Low-Cost Private Education in Developing Countries: The Beautiful Tree

The Beautiful Tree from James Tooley provides a powerful antidote to the one-sided focus on public education as the only route towards universal education.

Tooley uses historical and geographical arguments to illustrate that public schools are not the only way to educate children.  Public schools were introdCover image of The Beautiful Treeuced by nation states as an instrument to exert more control over education and ‘building society’.  Motives for education have evolved from instilling democracy to preparing an industrial workforce. Standardized education systems with grades, curricula and exams are a reflection of an industrial society.  Before the introduction of schools, however, alternative education systems were in place based on community learning and apprenticeship, such as the Madras method with older students teaching younger ones.  Jean Lave described such forms of learning in developing countries, which formed the base for his concept of ‘Communities of Practice’.  

The title of the book refers to a quote from Gandhi, in which he refers to the introduction of standardized, school-based education by the British colonialists, who claimed that no education system was in place,  as the ‘uprooting of a beautiful tree’.  Neither is public education the only game in town in developing countries.  Tooley describes numerous private schools in slums and poor neighbourhoods, charging parents around 5$ per month.  But why would parents pay for education if  free public education is available?

Tooley presents research showing that  low-cost private schools in poor regions often do a better job in educating the poor than public schools. There are different reasons for this.  The main one is direct accountability, creating clear incentives to provide quality education.  Directors in private schools are under pressure from parents to recruit and train teachers well and to control them.  Teachers are under pressure to perform as parents want value for money and check on their children’s learning.  Directors have more flexibility to reward and lay off teachers.  In public education, accountability is much lower and indirect, through elections and bureaucratic monitoring systems. The result is  rampant absenteeism and low motivation.  Tooley quotes Kenyan figures of 30% absenteeism (about 1 chance in 3 that an unexpected visit finds that a scheduled lesson is not going on), and I think Cambodian figures could well be in the same order.  In Cambodia, many public school teachers double up as teachers in private schools, adhering more importance to the latter.

Private schools charge fees to poor parents. This might seem immoral at first sight, but Tooley dismisses the image of private schools directors as heartless capitalists. Most schools waive fees for the poorest.  Public education is free in name only. Informal  (uniforms, books, exam fees) and hidden (obligations to take additional tutoring, ‘contributions’ for exams) fees make public education often  quite expensive.  Public schools tend to be bigger and less concentrated in poor neighbourhoods than private schools, as they need scaling to cover for higher teacher and administration salary costs.

Finally, as Tooley and Duflo and Banerjee argue, people, even poor people, are willing to pay for education, provided they get value for their money.  Data on the number of poor people choosing to send their children to private schools, despite so-called free public education, are quite staggering.  In Cambodia private schools are popping up everywhere, many charging 5 to 10 dollars a month, an amount feasible for many Cambodians.  Many seem more interested in quality education, rather than free education.

Tooley blames development partners in putting all focus on achieving ‘free public education for all’, crowding out local entrepreneurship with donor money and neglecting quality and accountability.  Parents preferring private education are dismissed as ‘ignoramuses’ (quoting Oxfam), who don’t know what’s good for them. Instead of propping up inefficient government systems, he advocates helping educational ‘searchers’ (a term from Easterly)  through legal support and micro-finance   Targeted vouchers for poor students are more efficient than subsidising everyone. He advocates ‘brand’ development to help parents identify quality, similarly to the brand McDonalds guarantees a certain ‘quality’ of hamburger (hmm, perhaps not the best example).  

It’s a thought-provoking book, questioning many strategies we apply in Cambodia. Inefficiencies in the government system (low salaries, low teacher motivation, low accountability, corruption…) are considered as ‘external’ assumptions and mostly ignored. Donors cooperate with governments and supporting private schools would actively undermine the government’s own education system.  Western approaches to schooling and education are unquestioningly transferred to developing countries.  Private initiatives to  education are condemned as ‘antisocial’ and ‘low quality’.  I recommend Tooley’s book as it challenged assumptions about the role of the state and the school in education, not only in developing countries.


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