18 JANUARY 2003, Page 12


James Tooley on the extraordinary

success of private education in Africa and India

SCHOOLBOY WORLANYO leaves his crowded home in the townships of Accra. Ghana, early in the morning, smartly dressed in brown shorts and a bright hut frayed yellow shirt. He makes his way down filthy streets, but walks past the run-down exterior of the government school, where a few children forlornly wait for the doors to be unlocked. The government school teachers won't be there for a few hours, some not at all today, or any day. Worlanyo walks on past, turns off down the next alleyway and enters by the brightly hand-painted signboard the crowded playground of `De Youngster's International School'.

The elderly Mr A.K. De Youngster looks on with pride as the children begin their assembly with a hearty rendition of 'How Great Thou Art' at the school he started from scratch in 1980. Then there were 36 children in a downstairs room in his house, and he, an experienced headmaster, had opened his doors after pleas from township folk, unhappy even then that government schools 'were not doing their level best' for their children. Now, 22 years later, his chain of private schools has four branches, with 3,400 pupils. The fees are £30 per term — affordable for many of the poor — and to the many who can't afford that he offers free scholarships.

Seated in his office beneath a rickety fan that blows the sweat across his forehead, he chuckles as he tells me that, at the age of seven, he wrote to President Eisenhower from his village in West Ghana asking for help with his studies. 'The Americans wouldn't help me.' he smiles, 'so I learnt to help myself.' And now 45 per cent of Ghanaian children go to private school in Accra, many of these from poor families like the ones he serves, also 'helping themselves'.

In the Horn of Africa, the same story is repeated. Professor Suleyman, the vice-chancellor of Amoud University, the first private university in Somaliland, drives me up impossible roads to a hill overlooking Boroma, a city of 100,000 souls on the road to Ethiopia, and points out the location of each private school, some only half built. Boroma has no water supply (donkey carts deliver water in leaking jen-icans), no paved roads, no street lights and plenty of burnt-out tanks, remnants of its recent civil war. But it has two private schools for every government school. The governor asked me,' says Suleyman, '"Why are you putting your energies into building schools? — leave it to the Ministry of Education." But if we waited for government, it would take 20 years. We need schools now. Anyway,' he shakes his head, 'in government schools teacher absenteeism is rife; in our private schools we have commitment.' We visit one at the foot of the hill. Ubaya-binu-Kalab school, with 1,057 students, charges monthly fees of 12,000 Somali shillings for primary and 20,000 for secondary — that's about £3 to £6 per month. Again, 165 of the students attend for free, the poor subsiding the poorest.

Across the Indian Ocean, one sees the same phenomenon. In the slums of Hyderabad, the capital city of Andhra Pradesh, India. Zarina is packing away her books into her satchel at lunchtime. She leaves Peace

High School and walks on to noisy Edi Bazaar, effortlessly dodging autorickshaws and ox-carts. As she makes her way home with her sisters, they practise their English together, the eldest coaching the youngest, who in turn teaches their mother. The journey takes her past St John's High School on one corner, Modern High School on another; past New Convent School newly opened in the home of the proprietor, and past St Angel's Public School in a converted chicken farm — all private schools in the slums.

There is a government school nearby, where the children can get free rice at lunchtime, free books, and, of course, free tuition. But parents who care would not dream of sending their children there. 'We want teachers who teach, not who get our children to do domestic chores,' one veiled mother tells me. And we want our children to learn English, but that's not allowed in the government primary schools.' So parents pay their 0.50 per month, scrimping and saving to find the rupees.

Such parents now make up the majority in Hyderabad. Official figures show that 61 per cent of all students are enrolled in the private unaided sector, and these figures are likely to overestimate the numbers in government schools (because of corrupt over-reporting) and underestimate the numbers in the private sector (because many such schools are unrecognised, therefore not noticed).

In Africa and Asia the poor know that government schools won't serve their needs. But they do not sit idly by, dispossessed and disfranchised — adjectives used by the liberal elite to describe the poor — acquiescent in their government's failure. Instead they vote with their feet, desert the state schools and move their children to private schools set up by educational entrepreneurs to cater for their needs.

The startling thing is that these schools are commercially driven and not dependent on handouts from state or philanthropy. There is a spirit of dedication within the schools. The comments of Mr Mohamed Wajid, director of the Peace High School, are typical. When his mother was about to retire, she took him to one side. 'She showed me pictures of the less blessed people living here and reminded me that life must not be lived for oneself; life must be lived for others. So I took over the running of her school.'

Even charging very low fees, the schools can make a healthy profit, which, as in any good business, is ploughed back into the school. Part of the reason they can afford to do this is that they pay teachers perhaps a quarter of what they could get in the government schools, but the jobs are not available because the teaching unions have pushed up wages beyond any reasonable level.

The failure of state schools in parts of Africa and Asia is an open secret. For instance, the Indian government sponsored the Probe Report, which gives a disturbing picture of the 'malfunctioning' of government schools for low-income families. When researchers called unannounced on their random sample, there was 'teaching activity' in only 53 per cent of the schools. In 33 per cent the head teacher was absent. Significantly, there was a low level of teaching activity even in those schools with relatively good infrastructure, teaching aids and pupil–teacher ratios. Indeed, says the report, 'it has become a way of life in the profession'. The Probe Report concedes that the problems found in government schools were not apparent in private schools serving the poor. In the great majority — visited unannounced and at random — there was 'feverish classroom activity'. And what's true for India is increasingly true for countries across Asia and Africa.

What is the problem in state schools? The Probe Report put it succinctly: accountability. Private schools, the report said, were successful because they were more accountable. .The teachers are accountable to the manager (who can fire them) and, through him or her, to the parents (who can withdraw their children).' There is no such accountability in government schools. and 'this contrast is perceived with crystal clarity by the vast majority of parents'.

In government schools teachers have jobs for life, and the security of this has made them complacent rather than making them better teachers, as was the intention. I talked to two veterans of private education, Mr Ranga Setty and Mr D.A. Pandu, who run a chain of schools and colleges under the auspices of the Rashtreeya Sikshana Samishi Trust in Bangalore. Mr Ranga Setty told me, 'In India we have a saying, "You can hire him, God only can fire him." To which Mr Pandu adds that, in fact, not even God can fire him.

Does any of this have relevance outside the development debate? I believe it does. Stories of educational entrepreneurs in the slums and townships of Africa and Asia battling against hostile government and poverty are not just a source of inspiration for the school-choice movement in Britain and America; perhaps, using evidence from developing countries, we can do for the school-choice debate what E.G. West did for the same debate using evidence from history.

In his pioneering study, Education and the State, West argued that before major state involvement in education in England and Wales in 1870 school-attendance and literacy levels were more than 90 per cent. Far from ensuring universal attendance and literacy, state intervention merely reinforced a process that had been going on for some time. The press-cuttings from the time of the first publication of West's work show how this historical evidence began to transform the school-choice debate in the UK and elsewhere, influencing people such as the late Lord Joseph here and Milton Friedman in the US. As the Times Educational Supplement put it then, 'If working-class parents were prepared to back the choice they then possessed with money, why should they be presumed unfit to choose today when they are so much richer?'

The evidence from India and Africa can do for today's school-choice debate what West did for the same debate in the 1960s and 1970s. If the evidence reveals that the poorest worldwide are achieving better educational outcomes without the state, then this should inspire and buttress appeals for increased school choice in rich countries. It also raises anew the question: what on earth is government doing in education at all?

James Tooley is directing a research and development project on private schools for the poor in Africa and Asia,