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How do schools envision holistic development in Pakistan? Insights from Sen’s capability approach

Aisha Naz Ansari, MPhil Graduate & Research Associate at Aga Khan University- Institute for Educational Development (AKU-IED)

Education is universally recognised as a basic right and an essential element of personal and societal development, which implies bringing enlightenment and prosperity to society (Abdullah, 2020). As such, the role of schools in developing countries, including Pakistan, might be expected to shift from the transfer of factual knowledge to the holistic development (HD) of children, which is inclusive of social, moral and life skills (Lovat, 2011). For instance, the provision of authentic learning experiences in line with real-life exposure within schools could aid in students’ social adaptability. Such experiences contribute – in accordance with Amartya Sen’s concept – to the development of social capabilities among students. Sen (1993) pinpointed capability as a person’s ability to understand and act to his/her fullest by acquiring an alternative combination of being. To put it differently, social capabilities act as the opportunities that lead us to achieve the socially desired yet significant aspects of social life. However, the question of who should be held responsible for developing social capabilities is debatable.

Accessibility of education is a basic and constitutional right. Most children attend school with the subconscious intention to acquire the essential knowledge, skills and attitudes to pursue a fulfilling life (Adler, 2015). Pakistan’s single national curriculum (2021) prescribes students’ HD with the integration of social aspects in content. However, many school structures prioritise test scores over HD (Aziz et al., 2014) with the result that school graduates often demonstrate academic proficiency but lack socio-emotional clarity (Aamer, 2009).

‘Many school structures prioritise test scores over holistic development with the result that school graduates often demonstrate academic proficiency but lack socio-emotional clarity.’

In 2022, I conducted a mixed-methods study about the social capabilities (SCs) and life skills (LSs) of secondary-grade students in Pakistan. The quantitative sample included 263 10th-grade students from eight public and private secondary schools in the district of Sukkur. The purposively selected qualitative sample included 16 students, 8 teachers and 4 school heads, with equal representation from both public and private schools. The findings revealed that both school systems hardly exhibit any explicit plan for students’ HD, indicating schools’ passive contribution to HD. Because schools often do not consider HD as their responsibility, as one teacher explained, ‘we are only bound to complete the syllabus’. While school heads and teachers accepted the importance of social and life skills among students, acknowledging that ‘these are essential skills to be developed’, schools are, however, less inclined to encourage students’ HD and tend to stress achieving good grades to external stakeholders such as higher authorities, parents and the students themselves.

As schools put great emphasis on grades rather than on a comprehensive approach to holistic development, the students in this study appeared to be inadequately prepared for social roles and expectations that await them beyond their school years. This lack of preparation is at odds with Sen’s notion of ‘capability development’ in which he advocates for individual freedom to make socially appropriate choices (Sen, 1993). The K-12 school education in Pakistan is prioritising the development of human capital that follows traditional patterns of securing lucrative employment positions and income generation (Sen, 2003).

My findings also distinguished the SCs and LSs of students across socially stratified groups. Students with low socioeconomic status (studying in public schools) had relatively greater SCs and LSs than their counterparts in high socioeconomic status (studying in private schools). The in-depth comparative analysis of the results clarified differences among students, as male students from public schools were mostly the breadwinners of their families and work part-time labour jobs. These students stated that their ultimate purpose of education is to become capable of earning to support their families and lead independent lives. Furthermore, their involvement in labour-intensive work and exposure to difficult circumstances helps them gain an understanding of socially appropriate norms and behaviours. In contrast, private school students intend to get an education to secure highly paid jobs and enjoy high socioeconomic status and luxuries.

Drawing from Sen’s (1993) argument on capabilities, it can be inferred that schools are preparing students differently for their social roles based on the presumed priorities influenced by their socioeconomic status. As a result, the educational outcomes vary across school systems in terms of students’ roles and contributions to society as productive individuals.


Aamer, L. C. M. (2009). Existing education system of Pakistan psycho-social and socio-economic effects. NDU Journal, 13, 131.

Abdullah, N. A. (2020). The state of education in Pakistan: An analytical review of basic education indicators. New Horizons, 14(1). 

Adler, A. (2015). The education of children. Routledge.

Aziz, M., Bloom, D. E., Humair, S., Jimenez, E., Rosenberg, L., & Sathar, Z. (2014). Education system reform in Pakistan: Why, when, and how?. IZA policy paper (No. 76). 

Lovat, T. (2011). Values education and holistic learning: Updated research perspectives. International Journal of Educational Research, 50(3), 148–152. 

Sen, A. (1993). Capability and well-being. In M. Nussbaum & A. Sen, The Quality of Life (pp. 270–293). Oxford Academic.

Sen, A. (2003). Development as capability expansion. In S. Fukuda-Parr, et al., Readings in Human Development. Oxford University Press.