A new take on private schools in developing countries, which sees them not as money-making machines exploiting the poor, but as a much needed asset that can help fulfil the goal of a decent education for all
The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves, by James Tooley, Penguin India, 2009, pages 302
In his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi writes of the visit of a school inspector. The teacher was anxious that every pupil he tutored got his spellings right and so when the young Mohandas misspelled the word ‘kettle’, the teacher did his best to prompt him or hint that he cheat from a classmate who had the correct spelling.
The school inspector’s visit has formed a motif for several stories in the subcontinent. Once a year, government school inspectors continue to make their mandated visit to government schools and teachers make students brush up their knowledge. The school inspectors make up one rung of the private school system – a very powerful rung. School inspectors have the responsibility of visiting every school in their jurisdiction to ensure that these run according to set government regulations.
Among many other things in his very evocative book on the world of private schooling, The Beautiful Tree, James Tooley talks of these regulations in relation to the world of private schooling as he sees it across various countries of the developing world.
His wide sweeping gaze begins with India, and moves over Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and also China. Wherever he begins his story, he notices the overt denial on the part of government or education officials of the existence of private schools, and the ostensible absence of such schools. But everywhere the evidence that greets him after a detailed, close search is the same: private schools exist, and in total contradiction to what experts believe, such schools appear to be always the first and the most preferred choice of poor parents.
Where public schools fail
Tooley chanced on private schools in Hyderabad while on a research visit. The initiative, dedication and enthusiasm shown by the small private entrepreneurs who ran these schools tucked away in hidden parts of the old city, impressed him. They were genuinely driven by the need to do something to promote learning and poor people benefited most from these private schools.
Poor parents, as Tooley learnt wherever he went, were willing to pay a price because in government schools not only was the infrastructure bad or poorly maintained, but teachers were frequently absent, and worse, the teaching was abysmally poor. The teachers just did not have time to attend to every child’s needs. As other studies on the failure of public schools in the developing world have brought out time and again, teachers are absent or are not motivated; the pupil-teacher ratio is not conducive; teachers are not accountable to the school and function in rigid unions and thus, more often than not, children are often abandoned to their own devices. Also, government schools simply do not exist or are non-functional in remote, relatively inaccessible regions such as tribal dominated areas. Teachers are not willing to travel to faraway areas. They also have government duties to perform, such as during elections or gathering census data.
The NGO, Pratham conducts an annual state of the education survey (the ASER reports) and its reports almost uniformly present a disturbing image of the limited attainments of children in public or recognised schools. These aren’t children in the exclusive and expensive private schools but those everywhere else, in functional government schools or even smaller recognised private schools. Even at the age of nine, children in several states in Orissa, Bihar and even relatively better developed Karnataka, were not able to spell their own name, as a Pratham report of 2008 brings out.
Tooley details his surprise visits to schools in Nigeria and Kenya where he chanced on classes where the teacher was either blatantly napping, reading the newspaper, or otherwise just not there. Strangely, Tooley also finds that private schools exist in Communist China despite stringent denials on the part of its officials and even Tooley’s own research assistants. Private schools filled a vital lacuna in villages located in the relatively inaccessible, mountainous parts of the country. Parents worried that their daughters especially would have to walk to these distant schools, found in the private schools that functioned within the bare rooms of a small village home a welcome safe haven.
The stories he tells seem repetitive till you realise that Tooley is hoping to drive home several points. Whether in Hyderabad, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, or China, Tooley finds private schools elusive at first. Education officials, even research assistants he engages, tell him they don’t exist, that there cannot be private schools as all schools that exist for the poor are government run, for it is only the latter that can make the effort and the investment required to educate the children of the poor. Private schools are nothing but commercial money-spinning ventures, and only ignorant parents choose to send their children to such schools.
Still, all the parents he interviews everywhere are adamant about why they prefer private schools for their children. It surprises Tooley that development experts, despite the obvious failure of state led efforts to ensure education for all, simply do not allude to the many private schools or else dismiss the valuable role such schools perform.
There are, Tooley points out time and again, simply too many students out of school, and the millennium development goal of ‘education for all by 2015’ set by the United Nations, seems impossible to achieve. Yet private schools can help plug this gap.
Why private schools are needed
While he busts myths like only ignorant parents send their children to private schools, there are some other ‘truths’ about private schooling that Tooley doesn’t highlight quite as rigorously. One is the insistence on English education, which private schools (and this is obviously true for India in large measure) offer, and which all aspiring parents think is essential for their children to get ahead in life. This preference persists despite populist decisions taken by certain state governments to arbitrarily impose the regional language as a compulsory subject in government or government recognised schools. as was most recently seen in Karnataka in 2004.
The problem faced by private unrecognised schools is the battle to win recognition that they often lose. To win recognition, private schools sometimes have to pay a bribe. They need infrastructure and good teachers (which prove elusive in most cases) but inspectors have to be bribed simply so the schools can run. This is one reason why most private unrecognised schools function largely at primary and middle levels and are less evident at senior levels. Students from the lower classes face difficulties when they have to shift to other schools. Statistics show that the drop-out rate in middle schools has by and large remained the same over the last decade in India though gross enrolment rates may have risen. One reason could simply have to do with the presence or absence of private schools, and the transition difficulties.
Tooley’s experiences point to the need to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit that could help establish more private schools. Educare, the organisation he founded, is a trust that is financing precisely such schools in areas he had first done his research in.
James Tooley’s findings highlight a vital, long neglected area of education. And this makes up for the gaps that emerge in his conclusions. A private initiative that would found and nurture scores of private schools across a broad region would develop the same kind of complexities and contradictions that drive any such behemoth-like system, including the state run school system, anywhere. One reason why private schools - the kind Tooley has detailed in his book - have worked well is precisely because of the informal nature of their functioning.
There is another contradiction he does not address in the Indian context which plagues private schools here, and which was also established in the second report of the Pratichi Trust (2009) on public schools in certain West Bengal districts: that while teachers will work for less money in private schools, they do not stay in the job for long. They also seek to make up for the lower pay by taking coaching classes after school hours. It is this coaching system that the first Pratichi report (2001) had highlighted as a reason for the poor performance of government schools and the widespread teacher apathy in several schools in the districts of West Bengal. (1)
Tooley’s findings assume importance in the light of the recently passed legislation on the right to education for all in India. Many experts feel that the RTE emphasises numbers (of children in school) more than it does the quality of teaching. If private schools were given their due, in the manner Tooley argues, there would be fewer children out of school than at present.
Tooley’s book gets its title from an article written by Mahatma Gandhi on the state of ‘native’ education’ before the advent of the British and their introduction of the modern ‘centralised’ system of education. Gandhi called the village school system a ‘beautiful tree’ that withered due to neglect by the British government which took credit for introducing modern subjects and a modern system of education.
The British, as even Gandhi wrote, insisted that pre-colonial education systems were too few to have ever had an impact, but the lie to this appears in the numerous survey reports in the Presidency areas under British control that it commissioned in the early 19th century. The Munro report talks of the many small village schools in the Madras presidency that taught an entire range of subjects. But Munro - and Tooley cites this survey report enthusiastically - was not very forthcoming about whether such schools catered to all castes/communities and women as well. Evidently not, as other historical works bear out; besides, education within artisanal communities happened within the guild system as well.
The private schools James Tooley cites in his book are those that flourish in the most adverse of circumstances, in the most unfriendly places and as their numbers indicate, despite all odds. In a time when it is obvious that the efforts of the State cannot prevail everywhere, or have failed to ensure delivery of essential services such as health and education, coexistence between private and public efforts could work wonders. But before coexistence, recognition that such agencies exist is important, and as Tooley has argued in this evocative, very persuasive book, sometimes that is the very first step.
1. The Pratichi Trust was set up by the Nobel winning economist, Amartya Sen. The first Pratichi report published in 2001 looked at the state of public school education across districts of West Bengal and Jharkhand. The second Pratichi report of 2009 was a follow-up detailed study conducted in the same districts as a comparative exercise.
(Anu (Anuradha) Kumar is a writer and editor based in Gurgaon. She worked as a management consultant after her degree from XLRI Jamshedpur. Later she was in the editorial team of the EPW. Her novels include Letters for Paul (2006); Atisa and the Seven Wonders (Penguin 2008) and In the Country of Gold-digging Ants (Penguin 2009)
InfoChange News & Features, January 2010