I am watching a news report on Newsnight, broadcast by the BBC, about private education in Nigeria. The report is the work of Professor James Tooley, who I think is one of the most interesting public intellectuals in the world.
Tooley has been roaming the world in recent years, finding cheap, successful, private schools, which are everywhere outperforming the shoddy state provided schools. Nigeria is no different.
It is one thing to see white blokes in suits saying at some pro free market conference that the private sector is better than the public sector. Watching Nigerian parents explaining the same thing, to a BBC news camera, is something else again.
So why, Tooley is asking, is everyone in denial? There is no global crisis in education. The private sector is supplying higher standards at a fraction of the cost.
Now we are in white blokes discussing it all mode, and Professor Keith Lewin of Sussex University is explaining that what Tooley has spent the last decade scrutinising with his own eyes is all a figment of his, Tooley’s, imagination.
Tooley has the advantage over Lewin. He has been there. He has seen it. He has found schools which, until he and his colleagues found them, nobody not directly involved with the schools in question knew existed. This is market success, says Tooley, and we should celebrate it.
Tooley’s report showed an incandescently eloquent private sector teacher in action. And he also showed a state school teacher in a state school classroom, a classroom filled with state school pupils who were busy trying teaching one another, while he, the state school teacher, was fast asleep at his desk.
Lewin says that this is all a tragedy, because he sees state failure. The state is, or should be, the educator of last resort. Market success is important to Lewin only because as far as he is concerned market success equals state failure, and state failure is bad bad bad. Lewin refers to “his colleagues in Africa”, who agree with him and do not agree with Tooley.
Those, I would guess, would be the state education bureaucrats who, time and time again, do not even realise that there is a thriving educational private sector in their own country, pretty much right under their noses. The government bureaucrats whom Lewin (I suspect) spends most of his African research time communing with, have little idea about this ferment of private education. Insofar as they do know of it, they do not want to know of it, because it makes them feel irrelevant. This is because they are irrelevant. And if they are irrelevant then so is the living that Professor Keith Lewin of Sussex University makes helping to prepare all this state bureaucrats for their careers in state education.
Now Lewin is talking gibberish about why Britain nationalised its schools in 1870. What we have just seen, says Lewin, invites the withdrawal of the state from the provision of all public services. Well, yes.
The thing about Tooley is not just what he says. It is also the sincerity and enthusiasm with which he says it. He will never convert the Lewins of this world. But he does seriously contest what they say, and, just like the numerous private schools which he has found the world over – in Africa, in China, in India, in Pakistan, in fact everywhere he looks – he does it with a fraction of the resources that the Lewin side of this debate now commands.
For more about all this, read this Sunday Times article by Tooley, which I would never have found out about had it not been for the BBC.
The BBC, outrageously biased, rampant supplier of last resort of rampantly pro-capitalist propaganda.