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James Tooley on private sector education in Africa

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.

18 comments to James Tooley on private sector education in Africa

  • Bernie

    Yes Brian what an excellent piece this was. Another exquisite bit was the film in the state scholl with the teacher standing at the front of the class who not only had her mobile phone in her hand but (not joking here folks) when it rang she answered it and spent about 30 seconds establishing the caller had a wrong number, all with her class waiting.

    The Lewin creature reminded me of one of the new Dr. Who monsters who have zips in their foreheads.

  • john

    Dumb question, is there much homeschooling(Link) in the U.K.?

  • RAB

    I came accross a statistic a while back.In 1870 , when the Education act was passed, adult literacy in Britain was 96% Now it is 76% State education is a great idea though isnt it!? RAB

  • There’s no way those vaguely recalled percentages can be correct. 24% of adults incapable of reading and writing at all? I’d put money on the real figures being 76%->96% and not vice versa.

  • B4L

    Here is a specific source for the some similar figures – a survey of reading ability in the Royal Navy in 1865 “showed that 99% of the boys could read”.

    The source is R K Webb “The Victorian Reading Public” quoted in E G West “Education and the State”

  • Jacob

    Magnificient article by James Tooley.

    Make this the quote of the day:
    “If you go to a market and are offered free fruit and vegetables, they will be rotten. If you want fresh fruit and veg, you have to pay for them.”

  • Luniversal

    According to Roy Porter’s social history of London, by the late 17th century half of London’s *women* could already read and write enough to sign their names, besides a large majority of men.

    Living in cities and doing an industrial-revolution job does that for you– whether there is much formal schooling, free or otherwise, to be had or not.

    It is certain that by the time of Gladstone’s Education Act in 1870, Britain had one of the world’s most functionally literate societies. There was already a market for Sunday papers running into millions. The Act was intended as a consolidation of existing arrangements rather than the creation ex nihilo of a benevolent State schooling-for-all scheme. The fact that Gladstone, a stern enemy of high personal taxes, countenanced it indicates that. (The other object of the Act was to mediate between schools of different religious denominations and furnish secular alternatives.)

    Education in Britain had always been a semi-public patchwork. The ‘public schools’ were nearly all charitable endowments, some (e.g. Eton) paid for by the Crown. Grammar schools were usually financed by municipalities, and many other boarding and day secondary schools by craft guilds for their members’ children. Before the 1944 Butler Act, although fees were usually exacted, scholarships abounded and there was never a hard and fast division between public and private.

    As for Africa: if its formal education is being accomplished disproportionately by local and individual enterprise, that would make it no different from anywhere else. It is hard to think of a single nation where mass literacy and numeracy has been achieved mainly by top-down, centralised efforts– least of all when they are financed from outside sources.

  • Don’t want to be the pedantic statistician but these snippets prove little in themselves. So a non-random selection of people from one age group (perhaps educated in the 1860s) are judged by person X to have read items A, B, and C, to a certain level. This doesn’t mean that all those adults educated in the 1810s-1850s (some of whom may have had little contact with books since childhood) would be able to pass the same tests. Then there are class and gender issues… not many girls in the Royal Navy in 1865.

    Besides, the figures we hear about nowadays pertain to “functional illiteracy”: it’s not enough to be able to read/write, you need to be able to be able to put these skills into practice from day to day. I cannot believe that 24% of current school leavers are illiterate: incapable of being able to read a paragraph or write their own name, let alone 24% of all living adults.

    I would have said that literacy has gone up slightly, while functional literacy has gone up more quickly.

  • B4L

    If you’re going to be a pedantic statistician shouldn’t you furnish some statistics to support your argument?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Bloggers4Labour nitpicks the statistics but surely, if one is going to claim that compulsory state education is needed to combat illiteracy and inability to do maths, then it behoves those who take that view to have some reasonably solid evidence that life before compulsory schooling was a major mess. It must be upsetting for collectivists to discover that life can go on without the constant presence of the State.

    I hope that B4L is actually correct in feeling that functional illiteracy (however defined) is not as bad as some claim because we are in real trouble otherwise, given the growing need for a highly literate and numerate workforce.

    Luniversal makes an excellent point about the impact of urban growth and industrialisation. Kind of obvious really but worth making nonetheless.

  • B4L

    I don’t understand the distinction you are trying to make between people who can’t read/write and people who can’t read/write in their everyday lives. Isn’t this the same thing?

    The point you make in your first paragraph is interesting. Firstly the survey referred to was as far as I can tell an official survey rather than one man asking around a bit. Perhaps more tellingly though the rest of the paragraph, which I left out for the sake of keeping the comment short, indicates that among the sailors surveyed, the levels of literacy were lower among older members of the crew. ie literacy levels were rising throughout the middle part of the 19th Century, and was almost universal (in the population surveyed) among the boys. This all happened before the state got involved in 1870.

    Your point about class is surely wrong. The sailors would have been overwhelmingly from the poorest strata of society. As for girls see Luniversal’s post above. Also if private provision worked for boys why shouldn’t it work for girls?

  • RAB

    Oopps sorry you all! I usually go for jokes rather than statistics.But I believe the ones I quoted to be accurate.See my great great grandfather ran a private school in the Welsh valleys pre 1870 and we still have the records.Those who could pay did, and those that couldnt , didnt.Come the Education act, Gramps was effectively nationalised, but wound up the first headmaster of the Twyn school in Caerphilly.Why? cos he was good at what he did.He understood that in order to value something it comes at a cost.

  • HJHJ

    Discussing this on the basis of statistics which can’t easily be compared over time is not likely to be productive. I assume that B4L concedes, for example, that the rise in school standards since Labour came to power is largely illusory as demonstrated recently by a comprehensive report from Durham University. So trying to compare with 100 years ago is even less likely to be illuminative.

    The point, I feel, is that many of these parents in poor countries choose to pay for private schools (which actually run at less cost per pupil than state schools) even when there are free state ones available. Presumably this means that the ‘consumers’ of education perceive the private schools to be superior. What then is the case for the state paying, out of taxes, only for the schools which it actually runs? It seems that it would be cheaper and please parents more if the state ceased to run schools and just distributed to parents the money to pay for them.

    The only argument that I can understand against this is that someone in government perceives that they have a superior understanding of what children need from education and that this should override parents’ wishes. Is this what B4L is saying?

    Of course, there is another debate to be had about whether funding for schools should come from government at all, but if it does, what advantage is there in the government deliberately restricting consumer choice? This is the worst of all worlds.

  • “It is hard to think of a single nation where mass literacy and numeracy has been achieved mainly by top-down, centralised efforts…” How about the Sovyet Union? (ducking for cover)

  • Johnathan

    Alisa, you’d better duck! As in Cuba, what is the bloody point in encouraging literacy if reading material is heavily controlled by the State and free enquiry banned? I’d sooner be an ill-educated sailor on HMS Victory.

  • bwanadik

    Newsnight’s had James Tooley and Alex Singleton on within a week. If they get Brian Micklethwait on tonight, I’ll be a happy man!

    Praise be the BBC!

  • Jonathan, what utter nonsense (still protected by heavy furniture)! “I’d sooner be an ill-educated sailor on HMS Victory.” You cannot seriously mean that. Of course I agree with you that the less the state is involved the better everyone is off, but to say that state controlled education (at least when it comes to basic literacy and numeracy) is worse than no literacy and numeracy at all?

    When I was a kid there, we read all kinds of stuff, including a lot of things that were banned. Would we have been better off not being able to read at all? And I won’t even go into the math and science education, which was simply superior.

  • Jonathan, reading my comment again, I can see that I was quite rude. Sorry!