(Review of a book, “The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves”, by James Tooley (2009), Penguin, an insightful and meticulously researched chronicle on how the poor of the world are educating themselves and what private entrepreneurship can do for education of the poor.)

This is an inspired and empathetic testament to the motivation and ability of the most underprivileged people to lift themselves.”

-Harvard Business Review

Educating the Poor: The Silver Bullet

“Private schools are for the rich and government schools are for the poor”¾we might have heard this statement from many and believed it to be true.  This is a belief of not only laymen but also of development experts who are supposed to know better.  In this book, James Tooley convincingly explodes this myth with meticulous research and irrefutable facts.  Tooley sum up the “accepted wisdom” on educating the poor, “which everyone knows” in the following words:

“Children (of the poor) need billion more dollars in donor aid to public (which means government aided) education before they can gain an education.  And the poor must be patient.  Although public education is appalling, there is no alternative.  The poor must wait until the modern Maculay’s sort it all out for them.  It’ll take time, but it’s the only way.  There is no silver bullet.”

Tooley shows with his extensive research in the slums, villages and towns of India, China, Africa that the poor of the world have found their own silver bullet.  As Tooley explains further,

“Behind the scenes, unassisted by donor involvement or government intervention, the poor have found a silver bullet, or atleast the makings of one.  The route to the holy grail of the development experts¾quality education for all¾is there for all to see, if only they’ll look.  By themselves, the poor have found their own viable alternative.  The solution is easy: send your children to a private school that is accountable to you because you’re paying fee.  —-The poor just did it.”

Dr. James Tooley is eminently well equipped for the enquiry and research he has undertaken. He holds a PhD in education from university of London and is a professor of educational policy.  He is an award-winning scholar featured in PBS and BBC documentaries and his work has been covered in Newsweek, The Atlantic, The Wall Street journal and The Financial Time.    The main finding of Tooley’s path-breaking research described in this book may be briefly summed up as follows:

  1. Large numbers of poor people in the developing world are sending their children to private schools run by local entrepreneurs.
  2. The poor prefer these private schools to the government schools and are ready to pay for it.
  3. These private schools provide a better quality of education than the government schools.
  4. The quality of education in government run public schools are uniformly poor all over the developing world.

How large or pervasive is this phenomenon of the private schools catering to the poor?  Tooley refers to two earlier research report, which have perceived the strong presence of private schools for the poor.  The first one, Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) states that 80 percent of the urban poor and more than 30 percent in rural areas go for private education.  The other report referred by Tooley is Oxfam Education Report which states: “The notion that private schools are serving the needs of a small minority of wealthy parents is misplaced—it is interesting to note that a lower cost private sector has emerged to meet the demands of poor households—there is a growing market for private education among poor household—private education (for the poor) is a far more pervasive fact than is often recognized.”

Regarding the quality of education in these private schools in comparison to government schools, the Oxfam report states that there was, “high level of classroom activity—better utilization of facilities, greater attention to young children, responsiveness of teachers to parental complaints.”

So, Tooley’s findings are not new.  In a chapter with the frank title, “—That was no discovery at all,” Tooley discusses these earlier researches, which had a glimpse of the phenomenon.  But they have only perceived the tip of the iceberg.  Tooley explores the iceberg more extensively with a more in depth and systematic research.

However these earlier reports are not very enthusiastic about these private schools for the poor.  They don’t consider private education as an answer to the problem of providing education for all.  But Tooley views private education as the “Silver Bullet” for educating the poor.

Edupreneurs of the Poor

 A leading Indian business magazine ran a cover story titled, “Edupreneurs of India.”      All of them were hard-core businessmen running educational enterprises like any business organization, catering to the rich and upper middle class children, sitting in air-conditioned class-rooms, with laptops in their knees.  But Tooley chronicles the story of a different kind of edupreneurs who serve the poor in schools situated in dirty slums and narrow and crowded street and in cramped, ill lit classrooms.  These edupreneurs of the poors are also businessmen.  They run the schools as business because they have to make a living out of it.  But there is in them a greater dedication and commitment to education, community and the children than in the other kind of edupreneurs who serve the rich.  As Tooley points out: “It appeared that these private schools while operating as businesses also provide philanthropy.  The owners were explicit about.  They were business people, true, but they also want to be viewed as ‘social worker’ giving something back to the community.  A major motivation was their status in society.  As Khurram, the owner of a private school in Hyderabad, India, states, “I have an ambition of running a school, of giving good knowledge and of building character, good citizens, good people.  We have status as leaders of schools, people respect us and we respect ourselves.”

Talking about another school owner in Nigeria, Tooley states, “His motives for setting up the school seemed to be a mixture of philanthropy and commerce—yes, he needed work and saw that there was demand for private schooling on the part of parents disillusioned with the state schools. But his heart also went out to the children in his community and from his church-how could we help them better themselves.”  Many of these private schools gave free education to children whose parents are too poor to pay the fees.  The other important trait of these educational entrepreneurs are that they are not satisfied with making their living or the statuesque, but want to improve.  As Tooley points out, that these entrepreneurs “are very often—themselves eager to learn of different way of teaching and learning and of new curriculum areas from overseas visitor.  Toole adds further that, going around many of these schools, the proprietors sit around him in their tiny offices and ask “how can I improve my teaching? Tell me what can I do better.”

Not only the owners but also the teachers in these private schools are much more efficient and creative than their counterparts in government schools.  Here is an example of a teacher from a private school in Hyderabad.  She is a young woman with a post graduate degree Chemistry.  Tooley describes vividly the way she taught.

 “I had never liked chemistry in school, if she had taught me, I think I would have loved the subject.  She was very clear, lively, animated and engaged her class through out.  There was nothing laboured about her approach, the whole lesson moved forward smoothly.  She taught without notes and seemed completely on top of her subject.  At the end, she summarized the lesson, expertly managing the class, so that all seemed to have understood and set a three part homework.  As she finished, Sajid, the owner of the school stood and touched her bowed, covered head.  He had tears in his eyes as he said, ‘Thank you, wonderful’.”

 So, Sajid, like all good managers, knows the importance of motivation!

 Implications for the Future

Tooley has uncovered a surprising and potentially revolutionary phenomena which indicates that poor people all over the world are increasingly opting for private education.  They are ready to pay for it because they have found these private schools are offering a better education than the free education given in government schools.  This shows that the poor of the world are smart, intelligent, quality-conscious and self-sacrificing.  They recognize the importance of education.  They can make intelligent choices based on quality.  They are ready to allocate their hard-earned and scarce economic resources for giving a better education to their children though it involves sacrificing some of their material and economic needs.  They are also business-sawy.  The entrepreneurs among the poor are able to identify the needs of people in the community and seize the business opportunity.  All these goes against the old, traditional, developmental wisdom which views the poors as dumb, ignorant, helpless and lacking in initiative who need the constant help of government, foreign aid and outside experts for their “development”.

This brings us to the question what are the implications of Tooley’s findings for policy and the future.  Tooley’s policy suggestions are predominantly economic: more incentives and information for the poor to take to private schools; and more financial help for the entrepreneur in the form micro finance, venture capital or philanthropy to improve the quality of the curriculum and the infrastructure.  All these are necessary and helpful in giving a further push to this movement.  However we must also think in a long-term perspective on how to make this movement into a powerful force for the sustainable development of the community.

Here comes an important feature of this movement: it is an integral and intrinsic part of the community and an organic growth from within the community serving local needs with local talents, skill and resources.  Secondly it is a movement of the poor, by the poor and for the poors.  All the stakeholders of the movement, children, parents, teachers, parents and the entrepreneurs belong either to the poor or the lower middle class and part of the local community.  All these are very much in harmony with the latest trends in developmental thinking, which counsels a self-reliant, people-centred, locally-spun, community-centred growth.

The Swedish economist E.F. Schumacher conceived the concept of “appropriate technology” which means a technology which is in harmony with the unique, economic, social, cultural and ecological environment and needs of the community.  This movement of private schools can be the basis for creating an appropriate and sustainable education for the community as a whole.  The main advantage of this movement is that, at its core there is a group of dedicated, committed, efficient, educated, community-oriented and socially responsible entrepreneur who are willing to experiment and improve.  They can become a nucleus for a schooling system which can become a living center for sustainable development of the community.  This is a future possibility or potentiality of the movement.  To realize this potential requires a deeper and a broader vision of education and a curriculum which can integrate the educational objectives of individuals with the developmental aims of the community.  In this task, NGO with expertise in education can make a substantial contribution in improving the content and quality of the curriculum and imparting a higher vision and better methods of education to the owners and teachers of these private schools.

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