Is Poverty the Real Cause of Poor Performance in Education?

“According to the National Nutrition Survey 2011 conducted by the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), around 58 per cent of the population is food insecure”, the Minister for National Food Security and Research, Mir Israrullah Zehri, told the upper house of parliament. And BISP Chairperson Farzana Raja told the National Assembly Standing Committee on Finance that 80 million people out of a total population of 175.3 million live below the poverty line. These are staggering figures – 45.7 per cent Pakistanis are struggling to make both ends meets.These statements show the gravity of the situation.

The state of economy has a direct bearing on the state of education in a society. Lack of resources denies the opportunities for education and social development. More than fifty one per cent children in the school going age are deprived of access to school as they are forced to work for a living for their families and themselves. Pakistan is among those few countries where child labor is on the rise. Out of the estimated 12 million children between the ages of 9-12 years in the 6 million BISP beneficiary families, about 8.5 million are out of school.

Not denying the adverse effects poverty can and does have on denying educational opportunities to children it is critical to understand other major factors responsible for the poor performance of the education sector. Poverty breeds illiteracy but irrelevant and irresponsible education can also cause poverty.

The performance of the province of Punjab appears to be much better in terms of the population falling below poverty line; 19 per cent of its population lives below poverty line while the figures for the provinces of Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are much worse – 52, 33 and 32 per cent respectively. But if we look at the education statistics of Punjab, the picture presented is not very bright. Almost half – 48 per cent – of the population of Punjab could not attend school or did not survive to grade five level and complete primary education. Net enrollment rate at matriculation level is 13 per cent that is just one percent point higher than the national one. It means that 87 percent children were either not enrolled or dropped out before completing the secondary school education both in public and private sector. The figures are mind boggling.

The state of school education shows a clear disinterest of parents in sending their children to school which has resulted in legislation introducing penalties in the form of fine and imprisonment if the parents fail to enroll their children in a school. Way back in 1994, the Government of Punjab introduced the Punjab compulsory primary education act with little impact. Recently, National Assembly has passed right to free and compulsory education bill for Islamabad Capital Territory without learning a lesson from the Punjab experience. According to the bill, a father who does not send his child to school will be liable to a fine that can be up to Rs 50,000 or imprisonment that can be up to 3 months. Experience shows that punitive measures without moral authority can lead nowhere.

The moral authority can only be derived from the provision of education that is relevant and need based, that creates thinking and analytic minds, that produces responsible citizens, that equips the learners with certain skills and that guarantees earning a decent living after finishing school.

The present school curriculum does’t take into account the vast majority of the population whose circumstances don’t allow them to go beyond school education and need to enter into the job market soon after. They can’t afford the luxury of going to the university level. What promise does a matriculation certificate hold for a school graduate? Nothing. First of all, regardless of the contents the standard of education has deteriorated so badly that the certificate doesn’t equip the holder with even the basic language skills. What else is in the curriculum? There is nothing in there that is required in the job market. With this state of affairs, expecting a positive response from the parents and the children is just a wild dream. We need to seriously look into the matter how far school education is counter productive and contributing in breeding poverty.

There is a lot of talk on the huge number of out of school children and the need to ensure universal school education. There can’t be a debate on that but the problem that is even more urgent is to understand the real factors behind throwing around 88 per cent of the enrolled children back to the clutches of poverty. Responding to and plugging the gaps, one can not only address effectively to the gigantic problem of retention but also ensure a living for the school graduates.

We need to go to the people at the grassroots and to learn from them what their needs are. We have to free ourselves from the clutches of stereotype in planning, programming, implementation and evaluation of education.

Poverty alleviation is the responsibility of the state; the long term strategy that leads to sustainable development is ensuring the kind of education that has the content and methodology that serves the people. If education offers a solution to the problems, responds positively to the needs of the people and ensures a bright future, they would flock to schools no matter how resource poor they are.

21 Responses to Is Poverty the Real Cause of Poor Performance in Education?

  1. imran says:

    The aspirations, attitudes and behavior of both parents and children play an important part in explaining the gap between richer and poorer children’s educational attainment.

  2. Arif Khalil says:

    I 100% agree with the solution that we must approach the poor to know what their needs are and to free ourselves from routine planning, programming, implementation and evaluation of education.

    I also see a solution if our politicians make Education a priority. Those who can educate their children abroad and guarantee them sober future need to understand or should leave our country. If they are made accountable there can be huge number of solutions coming out. Believe me 🙂

  3. Zafreen Jaffery says:

    The numbers are alarming to say the least. You tackle a very huge problem which impacts everyone that belongs to Pakistan. I wonder though if media can play a role here in at least educating people more about how alarming the situation is in terms of actually sharing the statistics. I have some reservations about throwing the matriculation degree completely out of the solution. Vocational education is something that comes to mind as well. I have also thought about if those who have had the privilege of getting an education would consider internships, or a year of service at a high poverty, high needs school. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important issue.

    • Nasira Habib says:

      Thank you, Zafreen, for sharing your thoughts. Let me clarify I am not suggesting to throw out the matriculation program. My point is to make it responsive to the needs and problems of the children and their families.

  4. Farrah Naz says:

    No doubt that the education issues are serious but this is also a fact that it is “relevance of education” for poor is a bigger factor that keep children out of school rather than only poverty. if parents see any value in educating their children, only then they will invest in them. otherwise for survival they need to earn now. So the cost for educating their children is not the expense on their education (which may not be relevant for them later on) but also what they will lose in terms of daily earning.

  5. Zafar Iqbal says:

    What to say, just disappointment. Corrupt and incompetent government machinery destroyed every thing. Still we can go up if feel the responsibility and show will.

  6. S. Q. Mehdi says:

    the situation is really grave and only education ministry can not tackle it, As far as Media ‘s role is concern have, you seen the criticism on the Geo’s campaign “Perhnay likhny k siwa Pakistan ka matlab kiya” it is considered as anti Pakistan one. The other big problem is population, a poor man does not have means to feed his children but have a dozen. Average family in Pakistan is still of 2+5. Population welfare department and Family planning association of Pakistan both are the most inefficient outfit.

  7. Shafat Mulkana says:

    Lets get some facts right….

    National Nutrition Survey 2011 was NOT done by BISP.

    Survival to grade 5 is NOT 48 percent or even close to it… For Punjab it is less than 10 percent.

    13 percent Matriculation NER does NOT mean 87 drop out before completing secondary level. A more acceptable interpretation would be: “87% children of matriculation age are not in matric level (either dropped out in earlier grades, or never enrolled at all)”.

    • Nasira Habib says:

      Thanks, Shafat Mulkana, for your comments.

      Please see the reference at for “According to the National Nutrition Survey 2011 conducted by the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), around 58 per cent of the population is food insecure”, the Minister for National Food Security and Research, Mir Israrullah Zehri, told the upper house of parliament. Other sources are:, and,-Senate-told. The point is not that WHO did the survey, who was commissioned and who financed it. Such alarming figures coming from a minister shows the gravity of the situation.

      As regards the matriculation NER, I would rephrase to dispel the confusion. Thanks.

    • Fawad Usman Ali says:

      Insisting on providing Education without Objective has been the Objective of successive governments. Education is ultimately the means for breking teh chains, not wearing new ones. What is being offered in public schools is not education, but a mockery, leading to further mental and physical slavery of the people. And justifiably, the people have rejected it. They do not see any light at the end of this dark tunnel of so called eduction which in its present state cannot even produce efficient clerks. The fact that eduction is irrelevant both in terms of learning and access to career oppotunities cannot be coincidental. It is a deliberate move by the the so called policy planners and implementers to keep the people enslaved and thus deprived of their rights. Our system cannot tolerate differnce of opinion, let alone voices of disssent and real education unfortunately leads to that ultimtely. The policies are made by foreign consultants and reviewed in five star environments without the engagement of teachers, educators and the people. How can such policies and plans provide quality, relevant and meaningful education? The focus has been on universalization thru meaningless programs such as UPE rather than on relevance and quality.When we are able to provide relevant and quality education, people will respond regardless of their social status or level of poverty, legislations not withstanding.

      And by teh way, the poverty figurs of Madame Raja, UNICEF, The World Bank and UNDP are quite msileading. They fail to take into account the thriving informal economy and the purchaing power of the people. No wonder, we keep maintaining our lifestyle, our consumption of fuel and power, and imported stuff etc despite the price hike. Wher would teh country be without black economy? Except for Balochistan and pockets in the rest of teh country, poverty is not an issue — the non sense offered in public schools by unmotivated tecahers and education managers is the issue

      • Nasira Habib says:

        Fawad, I couldn’t agree more. I hope more powerful voices join in. You know, I have been pushing relevant, need based and quality education for the last twenty years and have faced so much of strategic resistance despite the fact no body could question the positive outcomes and the impact of our work. I would keep pushing the agenda of pro people education. Let’s join hands.

  8. Muhammad Shahab Siddiqui says:

    Dear All,

    Nasira highlighted a well known “Education Problem”. The solution what she pointed out is “Involve Parents” and “Identify their child need, what to study?”. Now I am trying to add more topics to frame the solution against each problem.

    1. Educational Awareness – People / Government / NGOs are there to promote the need of educating a child. Why a welloff family child go for educating till graduation/masters/PhD? To earn for living, to face the world, etc.

    2. Educational Quality and Cost – So why not we say to Beacon House Student to pay 50% or 25% cost of some poor student to be studied in Beacon House itself. Why we throw poor to “Govt. Schools”?

    3. Educational Channel – We have TV Channels for Sports, Entertainment, News, Health, Religion, Local Language, Fashion, etc. But no dedicated educational channel. Separate Channels for Primary, Secondary, Intermediate, and Graduation is the need of the hour. Finances can be met through Asian Development Bank, UNICEF, etc.

    4. Education as Priority – We need food to eat, water to drink, utilities for services, etc. Why not education for educating oneself?

  9. Shafat Mulkana says:


    Survival to grade 5 for Punjab is more than 90% (drop out is less than 10%)

    • Waseem Aziz says:

      i highly appreciate you on choosing that topic and also thank you for introducing it to me because i am also working on that from couple of months and you pointed out the real facts and factors but i just want to add regarding your second last para about the understanding the needs and social behavior of the people of the specific community and then respond to it then we can make effective policy to mitigate the problem. i want to give you from my practical observations in the field that the parents donot want their children to the school because they do not have the funds to afford the fee, having a large family average size of 8 to 12 members, 1 or 2 person is not able to fulfill the all needs so every one has to earn, fewer having their own houses mostly tenets, social and cultural norms are not advocating them to led their children to school, behavior of the parents is so normal they donot think that their children should study, most parents go for large family because more children are source of income for them and a lot much other factors. what we need is that to consider these all things in the policy making so to get the better fruits.

      • prof. Rehana Mughni says:

        Dear Nasira

        I appreciate you, for choosing a very important topic needs to be discussed till solutiions are found.You covered the topic well.

        I would like to come on the key-factor which is direcrly responsible for this sorry affair of education.This is ruling elite of Pakistan (past and present) who could not envision between democratic stability and quality education and failed to understand that education is an investment which will pay back the nation with interest.On the contrary they ignored education of rural & urban poor that constitutes about 70 percent of population of the country. Life less and irrelevant education was provided to children of poor through poor quality of learning teaching practices in an awful environment of school,minimum resources were invested on education compared to even other third world countries in order to rule in the sacred name of Democracy in Pakistan.I agree Shahab, we need to discuss srtatgies of education in order to find out solution follwed by this debate

      • Nasira Habib says:

        Thanks, Waseem, for the kind words.

        I have spent better part of my professional life in the field working with the rural and urban communities both. I assure you if parents have trust in school education that it would deliver for their children and future generations they would spend on it even if they have to pinch from their food budget and their children would work not to be deprived of education but to bear the cost of their education.

  10. Salma Laleka says:

    what we are talking about is contextualisation of education instead of universalisation…. much has been said and written about this but what is needed is action. A while back I proposed the same as the topic for a research study but the worthy professors declined simply because they thought that nothing could be gained out of it.
    Since education for the masses is non contextual…. irrelevant to their needs of health, wealth and safety….. there is no attraction in it. Another important factor to consider is that such non contextual education is causing our youth to lose their already clouded sense of direction and purpose….. Those in the rural areas are the most affected, finding themselves alienated towards the rural culture and looking towards the cities in the false hopes of better lives….. which obviously is one cause of rapid urbanisation and more poverty. why cant education create the will to stay in the villages and still make their lives better?…. Education in Pakistan is definitely counter productive in this sense.

  11. Shahana Manzar says:

    Thank you dear Nasira for sharing your thoughts and ideas. I have several small contributions to make. 1. Equating education to literacy is a premise I do not agree with. Our best teacher and best educated person of this ummah could not read or write. 2. where formal schooling has become a system through which one has some hope of engaging in activities for financial gain, it is true that system design should be in consultation with those whose needs must be met. But financial gain is not the only reason for education. Education is provided to build character, develop initiative, analytical skills, inculcate high moral values, .. financial gain is secondary. 3. I cannot agree with one of the friends who has commented that there is difference between the performance of richer and poorer children. I have a low opinion of the O and A levels output, and the products of the richer universities like LUMS etc. Unprecedented moral decay, rude and obnoxious behaviour, and the children or the young adults actually know nothing, but their arrogance matches Pharaoh!! So being rich is of no benefit whatsoever. 4. Urbanisation is natural an inevitable, unless smaller and more manageable urban centres with adequate facilities are promoted after suitable distances so bigger cities are less congested. The contrast in Pakistan is rather stark. Unmanageable cities, and suddenly 30 miles down the road, you are in the heart of rural life without even the basics like roads. Urban facilities seem so far away in that context. Unless we work progressively individually, collectively to reduce this gap, we’ll have problems with all sectors, education being only one of those.

  12. Victoria says:

    Dear Nasira,
    Thank you for sharing this infrmation with me. It gave me a deeper understanding of the quality of education in Pakistan as well-which was my next assignment. This is my last week for class but I look forward to continuing reading your blog posts and learning more. My last questions for you are more personal and I look forward to hearing more about you.

    1.What opportunities and/or requirements for professional development exist?

    2. What are some of your professional goals?

    3. What are some of your professional hopes, dreams, and challenges?

    I appreciate your hard advocacy work. That is how education will develop, with the many educated voices of the citizens.


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