjects, parents are hesitant to let their children choose them.”
Parents argue that their teenage children don’t know enough about the world to make such important choices. This may be true to some extent, but the answer may not be dictation. Good schools have invested in college or career counsellors, who can be a great help.
Sadly, many parents and students are in the dark about their options. SAHE and Alif Ailaan did a study in 2016 on jobs in the Pakistan market by tracking the education trajectory of successful, high-earning professionals. “Our survey found that two of the biggest determinants of salary levels in the country are exposure to the English language, and whether one took O and/or A levels exams or not,” it said. By this token, just sitting the CIE exams is a success factor.
Students are not always given the confidence to make their own decisions and this in itself stunts their intellectual growth. There is nothing worse than being stuck with a subject that you are failing at because confidence takes a hit.
The best approach may be for students to be able to sit through a few classes of any subject to gauge if they can manage. Parents should realise that the world economy is changing and traditional subject choices are not necessarily better than new ones. A simple way to check is to scour the Sunday pages for job postings.
The good news is that there are students who are taking their time to decide as well. Alishah just completed his O’ Levels and will be applying for A’ Levels. Many of his friends have chosen Business, but he said this will not affect his decision. He is fascinated with museums and is leaning towards World History. “I want to pick a path that interests me, one that opens my mind,” he said. “We’re only in college once, I don’t want to regret this time by taking something I don’t enjoy.”