Is Poverty the Real Cause of Poor Performance in Education?

Posted by on Feb 12, 2013 in Series: education and poverty | 0 comments

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.


Ms. Nasira Habib is an experienced professional in the field of basic education covering all three areas of basic education – early childhood education, adult education with a special focus on women’s development and child centered elementary education; gender justice and community development being the cross cutting themes. She has worked with major international organizations like UNICEF, UNESCO, FAO, CIDA, GTZ, GATE, Oxfam, Save the Children, ActionAid, Plan International and Pesticide Action Network Asia & Pacific. She has authored in English and Urdu both, ranging from manuals for teachers to text books for learners to studies on a range of educational, gender and environmental issues, published in Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Germany and England. She is currently the Executive Director of KHOJ Society for People’s Education in Pakistan. Click here to check out her blog.