Private need not be a middle-class preserve

9th October 2009 at 01:00
Parents want less state control of education, not just in Britain but in the world's poorest slums

Parents don't remotely think our state school system delivers the best quality education. In our recent research, we found that half wanted vouchers they could spend on independent schools, and a huge majority wanted politicians removed from the daily running of schools.

And when we asked which types of schools provided "the best standards of education", the largest proportion voted for private schools. Just 5 per cent chose ordinary state schools.

This is all the more striking given the relentless pressure from politicians and opinion-formers in the media saying, day in and day out, that the state system is the only way forward for parents in this country. We all see the paroxysms of agony politicians go through to avoid having to admit that their children go to private schools.

We see how David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has to tread carefully because he received a private education. We see the huge success of private education in getting children into top jobs used only to castigate those who choose it. And we see media pundits such as Fiona Millar and the Oxford don Adam Swift, author of How Not to Be a Hypocrite, criticising middle-class parents who abandon their local comprehensives.

But in spite of this pressure from opinion formers, the great British public is not persuaded. They guess an alternative system could deliver a better education for their children, and feel it must come with greater independence from the state and a greater role for the private sector. For them, this is not elitist, not something to be embarrassed about, but something to be embraced.

These British parents' intuitions are absolutely in line with the way the majority of parents - including, most significantly, very poor parents - are embracing private education across the developing world.

Our other recent research points to a vibrant private sector in developing countries and emergent economies, as opposed to the one we have in Britain, which is stultified and despised by those in power. An education revolution is sweeping the developing world. Even in some of the poorest areas of the planet, ordinary people are abandoning state education en masse, appalled by its low standards. Instead, they're sending their children to burgeoning low-cost private schools.

For the past decade we've been on an extraordinary journey across sub-Saharan Africa, India and China. We've been cataloguing and, more recently, assisting in the development of low-cost private schools - and it has been wonderfully uplifting. In slums and shanty towns, the majority of poor children are attending low-cost private schools, affordable even to parents on minimum wages. Entrepreneurs have set up these institutions against the odds, often with untrained teachers who still bring out more from their pupils than those in the state schools.

Our research teams combed slums and shanty towns in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and India. In the deprived areas surveyed, the vast majority of school children were found to be in "budget" private schools. In the poorest urban parts of Lagos State, Nigeria, this was true of 75 per cent of school children.

And the quality of the teaching? Staff absenteeism was lower and, when our researchers called unannounced, we saw a higher proportion of teachers actually teaching than in government schools. The private schools outperformed their state counterparts in the key curriculum subjects, as we found when we tested 24,000 children.

Many parents had tried state schooling but did not feel it was good enough, so moved their children back to low-cost private schools. Nowhere was this truer than in countries that have recently brought in free public education - Kenya, for instance, heralded by everyone from Bono to Bill Clinton.

One father we spoke to lived in Kibera, where half a million people are crammed into corrugated-iron and cardboard huts. He moved his daughter to the state school on the periphery of the slum when it was made free, only to become disillusioned by huge class sizes and teachers who no longer cared. His understanding of economics would have warmed Margaret Thatcher's heart. "If you go to the market and are offered free fruit and vegetables, they'll be rotten," he said. "If you want fresh produce, you have to pay for it."

We like talking to such parents. Talking to those opposed to school choice in the UK, one is struck by the assumption that ordinary, poor parents cannot possibly be equipped to make proper decisions about their children's education. Talking to poor parents gives the lie to that every single time.

One family in Ghana sent their daughter, now 14, to a private school in a fishing village. The father, Joshua, a fisherman who takes his boat out at 3am every morning, said: "Private schools are better because there is a private owner. If you don't teach as expected, you'll be fired and replaced."

The evidence from around the world shows us, first, that most people, poor as well as rich, care deeply about their children's education; there is no middle-class monopoly on this. Second, because of the universality of parental concern, there's nothing intrinsically divisive about it either. It may be true today that private education in the West is patronised largely by the middle and upper classes - which is why politicians and opinion-formers feel they have to castigate it. But there's nothing inevitable about this.

There's no reason why parents in Britain shouldn't be taken seriously in the doubts they raise about state provision. Rather than ignoring their misgivings, our report's conclusion is that a much larger private sector should be encouraged in Britain: there are too few people in private schools.

The way forward is to give people the freedom - perhaps through vouchers, perhaps through a mind-shift about what is acceptable - to send their children to private schools. That is the only way we can satisfy the desire of all parents for the best education for their children.

'The Beautiful Tree' by James Tooley is published by Penguin, New Delhi

Professor James Tooley and Dr Pauline Dixon, Newcastle University.

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