Working Paper


Narratives of Success Against the Odds: Why Some Children in State Schools Go Far in Life—Evidence From Pakistan


What makes some children succeed despite studying in failing education systems? Are these children exceptionally gifted, or do other psychological or sociological factors and family circumstances contribute to success? To address the learning crisis in state schools in developing countries, development agencies have primarily focused on identifying inputs that can improve state education provision. Yet, even from low-performing state schools, some children do manage to successfully complete primary and secondary education cycles, pursue higher education, and record upward social mobility, but we know very little about the factors that facilitate this success. This paper addresses this gap in the literature. Tracing life histories of successful alumni of state schools supported by CARE, an education foundation in Pakistan, this paper identifies children’s motivation to succeed as having a major impact on educational performance. However, for most this motivation is not a product of an innate desire to excel, it is a product of contextual factors: parental encouragement; an acute desire to make parents happy and to alleviate their sufferings; the company of friends, cousins, and peers who are keen on education and thus help to create an aspiring, competitive spirit; encouragement given by good teachers; and exposure to new possibilities and role models that raise aspirations by showing that what might appear to the child unachievable is in fact attainable. High motivation in turn builds commitment to work hard. Equally important, however, is the provision of financial support at critical points, especially when transitioning from secondary school to college and university. Without financial support, which could be in the form of scholarships, loans, or income from part-time work, at critical junctures, even highly motivated children in state schools cannot succeed. The paper thus argues that rather than being focused solely on education inputs, development agencies should also seek to explore and understand the factors that can motivate children in state schools to aim high and work hard to succeed.


Bano, M. 2022. Narratives of Success against the Odds: Why Some Children in State Schools Go Far in Life—Evidence from Pakistan. RISE Working Paper Series. 22/104.