Thursday, February 18, 2010

The private window to rural education

The Beautiful Tree
By James Tooley
Penguin Viking
Rs 499/-

Rajesh Singh

Schools operated by private parties are supposed to be for children of well-off families and those run by the government are for the rest of the others. This is the general impression. Another impression is that, while the privately managed schools are mercenaries driven by profits, government institutions reach out to the poorest of the poor offering them free education denied by the privileged institutions. Such beliefs have been crucial in the spread of government-run schools at the primary and secondary levels at least in Third World countries including India. It is not an easy task to debunk these well-entrenched thoughts. James Tooley has attempted to set the record straight, exposing the hollowness of those claims by material that he collected in the course of his extensive research and travels in India, China and a clutch of African countries.

The bias – uninformed as it turns out to be – made government authorities shut their eye to the very real world of private sector education at affordable cost, with needy students in these schools being taught for free. Not just that, the officials at various levels failed to appreciate that the less privileged families preferred these schools for their children to government-run institutions because they believed the former offered reliability and quality.

The author ran into problems even before he could begin the project that he termed “a personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves.” After he initially stumbled on the flourishing private school culture in the poorest localities of Hyderabad, Tooley discussed the issue with World Bank officials for guidance but found them unresponsive. He says in the book, “They weren’t at all impressed. I met a group of staff members in their pleasant offices, replete with potted ferns and pretty posters of cute children. Most, it was true, had never heard of private schools serving the poor… no one considered my information very significant.”

Tooley takes a swipe at Nobel laureate Amartya Sen who in his work India: Development and Participation “trotted out the standard line on private education, that the ‘privileged classes’ are the ‘main clients’ of unaided private schools.” The author also quoted Sen as saying that the government should be more actively involved in “opening more schools…” Tooley says even eminent persons such as Sen, who are well informed about the major role the private schools have played in educating students from the less privileged sections of society, have failed to recognize the fact and continue to harp on the government involvement as the panacea.

What amazes the author is that the material used as source for these misplaced conclusions, brimmed with information on how private education was touching the lives of the poor, with enrollments among them rising with the year. For instance, the World Bank’s Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) covering four north Indian states, at one place stated, “Even among poor families and disadvantage communities, one finds parents who make great sacrifices to send some or all of their children to private schools, so disillusioned are they with government schools.”

Yet this very institute cold-shouldered Tooley. The author then found a patron by chance in Goa at a seminar where he presented his “small scale Hyderabad research.” Charles Harper of John Templeton Foundation, who was there, was impressed enough by the material to back the project for more extensive research, covering Africa and China, besides India. And from then on began his ‘personal journey.’

While, unlike most journeys Westerners take of India that throw fresh light and rub prejudices away from the traveller, Tooley’s inroads were intentioned to fortify his clear belief that private sector education was reaching out to the poor. Still, he too was surprised – and more than happy – to come across material that shattered the fond conviction of many Whites that the British brought quality education into India, with all the accompanying paraphernalia like building, blackboard etc. In a chapter tellingly titled ‘The Men Who Uprooted the Beautiful Tree’, the author quotes Mahatama Gandhi’s observations on how the British education system had failed India. The Father of the Nation said, “This very poor country of mine is ill able to sustain such an expensive method of education. Our state would revive the old village schoolmaster and dot every village with a school both for boys and girls.”

Following his line of thought, Tooley talks of the effort made by Sir Thomas Munro in the early 19th century to assess the “ignorance” of the natives. He asked his Collectors from across the country to conduct a survey and inform about the schools that existed their respective regions before the British intervened. The author states, “Far from there being no schooling in India before the British brought their system, the figures show an abundance of pre-existing schools and colleges.” Munro, in fact, wrote that the levels of enrollment (before the British involved themselves in education) were “higher than it was in most European countries at no very distant future.”

One actor in the destruction of the ‘beautiful tree’ was Macaulay. As Tooley quotes, this great scholar was completely dismissive of Indian scholarship, as his infamous remark showed, “…all the historical information which has been collected in all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.” Tooley then goes on to talk of the “modern Macaulays – today’s development experts, academics, aid agency officials” -- who are well-intentioned but erroneously believe that the poor need their help and cannot have a choice to educate their children whichever best way they can devise, including private education.

The so-called discovery of a robust education system before the British advent could have surprised only the stiff-upper lip Westerner. India has had a guru-shishya tradition for ages, and open air classes still abound in several villages. While there are drawbacks, there is no denying the fact that the country had a sound education system when the British came.

But this is a diversion, though an important one for the author since it took him to various libraries and research centres. The book is not on the point of the existence of quality education in pre-British times but on how the poor in developing and under-developed nations are increasingly exercising a choice to offer private sector education to their children in the hope of a better future for them. Whether in India, the African countries he visited or China, he met families that struggled to survive but were intent on sending their children to the neighbourhood private school. They spoke of the unreliability of government schools where teachers regularly remained absent and classes routinely merged into an unwieldy mass of children. Tooley visited several of these government institutions and found for himself how true the unflattering observations were.

On the other hand, he visited the many small private schools run by dedicated teachers for neighbourhood children. Since the teacher and the student came from virtually the same backyard, communication was easier, which made learning fun. While the owners of nearly all of these schools clarified that they were operating the institutions for profit, they pointed out instances where some students were given free education since their parents simply could not afford the fee. These were not ‘charitable’ institutions, as some critics of private schooling said to explain away the patronage of these schools by the poor.

The book is a real eye-opener for all those who have a stake in enhancing education in our country. This includes nearly everyone – you, me, the government and the private enterprise. As Nandan Nilekani writes in the foreword, “The goal of bringing education to all in the next few years has seemed unlikely given the progress we have made over the last couple of decades. A beautiful Tree, however, is testament to the fact that it can still be done. Universal schooling will be achieved not just through a top-down, public funded program, but through the efforts and creativity of school entrepreneurs...”

School entrepreneurs – perhaps the reform-minded Kapil Sibal would want to pursue the idea.

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