Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Schools and Hard Knocks

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Schools and Hard Knocks

Article excerpt

On a quest to research low-cost private education in developing countries, James Tooley visited some of the world's poorest places - and ran into trouble along the way. Matthew Reisz reports

It was the very logic of his research that took James Tooley to the outer limits - and eventually landed him in an Indian jail.

Now professor of education policy at Newcastle University, Tooley started life as a socialist. While doing a PhD at what is today the UCL Institute of Education, however, he "looked at the justifications for government's involvement in [every level of] education and found them all unconvincing". This led him to "come out in favour of private education" and, in 1995, to set up an education unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs - the free-market thinktank that had enjoyed something of a vogue during the Thatcher era - and to produce reports such as Education without the State (1996).

Although he was convinced on philosophical grounds, Tooley remained concerned that "everybody knew private education was for the rich and the elite". The real question, for someone committed to widening educational opportunity, was whether private low-cost schools could work in developing countries and attract support and fees from some of the poorest parents on the planet.

It was in 2000, as he reports in his 2009 memoir, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, that Tooley began to find out for himself. He was working in India on a consultancy project for the International Finance Corporation (the private-sector arm of the World Bank) looking at elite private colleges. On a day off, he set out to explore the slums of Hyderabad, found just the kinds of schools he had hoped to find and experienced "a genuine epiphany - I came back to my hotel and thought 'I now know what I want to do with my life'".

The Beautiful Tree describes a journey that took him "to battle-scarred townships in Somaliland; to shantytowns built on stilts above the Lagos lagoons in Nigeria; to India again, to slums and villages across the country; to fishing villages the length of the Ghanaian coastline; to the tin-and-cardboard huts of Africa's largest slums in Kenya; to remote rural villages in the poorest provinces of northwestern China; and back again to Zimbabwe [where he had his 'first real job' as a maths teacher in 1980], to its soon-to-be bulldozed shantytowns."

Since national governments and development experts often downplayed the importance or even denied the existence of the schools he was interested in, Tooley found himself venturing well off the beaten track to find them. In the Makoko slum near Lagos, for example, his book describes how he and his driver abandoned their car on an "impassable" road and "picked our way carefully. The street was flooded from the previous night's rains. The open sewers along either side had spilled out into the road; I followed my driver, squelching my way from one side of the street to the other, avoiding the worst excesses of slime and mud, human excrement, and piled rubbish.

"In Makoko, you must go beyond the public schools on the outskirts, beyond the paved road into unknown and forbidding territory. If everyone tells you that there are no such schools beyond, and it's a threatening place, why would you bother to go and look for yourself? To find the private schools, you really must get your boots dirty. Not everyone is prepared to do that."

Tooley is now a passionate advocate for low-cost private schools in poor countries, and he serves as patron of the Association of Formidable Educational Development in Nigeria. He explains that his work involves supporting curriculum development, assessment and money-raising efforts; the schools are "funded by parental fees and sustainable at the individual level but can't fund teacher training". …

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