Rethinking education

  • June 25, 2014
Rethinking education

Arif Naveed's research will ask whether a rethinking of education -  the curriculum, textbooks and their delivery -  in Pakistan is needed to ensure it responds to local priorities and meets the aspirations of the poor.

When he was growing up in a village in south Punjab, Arif Naveed was surrounded by a family who believed in the importance of education. He excelled, but as he got older and moved on to secondary school and university he started to question why he had done so well while other bright students in his school had dropped out of the education system.

What had happened? This question has shaped his career in education research, which has included an influential multi-dimensional approach to poverty, and his desire to reform the education system to make it truly transformative for the poorest in society.

Through his PhD at Cambridge, which he begins in the autumn, he plans to go back to basics and test the assumption that education is the best way out of poverty. He will ask whether a rethinking of education –  the curriculum, textbooks and their delivery –  in Pakistan is needed to ensure it responds to local priorities and meets the aspirations of the poor, and whether current schooling, shaped by the needs of colonial rulers, only adds to the dominance of existing  elites.

“I want to test what education does for the poor, if it improves their lives and what changes it brings to social structures and power relations at the community and household level,” he says. He plans to draw upon the theoretical and methodological frameworks offered by the disciplines of economics, development studies, sociology and education.


Arif’s childhood experiences of education in a poor rural part of Pakistan have been crucial in shaping his research. Born in a small remote village in south Punjab, he is the third  youngest of eight children. His parents – and older siblings – played a key role in his education. His mother never attended school and as a consequence was keen to encourage her children in their studies. “She had a very strong sense of unrealised aspirations which she was struggling to realise through us,” says Arif. “She strongly inculcated the value of schooling in us. She was a major inspiration.”

His father, who was the first person to be educated in his family, was head teacher of the local primary school which was a four kilometre walk away. “He was a great role model for us and for the village,” says Arif. “He was well respected for the dedication with which he introduced schooling to the community. He would knock on parents’ doors to ensure their children didn’t miss school. He created an awareness of the importance of schooling in every household.” He also spent all his spare time teaching his own children and the family were always surrounded by books.

In addition to his parents, Arif’s older siblings went to college and university and this also encouraged him in his studies. His eldest brother was at university studying engineering when he started school as a toddler. Arif has two older twin sisters. In the community where his family lived girls did not go to school. His father wanted to make school available for both boys and girls and spoke to the local education authorities. He led by example, taking his daughters to school, to encourage others to do so.

At the school, around 100 pupils studied in just three rooms. The windows were broken and there were just three teachers covering six grades. This meant Arif was taught in a class full of older children and by his third year had finished grade five. Studying by the light of a kerosene lamp because his village was not electrified at the time, he completed primary school by the age of eight and a half, He was too young to go to secondary school so his father taught him English for six months and then he moved in with his uncle who lived near his secondary school until his family moved to the town three years late.

He says: “My father was my greatest inspiration. He had to walk miles to attend teacher training college. He would say that we had a luxurious life since we had books, did not have to walk that far and had a positive role model. For my family education has been a great force for social mobility. I used to think I had got to university because I was very bright, but when I think back there were many bright children at my primary school. Why did they drop out? What happened? Was it their social circumstances, the way they perceived themselves, the expectations of the school? Did they give up because improving their lives through further schooling seemed impossible to achieve? It was this that triggered my interest in education.”

Economic development

Arif was the youngest child at his secondary school, which had some advantages. He spent more time with his teachers, read more and became involved in debating and took part in writing competitions.

He moved to college to study pre-medical sciences in grade 11 and lived in a hostel. His family were keen for him to become a doctor, but he was not very interested in medicine. His interests lay in social sciences so he chose to study Economics at Bahauddin Zakariya University. His brothers moved to Islamabad during his degree, and Arif also managed to secure admission to study for a  masters in economics at the leading Pakistani university, Qaid-i-Azam University. He was an accomplished poet, but was keen to pursue a career “which could practically deal with the challenges I saw around me”.

He started his career in rural development after completing his masters. He worked for the National Rural Support Programme as he was keen to work in communities like his own. His first project was training around 500 local politicians about how to involve local communities in economic development plans. It was followed by fast track vocational and technical training programmes for rural people. “We trained 2,000 people and more than 80% had jobs or were self-employed after a year,” he says.

Arif realised within two years that if he wanted to have greater influence on policy issues relating to the poor he needed to move on. He trained himself as a researcher and joined the MPhil programme in Econometrics at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. However, he soon felt that the problems the poor faced in Pakistan were cultural and social rather than economic. In 2006, he transferred to the University of Bath to do an interdisciplinary masters in international development with the aid of a Commonwealth Scholarship. Arif returned to Pakistan after completing the course and, inspired by the seminal work of Pakistani economist, Mahbub-ul-Haq, joined the think-tank sat up by him, the Mahbub-ul-Haq Human Development Centre.

In his second year he started work on a University of Cambridge project led by Professor Madeleine Arnot, studying developing countries in Africa and Asia. Arif was the lead for Pakistan and spent two years assessing how education affected the social and human development of poor communities. He oversaw the collection and analysis of data, training local field workers to find out what the poor get out of their schooling, how they acquire skills, how education enhances their life chances and whether their outcomes could be improved through better schooling. Arif’s focus was youth, gender and citizenship.

Since then he has been mining the rich data collected by the programme and working with policymakers. He was also invited to contribute to the Ninth Five-Year Plan of Pakistan on education, employment and income distribution and started working on a new model of poverty. He says the government’s definition of poverty focused mainly on income or household consumption levels which he considers to be “a reductionist and flawed approach”. He developed a multi-dimensional definition. “Focusing only on income does not give a full picture of the impact of poverty on wellbeing, the fact the poor lack access to health services, may be illiterate, die younger, have poorer nutrition and status,” he says, “I made the case for taking into account the coincidence of deprivations poor people face simultaneously.”

Transforming education in Punjab

After completion of the Cambridge project, Arif joined another think-tank, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in 2010. His research on curriculum content and religious diversity which highlighted discrimination against religious minorities in textbooks and teaching, contributed to  textbook reform. In 2011 Arif was asked by the UK’s Department for International Development to help design Punjab’s education reform programme for 2012-2018. It was DFID’s largest single education project in the world. The programme aims to enrol 2.9m new students in Punjab, 71% of who will be girls, and to increase primary participation from 78% to 90% of children. It will build more than 15,000 more classrooms. Resources will be targeted at the poor districts and poorest communities, which will benefit girls more.

In 2012, Arif co-authored his first book which highlighted the stark regional disparities in the incidence of multidimensional poverty in Pakistan resulting from the lopsided development practices of the past. This work gave a new dimension to the poverty debate in Pakistan, making the case for affirmative action to uplift deprived regions. Since then, it has been widely used by the federal and provincial governments, UN agencies and various NGOs in the  design of  their development projects. The Planning Commission in Pakistan has recently decided to adopt the multidimensional poverty line as the official poverty line while taking into account regional differences. With the support of the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, which intends to use his approach in forthcoming poverty reduction strategies, Arif is currently writing his second book which will build on his earlier work on multidimensional poverty and inequality.

In 2012, Arif, jointly with his mentor at Bath, Professor Geoff Wood, was commissioned by the UK’s Department for International Development to undertake a study into policy research institutions in Pakistan. It explored the political economy dynamics of policy research and its impact on national and provincial policies. This study won him a grant of Can$250,000 from the Canadian International Development Research Centre to explore the institutional dynamics of knowledge systems, think tanks and universities in South Asia, which identified the ways external support can strengthen these institutions.     

The same year, Arif was awarded a scholarship to do an MPhil in Educational Research, Education and Poverty at Cambridge, giving him another opportunity to collaborate with Professor Arnot who was his MPhil supervisor and with whom he worked as a research officer after the completion of his MPhil. “It was an excellent experience learning to do sociological analysis of poverty and inequality, and the socially reproductive and transformative roles that schooling can play in various societies”, he says.  

For his PhD he will be working with Professor Arnot and the educational economist Professor Anna Vignoles using a multi-dimensional approach to looking at outcomes for the poor. He says: “I want to reconceptualise schooling so that it is genuinely transformative for the poor and helps them realise their true potential.”

*Picture: Arif with the 9th grade students at a charity school in Rawalpindi run by The Citizen Foundation (TCF). With the students are their mentors. Arif was invited last month to deliver a motivational speech to encourage them to pursue their dreams through education and beyond.

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