Friday, October 23, 2009

A private path out of poverty

A former believer in government schools learns why some of the world's poorest people sacrifice to get their kids into for-profit schools

Are you gonna believe the experts, or will you believe your lyin' eyes? That might be the subtheme of James Tooley's beautifully written and masterfully argued new book, "The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world's poorest people are educating themselves." Tooley, a Briton, took his mathematics degree to Zimbabwe to teach in the early 1980s, and, despite requesting a post in a poor rural village, was assigned to a school for the children of the government elite. Two years later he wangled a position in a rural school.

At the time he defended Zimbabwe's attempt to provide free government schools for all its people and believed that "once richer urban people properly paid all their taxes, and the international community coughed up a decent amount of aid, it would be able to make education free for all." "Only when rich Western governments spend much more on aid can every child be saved from ignorance and illiteracy. That's the message we hear every day, from the international aid agencies and our governments, and from pop stars and other celebrities."

Tooley then taught at a university in South Africa, went back to England to get a doctorate in education and, in due time, got a commission in 2000 from the World Bank's International Finance Commission to study private schools in developing countries. But he was troubled that, despite his concern for the poor, his job would wind up being to study how the privileged were being served, because everybody knows that in developing countries private schools only serve the wealthy and privileged.

"Then one day, everything changed," he writes. On a national holiday he took an autorickshaw into the Old City – the slums – of Hyderabad, India. As he shocked his driver with his determination to explore the slums, he discovered that "the stunning thing about the drive was that private schools had not thinned out as we went from the poshest parts of town to the poorest. Everywhere among the little stores and workshops, were private schools!"

So began his journey of discovery.

Tooley that first day encountered Fazalur Rahman Khurrum, head of a ramshackle establishment grandly named the Royal Grammar School and also head of an association catering to private schools serving the poor, with 500 members in Hyderabad alone. Over the next 10 days Tooley visited 50 schools and was impressed by the enthusiasm of students and teachers alike.

It turned out that even though government schools were set up throughout the city, many poor parents had a low opinion of them and scraped together the 60-100 rupees a month ($1.33-$2.22 at exchange rates then) to send their children to private schools. And while many of these schools were begun by people with a special feeling for poor people and a desire to help them, almost none were charities (though all accepted for free or at reduced rates orphans and others who couldn't afford the regular fees) but had to make a profit to survive.

Bias against profit

The experts at the World Bank, when told of this discovery, dismissed the phenomenon as "businessmen ripping off the poor," but that didn't jibe with what Mr. Tooley had seen with his own lyin' eyes. Still, he wondered about the quality of education these children were receiving and just how widespread the phenomenon of private schools for the poor was.

Instead of seeing such schools as a possible answer to illiteracy and poverty, however, the certified development experts – most of whom had never personally ventured into a slum – instructed him that this only meant the government must redouble its efforts to bring government schools to everybody, with plenty of aid and instruction from the international community, of course. The private schools were simply a passing phenomenon, run by unscrupulous people who cared only about profit.

Studying the development literature, Tooley found that some reputed experts, including India's Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, were aware of private schools, even noting that in rural areas as many as 30 percent of poor parents sent their children to private schools. But these facts played no part in the experts' recommendations. Only when government-run schools reached every poor child would the Nirvana of education for all be reached.

Some of the experts were even aware of shortcomings in public schools. One report on four provinces in India noted that unannounced visits found "teaching activity" was occurring in only half of the government schools, and in a third of them the principal wasn't even around. Reports abounded of teachers sleeping during class time, showing up drunk or not showing up at all. This report even noted some valid reasons parents might prefer private schools:

"In a private school, the teachers are accountable to the manager (who can fire them), and, through him or her, to the parents (who can withdraw their children). In a government school, the chain of accountability is much weaker, as teachers have a permanent job with salaries and promotions unrelated to performance. This contrast is perceived with crystal clarity by the vast majority of parents."

Yet such observations never made it into the executive summaries of such reports. Instead of recommending encouragement of private schools – the government instead sent inspectors to note the absence of playgrounds and clean facilities, but didn't recommend closing them if they received suitable bribes, which were built into the private schools' budgets – they advocated the long path of improving government schools and treating private schools as an unfortunate embarrassment.

Undeterred, Tooley took time from his official job – investigating schools for the privileged in every country he visited – to get into the slums to see what the poor were doing for themselves. In Ghana, Somaliland and Goa, he found similar developments: poor parents were sacrificing to send their children to private schools.

Finally, at a conference where he presented his findings, Tooley met Chuck Harper, senior vice president of the John Templeton Foundation, which was interested in "free-market solutions to poverty." He got a grant from the Templeton Foundation and began a research project to explore private schools for the poor and how they stacked up to government schools in quality of education.

Thus he assembled teams of researchers in India, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and elsewhere. In Nigeria he had to negotiate open sewers, mud and narrow alleyways, but he found a thriving community of private schools in the slums of Makoko in Lagos. He found private schools in tiny fishing villages in Ghana, and even in the far reaches of rural China, after officials confidently informed him that there were no private schools for the poor anywhere in that communist bastion.

On one occasion in Ghana, Tooley became impatient with a school proprietor who kept him waiting 20 minutes while she talked to "a very thin, unkempt older man." When he got up to tell her that he was upset by her rudeness and was ready to leave, she simply said, "I'm sorry, but this is a parent." She knew who was important in her world. International experts could wait.

Commitment gap

So what did Tooley's research project uncover? In India, teaching commitment (measured by teachers actually teaching during unannounced visits) was highest in recognized (officially tolerated) private schools, followed by unrecognized private schools, with government schools trailing badly. Most private schools in India teach in English, while government schools, thanks to political pressure, start teaching in the local dialect.

Looking at 14 inputs that could be seen as proxies for quality – drinking water, toilets, proper buildings, desks, blackboards, libraries and the like – government schools outperformed private schools operating on shoestring budgets in only one category: playgrounds.

Tooley's teams tested students in government and private schools and found that when it came to educational attainments the students in private schools outperformed counterparts in government schools dramatically. "The results from Delhi were typical. In mathematics, mean scores of children in government schools were 24.5 percent, whereas they were 42.1 percent in private unrecognized schools and 43.9 percent in private recognized. … In English, the performance difference was much greater (children in unrecognized schools enjoyed a 35 percentage-point advantage over their public school counterparts, whereas children in recognized schools scored 41 percentage points more)." Private-school students even outperformed public school students in Hindi, though English was usually the medium of instruction.

Tooley's teams found similar results in Nigeria and Ghana (statistical details at And the government schools had far greater resources to work with – in some areas public school teachers were paid seven times what private school teachers were, and international aid agencies, both governmental and private, give money only to government schools.

'Beautiful tree'

Finally, Tooley was intrigued by a 1931 statement from Mahatma Gandhi that illiteracy was more prevalent in India than before the British came because the British administrators "when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished." So Tooley began to research education in pre-colonial India. Rooting through musty colonial archives, he found reports that confirmed that before the British came more Indians had been educated at least to the level of minimum literacy, almost all in village-based private schools that charged fees.

There's a happy ending. In 2006 Tooley won a competition on private-sector development sponsored by the Financial Times. After presenting a paper in Singapore and having it reprinted in the Financial Times, he listened to a message on his answering machine from Richard Chandler, a New Zealander who founded Orient Global, a private investment company. "Professor Tooley," he said, "I've read your article in the Financial Times … well, I'm your investor."

Chandler was as good as his word. James Tooley is now head of Orient Global's Education Fund, capitalized at $100 million, which gives grants, advice on curriculum and educational standards, and low-cost loans to private schools around the world, and is building a chain of private schools for the poor in Hyderabad, India, where it all began. The "international development community" still has no clue about private schools for the poor, but in undeveloped countries around the world the poor, with a little help from their real friends, entrepreneurs and investors, are finding their own way out of poverty.


British faith schools are accused of using ‘inflammatory language’

In good politically correct style, observations of Muslim hatred have to be balanced by accusations about Jews. I would like to see examples of the two. I'm betting that there is no comparison

Independent faith schools are using “inflammatory language” and biased material on classroom displays Ofsted warns today. The school inspectors visited 51 private faith schools in England to judge whether they developed children spiritually, culturally and morally. But in eight of the schools they found posters and work on the walls that “had a bias in favour of one group.”

“For example, wording used to describe the situation in Palestine, seen in a Muslim school, used inflammatory language,” the report said. “Similarly, in a Jewish school, pupils' writing used strong language in describing situations in that part of the world.”

Inspectors found some published teaching materials with incorrect information about the beliefs of other religions being used in schools they visited. The report recommends that all resources used to teach about other faiths are accurate and unbiased.

“All the schools emphasised the need for their pupils to respect other people and recognise their freedom of worship, but it was strongly felt that this should remain distinct from any requirement to teach about other faiths in detail,” the inspectors found.

Posters seen by inspectors in one Muslim school referred to the situation in Palestine as an Israeli “occupation” and failed to show the other side of the argument or a balanced viewpoint.

In one Jewish school the language used in children’s work was influenced by events that had happened to their relatives in the Middle East and was highly emotive.

Teaching materials used generalised statements about the beliefs held by other religions and failed to express nuances of belief, inspectors found.


When should children start school?

Children are being attacked from all sides these days. Firstly there is a recommendation that children should not start "formal" education until they are six. As someone who started school at four, I can't imagine waiting so late, but obviously others take a different line.

Dame Gillian Pugh, review author, said, "four and five-year-olds tended to be at a stage where they were just "tuning in" to learning and that they could be "turned off" if they were made to follow too formal a curriculum, too early on." Perhaps, but not for all children. The mandated age for children to enter school is questionable as the parents should decide, an issue Douglas Carswell eloquently puts forward here.

On top of this, or indeed in direct competition to it, the European People's Party believes that children should be given lessons in the benefits of the European Union from the earliest of ages. Of course, some would question how long a lesson it would be.

They claim that, "knowing and understanding, from a young age, the principles, the procedures and the successful history of the European Union, the generations of tomorrow will be immune to any distortion of the perception of the role of the EU and will much better embrace the advantages of this unique project of voluntary sharing of sovereignty." They want to 'instruct' young children in the "benefits" of the EU before they have a chance to formulate their own opinions on the institution.

Clearly both of these examples highlight why government needs to stand aside in the provision of education. The temptation to meddle and mould children's minds to be in sync with the government thinking of the time is too great. Free enterprise in schooling is best for parents, the taxpayer and the children themselves.


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