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ThinkEd: Out on a Limb of the Beautiful Tree

Stuart Middleton
13 September 2010

They invitation sounded interesting, James Tooley was coming to town to address a dinner being organised by the Maxim Institute. First thing to do was to seek more information.

“James Tooley is Professor of Education Policy at Newcastle University and is the founder of The Beautiful Tree Foundation. His work in slum and low-income areas around the world and dedication to private initiatives in education have won him worldwide acclaim and awards. He is the world’s expert on private schools for the poor in developing countries.”

And so the presentation started full of interest. Tooley had spent a good deal of time in the developing world (particularly in Zimbabwe and Hyerabad) and had noticed that in the key areas of disadvantage, the slums, there had developed a phenomenon – the growth of small schools set up privately outside the government system that in such areas struggle to meet demand.

I was surprised that he was surprised by this. The development of small schools outside the official system is a feature throughout the developing world. It happens in the Pacific and at the early childhood level in New Zealand among certain communities. These reflect the insatiable demand for education in developing countries. Education is seen as a liberating mechanism for getting a ticket out of the poverty and hardship of the slum.

This is not surprising. None of the these communities wish to live such lives, in slums with the degradation of poverty and disease, the gloomy prospects for the future evident to them every day of their lives. The very same political systems that create such areas are in fact responsible for promoting education as the way ahead, the alternative, but for a range of reasons cannot deliver on their promise and education is available in such settings to only a few. Schools spring up along the style of village schools with the trappings of a “good school” such as a uniform. They cluster around a teacher or two, work in very basic premises and have little in the way of resources other than those of resilient people.

It was at this point that the audience was asked to make some big leaps in logic. Yes, these little schools were private but not private as we know it Jim!

To make the leap from “private” in the sense that these schools were outside the government system to “private” as the term is applied to independent schools in the western education system while popular with the audience, was a little beyond credulity. And a great irony is that while he extolled the virtue of the slum schools being really independent i.e. they received no support from the government, he at the same time asked the audience to see in these schools an implicit support for private education in the wealthy west where “independent schools” receive considerable sums of government funding which in comparison to the private schools of the slums puts them in an entirely different space.

But the sudience seemed not to mind as his stories were full of interest and his presentation professional and well-illustrated. The bigger leaps of logic were yet to come!

Tooley had a photo of a teacher, a teacher in a government school he claimed, with his head on the teacher’s desk asleep. Let’s assume that this person was a teacher, was asleep and that the desk was in a government school in the interests of getting to the point he made. This showed that all teachers in government schools were lazy and by extension incompetent. This was because they were paid too much and consequently this slumbering fellow proved that government schools were a waste of resources.

Well the facts speak otherwise in India where the issues are huge. I lazily googled India and education to quickly and effortlessly learn that India had increased primary education attendance rate and expanding literacy to approximately two thirds of the population. Its education system is cited as one of the main contributors to its economic rise, the benefits of which clearly do not reach the slums. I also learned that much of the progress in education has been credited to various private institutions. But wait a minute – I learn that the private education market in India is estimated to be worth $40 billion in 2008 and will increase to $68 billion by 2012. Surely this is not referring to the private schools of the slums. India, and of course we know this, must have an elite private education system as well located well away from the slums – just like New Zealand and most other countries where there is wealth.

In India, 35% of its population is still illiterate, only 15% of Indian students reach high school, and just 7% graduate. India’s post-secondary colleges offer only enough seats for 7% of India’s college-age population. The private schools of Tooley’s talk must make a difference, especially to the little ones who go to them but the issues faced by the country are of tsunami proportion.

New Zealand can’t be complacent. Some of the issues we face are growing at a pace that requires urgent intervention. One of these could be the establishment of private schools, independent schools, in our most disadvantaged communities. Somehow I do not think that those in the audience who clearly signalled their support for Tooley’s contention that governments should not be involved in education had that in mind. I wait with interest for New Zealand’s prestigious private schools to set up shop in the areas in which I work.

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