SDGs and Pakistan

Quality Education for All: The Aga Khan Schools and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Part 4


In the series of blogs, I explored the challenges of Pakistan concerning development and education, and the prospects and limits of the SDGs in understanding and addressing the challenges. The previous blog (part 3) highlighted some key priorities of the Aga Khan schools in Chitral, Pakistan, dealing with SDG 4 (quality education), including the targets for access, early childhood development, gender equality, and quality education. In this blog, I discuss three enrichment programs (PrISM Curriculum, Middle School Program, and International School Award) being implemented in the Aga Khan schools that bring global perspectives to education in Chitral’s local context. An enrichment program refers to school activities to extend student learning beyond their main course of study. I argue that these programs contribute to improving the quality of education at the Aga Khan schools by bringing awareness and understanding of the various SDGs, including the goals for health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5), and environment (SDG 13, 14, and 15). In doing so, I articulate how these programs contribute to the SDG agenda, which guides this series of blogs.

Education in Aga Khan schools: enrichment programs and the SDGs

­The Aga Khan schools in Pakistan follow the National Curriculum of Pakistan. In Pakistan, textbooks are the most commonly used resources for curriculum implementation. Curricular programs taught in both public and private schools in Pakistan promote rote-learning, with little emphasis on promoting critical thinking skills among students. The assessment system drives the teaching and learning practices; teachers teach students to pass the examinations. There are 32 education boards in Pakistan administering tests at the secondary (IX-X) and higher secondary (XI-XII) levels. Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB) is the only private sector Pakistan-based board established in 2003 to enhance education standards. As compared to the other boards, the AKU-EB examinations focus on assessing conceptual understanding and critical thinking. Critical thinking is an ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking and think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connection between ideas.

Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) plans to affiliate its schools with the AKU-EB to enhance their achievement standards. So far, 6 schools in Chitral (out of the 21 high and higher secondary schools) have successfully switched to AKU-EB, 15 are with the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education Peshawar for examinations.

To supplement the curriculum, the Aga Khan schools implement different enrichment programs. Below, I look at three enrichment programs that bring global dimensions to education and enrich student learning. These programs include the Personal, Intellectual, Social, and Moral (PrISM) curriculum, Middle School Program (MSP), and International School Award (ISA).

PrISM Curriculum

AKESP developed an enrichment program titled PrISM curriculum for the holistic development of children. Under this program, different activities are integrated with subject areas to develop various aspects of personal, intellectual, social, and moral development. The program also incorporates the Aga Khan Academies Curricular Strands, including ethics, pluralism, respect for cultures, particularly the contributions of Muslim civilisations, the importance of governance and civil society, and an understanding of economics for development. These strands are core components of the Aga Khan Academies being established in the developing world, in African and Asian countries. The academies are part of AKES, intending to develop future leaders who can build their respective societies. These five areas are integrated into the PrISM curriculum as cross-cutting themes in personal, intellectual, social, and moral developmental areas (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Integration of AK strands in PrISM (AKESP 2016, p. 7)

The program is implemented in the classrooms integrating with the relevant themes of core subject areas from Year III-XII.  Promoting pluralism is a crucial feature of the PrISM curriculum. His Highness, the Aga Khan, has articulated the concept in the following manner:

Developing support for pluralism does not occur naturally in human society. It is a concept which must be nurtured every day, in every forum – in large and small government and private institutions; in civil society organisations working in the arts, culture, and public affairs, in the media; in the law, and in justice – particularly in terms of social justice, such as health, social safety nets and education; and in economic justice, such as employment opportunities and access to financial services. (Aga Khan, 2010)

Due to this emphasis, the schools try to develop pluralistic values among the students. One of the school heads relates that the PrISM activities provide ample opportunities for students to reflect on several important values and skills. She notes:

The PrISM helps students develop a positive disposition towards learning and prepares them for the future. The activities help students visualise how the future will be for them as global citizens. Students come from different backgrounds and are diverse in their gender, ability, culture, and religious values. For instance, students involved with the PrISM program respect diversity, culture, faiths, traditions, and individual personalities. (School head 1, personal communication).

This indicates that the Aga Khan schools make conscious efforts to promote pluralistic values among the students.

Students of Aga Khan school working in groups (source)

One of the education leaders who participated in my research project equates PrISM with the concept of training and upbringing, what he calls tarbiat in the Urdu language. He works in a field office of AKEP and is responsible for supporting 20 Aga Khan schools in Chitral. He states: 

PrISM focuses on one of the crucial aspects of education, what we call tarbiat. For me, education without proper tarbiat is worthless. We concentrate on  student holistic development through this curriculum – ethical, social, intellectual, and moral. (Education leader 1, personal communication)

School leaders interviewed in my study felt that the program has a significant impact on students. One notes:

I receive positive reflections from the students. They find the program relevant and useful. Students actively participate in the activities. For instance, a group of students drew a family and had a powerful presentation of the local cultural values. In reflection, they wrote about their life, what type of environment they grew up in, their background, and how local communities live. Teachers sit with them to discuss the reflections. (School head 3, personal communication)

From above, it is evident that teachers and students try to contextualise the learning process by bringing in activities/examples from their daily lives.

The overview of the activities of the PrISM curriculum shows that they contribute to “Education for sustainable development and global citizenship” (target 4.7) that focuses on acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and nonviolence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development. As an education leader working at the AKESP office states:

PrISM covers themes like sustainable development, human rights, gender equity, global citizenship, cultural diversity, and pluralism -universal ideas to promote peaceful citizenship nationally and globally. Pluralism is among the significant components of AKDN development philosophy. Our schools embrace diversity in its true spirit – not only respecting differences but also valuing them. (Educational leader 2, personal communication)

PrISM’s activities address ‘education for sustainable development,’ a transformative target of the SDG 4. The activities enable the learners to make informed decisions and take actions for sustainable development.  

Middle School Program (MSP)

AKESP collaborates with the AKU-EB to implement the Middle School Program (MSP) in the Aga Khan schools. The MSP is a project-based experiential form of learning that emphasises interdisciplinary learning by applying knowledge in real-world situations. The MSP is rolled out in Years VI to VIII  integrating across key curricular areas such as English, Science, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Urdu to develop 21st-century skills. The term 21st-century skills refer to a broad set of knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits that are considered critically important for student success in education and beyond school life in careers and workplaces. It aims to bridge gaps in the existing curriculum, which is predominantly knowledge driven. Through MSP, schools aim to develop 21st-century skills among students to prepare them for success in the Year IX-X and Year XI-XII examinations and build life skills.

MSP mainly focuses on developing competencies such as Creativity and Innovation, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Interpersonal Skills and Teamwork. These skills can be categorised into three categories: learning skills, literacy skills, and life skills, as shown in Figure 2 below:

Figure 2: Three categories of 21st-century skills: source

The MSP serves as a bridging program to prepare the Aga Khan school students for the AKU-EB examinations. As indicated in the earlier section, the assessment practices of AKU-EB are more conceptual and involves critical thinking. AKU-EB exemplifies an indigenous educational movement, emphasising concept-based learning and a conscious rejection of rote memorisation that plagues many Pakistani schools today.

The Aga Khan schools implementing MSP speak high of the program. A school head of an Aga Khan school comments on the program:

MSP is project-based learning. Students are engaged in practical work. They are involved in projects and carry out creative work. The activities focus on 21st-century skills like communication, collaboration, leadership skills, etc. (School head 1, personal communication)

The comments indicate that the program activities allow students to go beyond textbooks and learn essential skills. Another school head describes how the MSP prepares schools to improve quality. He highlights the challenges related to enhancing the quality and meeting the AKU-EB standards. He comments:

Moving to AKU-EB will have a significant impact on the quality of education in our schools. It is a considerable shift for us. We must ensure a provision of good quality teachers, regular professional support, supervision. Also, it requires a close working of teachers, parents, students, and home to prepare the students to meet the required standards. But we cannot force schools to switch to AKU-EB haphazardly without allowing them to improve in quality. We recently experienced a disastrous situation, where we affiliated some of our schools with AKU-EB, and the students badly failed to produce good results. MSP has helped start the process in an early stage (School head 2, personal communication).

In short, the MSP program is expected to develop 21st-century skills among students and enable Aga Khan schools to meet the AKU-EB’s assessment standard. The school head mentioned several problems with the transition, the key being “good quality teachers.” MSP contributes to SDG 4, among others, by developing 21st-century skills among the students.

International School Award (ISA)

The AKESP collaborates with the British Council (BC) Pakistan to implement the International School Award (ISA) in Aga Khan Schools. The BC is an international organisation of the United Kingdom working for promoting cultural and educational opportunities across 100 countries and has been working in Pakistan since 1948. The award program helps schools enrich learning and teaching by introducing international education into the curriculum and embedding it with the school culture. The activities include projects focusing on the SDGs and collaboration with other schools nationally and internationally.

International School Award logo source

The Aga Khan schoolteachers receive training through BC Pakistan on integrating the SDGs with the curriculum and instruction. The activities mainly address the goals for health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5), and environment (SDG 13, 14, and 15).  The components of the ISA are shown in Table 1:

Embedding International Work
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)Young people and educators build an awareness of SDGs, which countries adopted on 25 Sep 2015, in a bid to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.
• Schools to run activities that introduce the SDGs to young people
• Young people share information about their local context with partner schools
• Educators identify a need to introduce an SDG in teaching and learning
­­Enriching EducationEducators build awareness of practices in other schools
• Educators identify priority areas of practice and introduce an SDG which is linked with it
• Educators share information about education practices with their partner schools
International School EthosSchools embed their international work into their environment
• Schools review their international activity and assess the development of young people and educators
• Schools commit more resources to their international coordinator and international policy
• Schools carry out more activities with their partner schools
Table 1: Components of the ISA (source)

The school heads who took part in my research project repeatedly mentioned ISA as an essential project. One school head comments:

Our students are doing different activities on the SDGs. There are various topics/themes related to various SDGs. For example, suppose a theme is an environment or plantation; it is integrated into the teaching of science.. Students then share their work with other students in the partner schools nationally and internationally. For instance, one class was learning the Sindhi language from a school in Sindh province on Skype. In another exercise, students worked on the theme of human rights; they arranged a wall in the school and displayed their ideas about their role in creating awareness about human rights. Also, they showed a variety of pictures and quotes from/ about the people who contributed to human rights. A large number of parents participated in the event. (School head 1, personal communication)

It is evident from above that through participating in ISA, the Aga Khan schools develop partnerships with other schools and learn from each other’s experiences. Another school head argues that the program’s activities enhance student learning experiences about the global SDGs framework. Responding to a question about the relevance of the SDGs to the school context, he  comments:

All the 17 goals are relevant. Many of the themes stressed in the SDGs need to be pursued in schools. AKESP’s priorities and the SDGs, specifically SDG 4 targets, are similar…We all need to follow the SDGs and deliver to the plan as much as possible (School head 2, personal communication).

It is evident that the schools take ownership of the program considering the activities relevant to enhancing student learning.

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Aga Khan schools win International School Awards: source


In this blog, I examined how the ISA, MSP, and PrISM programs contribute to student learning, bringing international dimensions to their knowledge in the local context. Through these programs, the Aga Khan schools create awareness and sensitivity among students about global issues that constitute the SDGs agenda.  Howeverer, the SDGs are not the only framework that guides the development agenda withing AKDN. AKDN’s own development approach is a much broader that that thoroughly covers various aspects of SDGs, particularly SDG 4.

While the SDGs offer useful insights and provide a framework for action in the postcolonial context of Pakistan. As such, the agenda seems to be limited in providing a genuinely transformative plan. As a result, since the inception of the SDGs, Pakistan’s performance has consistently deteriorated over time. Pakistan ranked 115th in 2016, 117th in 2017, 122nd in 2018, 130th in 2019. According to the latest Human Development Report 2020, Pakistan ranks 154th out of the 189 countries. In education, UNESCO’s projections suggest that in Pakistan one in four children will not be completing primary school by the deadline of 2030.

In the next series of blogs, I will be looking at educational leadership and the agenda for quality and inclusive education at the Aga Khan schools in Chitral, Pakistan.


By Mir Zaman Shah

PhD scholar School of Education, RMIT University Melbourne Australia

One reply on “Quality Education for All: The Aga Khan Schools and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”

I have been part of two of the programmes mentioned in your blog i.e. PrISM and MSP. I work as a trainer of PrISM and contact person of MSP with AKUEB. You have elaborated both the programmes with their true spirit. PrISM and MSP have brought about a positive change in schools’ environment. If they are carried out with their true spirit, there would be a transformation in schools’ culture. As one of the school heads has responded to your queries, going to AKUEB immediately and without any preparation may always be a pre-mature decision. They students may not excel in the examination unless and until they are prepared for it. As it is mentioned in your blog, MSP is the right programme to go with, as a prerequisite to get to the goals. we have just begun, in a very short span of time, we have embraced noticeable achievements. time would come when all AK schools would be a model for others in the years ahead. our premier Higher Secondary schools have already got the public attention.

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