Nurturing “A Beautiful Tree”

Nurturing “A Beautiful Tree”

By Hasan Zillur Rahim

“The Beautiful Tree” is a book that lays bare the bankruptcy of Western ideas about free primary education in developing countries. Written by British educator James Tooley and supported by data from the field, it shows how the poor of the world are taking charge of their educational destiny, and how foreign money and governmental collusion threaten to undermine them.

Tooley’s odyssey began in Hyderabad, India, in 2000. A chance stroll through the old city’s teeming slums led him to dozens of makeshift schools where children of rickshaw pullers, street vendors, laborers and society’s assorted underclass were receiving their basic education. The teachers were animated and energetic, the students eager and curious, far more than what he saw in the government and elite schools in the city and its affluent suburbs.

Ignored by western aid agencies and harassed by government officials, a vast network of private schools in these low-income areas have been serving the poor for years. They are locally owned and funded, in contrast to the free public schools that receive copious financial aid from western donors and NGOs. Yet the poor send their children to these private schools, supporting them with fees from their meager income.

They made this conscious decision, Tooley found, because they had compared the public and private schools in their areas and found the education in the latter superior. They could see the transformative power of knowledge in their children as they moved through the grades, even though they had no education themselves.

Tooley’s discovery was as simple as it was profound: The poor chose self-reliance over dependency. They were the best agents of their change, from poverty to prosperity.

Guaranteed salaries in government schools meant that many teachers, beneficiaries of political patronage, rarely showed up for work, and when they did, spent much of their time sleeping or relaxing rather than teaching. “I don’t care whether students learn anything or not. I always collect my pay at the end of the month,” was how one teacher put it.

In contrast, teachers in the fee-charging private schools had to earn their wings every day, or else they were fired. Accountability, combined with a genuine desire to shape young minds, motivated these poorly-paid teachers to excel in their craft, reflected in the higher scores of private school students over their counterparts in government schools.

From numerous interactions with aid executives, public school officials and teachers, Tooley came to understand the philosophy guiding western donors and NGOs: The natives, many of them poor ignoramuses, don’t know what’s best for them. We do. We will fund the construction of schools, bring technology into classrooms, train teachers on western styles of teaching and make education free for all. Good salaries and incentives will ensure a large supply of locals who will buy into our ideas, implement them as directed and stifle any renegade educational movements.

But the private schools of Hyderabad thrived under the most challenging conditions imaginable. Operating as for-profit businesses, the owners provided philanthropy to destitute parents as needed, while holding teachers to the highest standards of behavior, punctuality and subject-mastery and evaluating them on the performance of their students. Tooley felt inspired simply by talking with school owners and teachers like Fazlur Rahman Khurrum, Mohammed Wajid, “Sajid-Sir,” and Maria. The success of their approach was evident in the lively and high-achieving students of their schools.

Was this phenomenon unique to the backstreets and alleys of Hyderabad, Tooley wondered, or was it prevalent elsewhere in the world as well?

For the next several years, Tooley traveled to slums, shantytowns and villages in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Somaliland, Zimbabwe and China. Though separated by language and culture, he found the same drive among the poor to educate their children in indigenous schools operating on shoe-string budgets rather than in free, government schools. The school owners were animated by the same ideas he found in Hyderabad: that a monopoly, as practiced by foreign-funded public schools, bred failure while a competitive educational model based on self-reliance and accountability ensured success.

In his investigation, Tooley uncovered facts that turned conventional wisdom on its head. One such was that the British brought education to the uneducated masses of the subcontinent. Yet data collected in India in early 19th century showed that there were over 20,000 schools and colleges with over 160,000 students in just 20 districts alone, before the British imported their system. Students included the poorest and the most disadvantaged. Thomas Munro, governor of the Madras Presidency, had to acknowledge that this level of educational enrollment “is higher than it was in most European countries at no very distant period.” Similar high-volume schooling was prevalent in Bengal, Bombay and the Punjab, as evident from one of the reports published in 1841 by the University of Kolkata, titled “State of Education in Bengal 1835-38.”

Citing these figures, Mahatma Gandhi said at Chatham House, London, on October 20, 1931, that “today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago … because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished.”

What was the beautiful tree Gandhi was referring to? It was the network of private schools, “closely interwoven with the habits of the people and the customs of the country,” throughout India that served students both poor and rich. Philip Hartog, a former vice-chancellor of Dhaka University, was in the audience when Gandhi made his assertion, and was incensed by it. He set out to prove Gandhi, who was imprisoned in 1932 on his return to India, wrong.

It is rich in irony that Tooley, an Englishman (he chose the title “The Beautiful Tree” for his book as homage to Gandhi), dissects Hartog’s arguments point by point almost seven decades later and proves that Gandhi was, in fact, right. Far from bringing education to India, as the British congratulated themselves on doing, they instead crowded out the already-flourishing private education system with their alien system. Illiteracy increased as a consequence.

Tooley is particularly critical of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), the architect of the public schooling system in existence in India today and across the developing world where the British wielded influence. Macaulay was openly dismissive of indigenous scholarship and installed a centralized system of “free” education, with mandatory paraphernalia for every school, buildings and so forth. As Gandhi wrote, “This very poor country of mine is ill able to sustain such an expensive method of education.” Gandhi wished to return to a system of “private schools for the poor, funded mostly by fees and a little philanthropy.”

Whether it is the World Bank or Department for International Development (DfID), UNDP, Oxfam, UNESCO, UNICEF, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or well-meaning celebrities like Bono, Tooley believes that “development experts today, academics, aid agency officials, and the pop stars and actors and who encourage them, are modern day Macaulays.”

While they believe in the importance of education, they are also convinced that without their intervention, the poor will be doomed. Like Macaulay, they will not even admit to the possibility that the poor can meet their educational aspirations on their own. Macaulay thought there was only one way to educate Indians, and that was to install a uniform and centralized system that suited the British upper classes. The modern Macaulays hold the same view, that only publicly funded systems that serve Britain and America is also the solution, particularly for the poor, in developing countries. “My journey,” Tooley writes, “across Africa and India, and into history, leads me to believe that they are as mistaken today as Macaulay was then.”

Through inquiry and analysis, as opposed to theorizing and acting on received wisdom, Tooley has offered compelling evidence that the world’s poor are not waiting for educational handouts. They are building their own schools and educating themselves, a surer path to universal literacy and prosperity than the sterile ideas and practices of development experts.

Tooley’s observations point the way to a promising future for developing nations. They must find a way to unlock the potential of their poor citizens. It can be done if educational entrepreneurs like Fazlur Rahman Khurrum and Maria build self-sustaining schools in urban slums and villages and transform them into centers of excellence in their countries. Private schools for the poor will flourish as much in cities of Bangladesh, for instance, as in Hyderabad, Gansu, Lagos and Nairobi if the product is quality education. Teachers don’t have to be certified; they only have to have a hunger for knowledge, a passion for teaching, and a desire to make a difference in the lives of their students.

An aspect of education missing in “The Beautiful Tree” is online learning, particularly mobile learning. If educational entrepreneurs can integrate the Web and mobile learning into their services, they can overcome the limitations of physical classrooms and the vagaries of weather. Given the existence of a robust wireless infrastructure in Bangladesh and the near-universal use of cell phones, mobile learning can be the catalyst for world-class education for the poor in the country. The world’s knowledge, after all, is now accessible to anyone with a browser and a thirsty mind.

Contrary to what development experts and aid agencies claim, it does not require a miracle to bring schooling to the earth’s poorest children. The poor are already doing it by using their own resources in a holistic network of children, parents, teachers, and entrepreneurs, with knowledge, performance and accountability as keys. Sir Bob Geldof, the activist who has dedicated his life to social justice and peace worldwide, said that development succeeds admirably when people ignore the advice of ‘the experts’ and find their own culturally appropriate model. This is exactly what the world’s poor are doing. They have found their model and it is working admirably for them.

If they really want to do some good in the world, development experts should learn from the private schools in the slums of cities like Hyderabad and Lagos and introduce those educational practices into their own “advanced educational systems.” They can then witness the miracle they have been waiting for.


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