When the Pakistani Taliban survivor Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize this month, it was widely noted that she was an education advocate and that her father was a “headmaster.” But the Western media ignored an intriguing angle on this story, argues James Tooley, a professor at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.
Since 2000, Tooley has been studying low-cost private schools in Third World countries, mostly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. His peer-reviewed research has brought to light hundreds of thousands of such schools throughout many of the world’s poorest countries, which are surprisingly accessible even to very poor families. Moreover, his data suggest that these schools significantly outperform government schools.
Tooley worries that widespread ignorance of these organic private schools leads to misplaced resources, as Western charities try to shore up failing government schools and ignore or even undermine thriving and nearly ubiquitous alternatives.
We sat down with Tooley to learn more about his research into this little-known phenomenon.
I understand that Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Prize this month, was taught at a private school self-financed by poor families?
I wrote a piece in the British Spectator about this. She went to a low-cost private school. When people think about her defending education, actually the school she attended, which her father ran, was a low-cost private school, charging perhaps $2 or $3 or $4 dollars a month. Her father was the president of the federation of low-cost private schools.
The schools that she was attending are attended by hundreds of thousands of children across the world. And they are going to private schools, because they don’t want to go to government schools. In the government schools, they feel “abandoned.” That’s the word the parents use to tell me about the state of the government schools. So there’s this revolution of low-cost private schools across developing countries.
How many of these schools are there?
There’s a survey in India called ASER, the Annual Status of Education Report and they say that half of India’s villages have access to these low-cost private schools. That’s 300,000 villages in India. So the estimate is that there are probably 400,000 of these low-cost private schools in India. In the cities in India, think of it as being the substantial majority of children are in private schools, but that includes the poor.
In Lagos, Nigeria, there are 12,000 of these low-cost private schools. In Pakistan in Karachi, it’s absolutely huge. Three quarters of the children are in low-cost private schools. Lahore is the same. In Pakistan it’s huge.
You’ve done some intensive and expensive field research here. How do you manage that?
The John Templeton Foundation funded my research, a couple of years back. We did research then in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and in different parts of India and rural China. Since then I’ve done other research in other countries.
Templeton then came back and funded this latest research in South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone, because when I did this research people would say Ghana, Kenya, India -- you’re talking about poor, but they are not the world’s poorest. They moved the goalposts. So I said OK, what is happening with the world’s poorest? And the world’s poorest are using private schools.
Why are private schools so pervasive in these areas?
I talked to a group of fishermen, and they were saying how bad the government schools were in their village. They were all talking about their children not learning anything. This one fisherman went to the school to complain, he was so concerned about his daughter’s education. The teachers in the government school saw the dirty, illiterate, smelly fisherman coming. They called the police, and had him arrested.
That shows two things. One is the dissatisfaction with the government schools, where the parents feel abandoned. And the second is the teachers’ disdain for the poor. In the government schools, there is a social distance. Why do the parents and their children do the private schools? The private schools are in the community, they are run by the communities themselves. Unlike the government schools, the teachers are part of the poor neighborhood itself. There is no social distance.
How well do these private schools perform?
We tested over 30,000 children now in these different communities. Consistently the children in the private schools outperformed those in the public schools, even using the proper statistical controls for background.
Why to the public schools underperform?
Absenteeism (among teachers) is really high. My data show it, but so many other people’s data show it. It’s not unknown in these countries. The data from India, for example, show that only 50 percent of the time that teachers should have been teaching are they actually teaching.
We made a film for the BBC in Lagos, Nigeria. We had been filming in the private schools in the slums, and there was pretty energetic teaching going on. I’m not saying it was perfect, there’s a lot that could be improved, but there’s good stuff going on in these schools. And then we got permission to go to the government school, on the outskirts of the slum. The very first classroom and went into, the teacher was fast asleep at his desk. And the children were teaching themselves.
Why are the teachers so irresponsible?
It must be something to do with accountability. In many of these countries you pay a bribe to become a teacher, because it’s a government job, you’ve got security, a job for life, and a good pension. And you don’t have to turn up, or not turn up all the time.
So again, this is now a fisherman in Ghana. He runs a fishing boat, so he knows what it’s like to have a little private enterprise, with his fishing boat where he employs for five other people going out to sea. The public school is next to his house, as it happens, but he sends his daughter to the private school. And he told me the reason why the private school is better is that if the teacher doesn’t turn up, he will be fired. He was aware that that’s what he would do with his crew. He was aware that that’s how you keep standards of fishing high, and he knows that’s how you keep standards in schools high. And he was aware that in the public school next to his house, the teachers turned up late, left early if they come at all, and the children play.
The system is corrupt. The system is not working. And that’s why -- this great thing to celebrate -- the poor are not acquiescing in that mediocrity. They are doing something about it. Not all the schools are brilliant. Of course they could be improved. But they are better than the government alternative -- without a doubt. No one doubts that now.
How can poor people afford this?
We’ve done a lot of research looking at household incomes and the cost of these private schools. And we reckon that, typically, three quarters of these private schools are affordable to families on the poverty line, if they have to spend 10 percent of their total income on the education of, typically, two or three school-age children. So it’s 10 percent of their income. They have to be careful. They have to scrimp and save, but it’s not destroying them. Some can’t afford it. If you’re an orphan you can’t afford it. But many families can afford it.
Why is so little heard about this? Is this innocent or calculated ignorance?
No one knew about or acknowledged these schools in government or international agencies before we started doing this research and publicizing it. It’s an extraordinary thing. I would go into these countries -- I still go to new countries -- and I say I’m looking for low-cost private schools. And people say, no, the private schools are for the elite. And then you go into the slums. I’ve taken people from government, from international agencies, into these areas, and they cannot believe their eyes.
I think when I started researching this there was largely genuine, innocent ignorance. A few people knew about these private schools, and didn’t want to say. But largely there was innocent ignorance.
But now, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. When I wrote about Malala, I was saying how wonderful it is that we can celebrate not only this brave young woman who survived what she survived, but also that she was part of a system that was about the poor helping themselves. It was a double thing to celebrate. And her father, now this celebrated figure, was the president of a private school and running a federation of private schools.
But there is denial now. The establishment, if you will, wants to own Malala for themselves. They want her to be the champion of public education. So there is now a calculated denial of the significance of the schools, if you can’t deny their existence.
How are you going to crack through this barrier? Do you need a champion like Bono?
The good news is that if no champion is found, then it carries on. This is not dependent on us. There are hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs running the schools, and they will carry on whether we know about it or we don’t know about it. In a sense, it’s irrelevant, that question.
So what could Western philanthropy most usefully do here?
Western philanthropy can come in alongside the schools. For instance, in several of the countries I work in, the governments are unsympathetic to the schools, and want to shut them down. The Indian government has created a Right to Education Act, which sounds great, but is actually a right to public education.
In Punjab in India, 3,000 private schools have been closed. That’s up to 500,000 children thrown out of the schools that their parents have chosen for them. So in India we created the federation NISA, the National Independent Schools Alliance. In Nigeria, the government wanted to close down the schools in Lagos. We created a federation with a great Nigerian name, AFED, the Association of Formidable Education Development.
These federations are doing a marvelous job, but they just have a little subscription from the members. A grant to one of those federations could help them become strong -- priming the pump to help them fight government, and improve assessment and teacher training. That’s a great use of philanthropy.
Another might be this: these schools are hungry for capital. So let’s create some sort of revolving loan fund. There are philanthropists who have done this now, creating loan funds for these low-cost private schools to help them build an extra classroom, separate toilets for girls and boys, or whatever they need. Scholarship programs for the poorest of the poor to be able to go to the schools.
There are good things investors could do. A couple of investors have created chains of these private schools, with the assumption that with one standalone school you can’t invest in teacher training or in curriculum, but if you have 100 schools in your chain, that little margin from each school can actually fund something quite impressive.
So there are different things one could do, as long as you don’t come in and ruin the market. That would be terrible, wouldn’t it?