James Tooley | August 3, 2009
Schools in the Slums
While researching private schools in India for the World Bank, James Tooley wandered into the slums of Hyderabad's Old City and was shocked to find it overflowing with small, parent-funded schools. So began the adventure lyrically told in The Beautiful Tree and excerpted here-the story of Tooley's travels from the largest shanty town in Africa to the mountains of Gansu, China. It's the story of children, parents, teachers, and entrepreneurs in the poorest corners of the globe who, in response to failed public education, are not waiting for handouts. They are educating themselves-and succeeding under the most challenging conditions imaginable.
After a stint teaching philosophy of education at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, I returned to England to complete my doctorate and later became a professor of education.
Thanks to my experiences in sub-Saharan Africa and my modest but respectable academic reputation, I was offered a commission by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation to study private schools in a dozen developing countries.
The lure of faraway places was too enticing to resist, but I was troubled by the project itself. Although I was to study private schools in developing countries, those schools were serving the middle classes and the elite. Despite my lifelong desire to help the poor, I'd somehow wound up researching bastions of privilege.
The first leg of the trip began in New York in January 2000. As if to reinforce my misgivings that the project would do little for the poor, I was flown first class to London in the inordinate luxury of the Concorde.
Forty minutes into the flight, as we cruised at twice the speed of sound and two miles above conventional air traffic, caviar and champagne were served. The boxer Mike Tyson (sitting at the front with a towel over his head for much of the journey) and singer George Michael were on the same flight. I felt lost.
From London it was on to Delhi, Chennai, and Mumbai. By day, I evaluated five-star private schools and colleges that were very definitely for the privileged. By night, I was put up in unbelievably salubrious and attentive five-star hotels.
But in the evenings, sitting and chatting with street children outside these very same hotels, I wondered what effect any of my work could have on the poor, whose desperate needs I saw all around me. I didn't just want my work to be a defense of privilege. The middle-class Indians, I felt, were wealthy already.
To me it all seemed a bit of a con: Just because they were in a "poor" country, they were able to latch onto this international assistance even though they as individuals had no pressing need for it at all. I didn't like it, but as I returned to my room and lay on the 500-thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets, my discomfort with the program was forced to compete with a mounting sense of self-criticism.
Then one day, everything changed. Arriving in Hyderabad to evaluate brand-new private colleges at the forefront of India's high-tech revolution, I learned that January 26 was Republic Day, a national holiday.
Left with some free time, I decided to take an autorickshaw-the three-wheeled taxis ubiquitous in India-from my posh hotel in Banjara Hills to the Charminar, the triumphal arch built at the center of Muhammad Quli Shah's city in 1591.
My Rough Guide to India described it as Hyderabad's "must see" attraction, and also warned that it was situated in the teeming heart of the Old City slums. That appealed to me. I wanted to see the slums for myself.
As we traveled through the middle-class suburbs, I was struck by the ubiquity of private schools. Their signboards were on every street corner, some on fine specially constructed school buildings, but others grandly posted above shops and offices.
Of course, it was nothing more than I'd been led to expect from my meetings in India already-senior government officials had impressed me with their candor when they told me it was common knowledge that even the middle classes were all sending their children to private schools. They all did themselves. But it was still surprising to see how many there were.
We crossed the bridge over the stinking ditch that is the once-proud River Musi. Here were autorickshaws in abundance, cattle-drawn carts meandering slowly with huge loads of hay, and rickshaws agonizingly peddled by painfully thin men.
My driver let me out, and told me he'd wait for an hour, but then called me back in a bewildered tone as I headed not to the Charminar but into the back streets behind. No, no, I assured him, this is where I was going, into the slums of the Old City. For the stunning thing about the drive was that private schools had not thinned out as we went from one of the poshest parts of town to the poorest.
Everywhere among the little stores and workshops were little private schools! I could see handwritten signs pointing to them even here on the edge of the slums. I was amazed, but also confused: Why had no one I worked with in India told me about them?
The young men at the bean-and-vegetable counter hailed me and said there was definitely someone at the Royal Grammar School just nearby, and that it was a very good private school and I should visit.
They gave me directions, and I bade farewell. But I became muddled by the multiplicity of possible right turns down alleyways followed by sharp lefts, and so asked the way of a couple of fat old men sitting alongside a butcher shop.
Their shop was the dirtiest thing I had ever seen, with entrails and various bits and pieces of meat spread out on a mucky table over which literally thousands of flies swarmed. The stench was terrible. No one else seemed the least bit bothered by it. They immediately understood where I wanted to go and summoned a young boy who was headed in the opposite direction to take me there.
He agreed without demur, and we walked quickly, not talking at all as he spoke no English. In the next street, young boys played cricket with stones as wickets and a plastic ball. One of them called me over, to shake my hand.
Then we turned down another alleyway (with more boys playing cricket between makeshift houses outside of which men bathed and women did their laundry) and arrived at the Royal Grammar School, which proudly advertised, "English Medium, Recognized by the Gov't of AP." The owner, or "correspondent" as I soon came to realize he was called in Hyderabad, was in his tiny office. He enthusiastically welcomed me.
Through that chance meeting, I was introduced to the warm, kind, and quietly charismatic Mr. Fazalur Rahman Khurrum and to a huge network of private schools in the slums and low-income areas of the Old City. The more time I spent with him, the more I realized that my expertise in private education might after all have something to say about my concern for the poor.
Mr. Fazalur Rahman Khurrum was the president of an association specifically set up to cater to private schools serving the poor-the Federation of Private Schools' Management, which boasted a membership of over 500 schools all serving low-income families. Once word got around that a foreign visitor was interested in seeing private schools, Khurrum was inundated with requests for me to visit.
I spent as much time as I could over the next 10 days or so with Khurrum, traveling the length and breadth of the Old City, in between doing my work for the International Finance Corporation in the new city. We visited nearly 50 private schools in some of the poorest parts of town, driving endlessly down narrow streets to schools whose owners were apparently anxious to meet me. (Our rented car was a large white Ambassador-the Indian vehicle modeled on the old British Morris Minor, proudly used by government officials when an Indian flag on the hood signified the importance of its user-horn blaring constantly, as much to signify our own importance as to get children and animals out of the way.)
There seemed to be a private school on almost every street corner, just as in the richer parts of the city.
I visited so many, being greeted at narrow entrances by so many students, who marched me into tiny playgrounds, beating their drums, to a seat in front of the school, where I was welcomed in ceremonies officiated by senior students, while school managers garlanded me with flowers, heavy, prickly, and sticky around my neck in the hot sun, which I bore stoically as I did the rounds of the classrooms.
Some of the private schools had beautiful names. Like Little Nightingale's High School, named after Sarojini Naidu, a famous "freedom fighter" in the 1940s, known by Nehru as the "Little Nightingale" for her tender English songs. Or Firdaus Flowers Convent School, that is, "flowers of heaven." The "convent" part of the name puzzled me at first, as did the many names such as St. Maria's or St. John's.
It seemed odd, since these schools were clearly run by Muslims-indeed, for a while I fostered the illusion that these saints and nuns must be in the Islamic tradition too.
But no, the names were chosen because of the connotations to parents-the old Catholic and Anglican schools were still viewed as great schools in the city, so their religious names were borrowed to signify quality to the parents. But did they really deliver a quality education? I needed to find out.
One of the first schools Khurrum took me to was Peace High School, run by 27-year-old Mohammed Wajid. Like many I was to visit, the school was in a converted family home, fronting on Edi Bazaar, the main but narrow, bustling thoroughfare that stretched out behind the Charminar. A bold sign proclaimed the school's name.
Through a narrow metal gate, I entered a small courtyard, where Wajid had provided some simple slides and swings for the children to play on. By the far wall were hutches of pet rabbits for the children to look after. Wajid's office was to one side, the family's rooms on the other. We climbed a narrow, dark, dirty staircase to enter the classrooms.
They too were dark, with no doors, and noise from the streets easily penetrated the barred but unglazed windows. The children all seemed incredibly pleased to see their foreign visitor and stood to greet me warmly.
The walls were painted white but were discolored by pollution, heat, and the general wear-and-tear of children. From the open top floor of his building, Wajid pointed out the locations of five other private schools, all anxious to serve the same students in his neighborhood.
Wajid was quietly unassuming, but clearly caring and devoted to his children. He told me that his mother founded Peace High School in 1973 to provide "a peaceful oasis in the slums" for the children. Wajid, her youngest son, began teaching in the school in 1988, when he was himself a 10th-grade student in another private school nearby.
Wajid having then received his bachelor's in commerce at a local university college and begun training as an accountant, his mother asked him to take over the school in 1998, when she felt she must retire from active service. She asked him to consider the "less blessed" people in the slums, and that his highest ambition should be to help them, as befitting his Muslim faith.
This seemed to have come as a blow to his ambitions. His elder brothers had all pursued careers, and several were now living overseas in Dubai, London, and Paris, working in the jewelry business. But Wajid felt obliged to follow his mother's wishes and so began running the school. He was still a bachelor, he told me, because he wanted to build up his school. Only when his financial prospects were certain could he marry.
The school was called a high school, but like others bearing this name, it included kindergarten to 10th grade. Wajid had 285 children and 13 teachers when I first met him, and he also taught mathematics to the older children.
His fees ranged from 60 rupees to 100 rupees per month ($1.33 to $2.22 at the exchange rates then), depending on the children's grade, the lowest for kindergarten and rising as the children progressed through school.
These fees were affordable to parents, he told me, who were largely day laborers and rickshaw pullers, market traders and mechanics-earning perhaps a dollar a day. Parents, I was told, valued education highly and would scrimp and save to ensure that their children got the best education they could afford.
Oddly, my "discovery" of private schools serving the poor was no discovery at all, or at least not to some people.
Leaving Hyderabad, I returned to Delhi to meet again with World Bank staff before moving on to continue my "field trip" in other countries. I was eager and excited to tell them what I'd discovered in the back streets of the Old City of Hyderabad and to gain their insights on the way forward.
They weren't at all impressed. I met with 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, and they were frankly puzzled about how schools charging only $10 a year could exist, except through charity.
And they told me that I had found some nongovernmental organizations working in the slums, opening a few schools, that was all. They told me this, assuming I was simply misguided, even though I had told them it was something else altogether.
However, one of the group, Sajitha Bashir, had herself seen a few private schools in Tamil Nadu-although she insisted there were none in Karnataka, where she was now doing a study, so they weren't a universal phenomenon.
In front of the group, she launched into a tirade against such schools. They were ripping off the poor, she said, run by unscrupulous businesspeople who didn't care a fig for anything other than profits.
This didn't gel at all with what I'd seen in Hyderabad-how could such people devote their weekends to science competitions and cyber-olympics if money was their sole motivation? I was not at all convinced and hesitantly related some details of what I'd found. No one considered my information very significant. Those who hadn't heard of these schools simply shrugged, and the meeting soon dissolved.
Afterward, Sajitha took me downstairs for coffee, clearly trying to be helpful in letting me see the errors of my ways.
So the private schools might be there, some might even be better than the public schools, but that's only because they are selective. "They take the cream of the cream," she said (and I had to force myself to remember that we were talking about parents earning a dollar or two a day), leaving the public schools much worse off.
Anyway, continuing the theme that only a few were any good, she continued, "Most of the schools are shocking, there is a shocking turnover of teachers, they're not trained, they're not committed, and the proprietors know that they can simply get others because there is a long list of people waiting to come in."
But her main problem, clearly based on well-intentioned personal convictions, was the question of equality. Because some children, the poorest of the poor, are left behind in the "sink" public schools, the private schools were exacerbating inequality, not improving the situation at all, she said.
For that reason, we must devote all our efforts toward improving the public schools, not get carried away by what was happening in a few private schools.
For Sajitha it was clear: If many-or even a few-parents had higher aspirations for their children and wanted to send them to private schools, then "they should not be allowed to do so, because this is unfair."
It's unfair because it makes it even worse for those left behind. This puzzled me. Why should we treat the poor in this homogeneous way? Would we-Sajitha and I-be happy if we were poor, living in those slums, and unable to do the best for our children, whatever our meager funds allowed? But I said nothing.
As we parted, amicably enough, she told me that there was quite a bit of development literature about private schools for the poor in any case, and so I shouldn't go on too much about my "discovery" as I had done today, as people would only laugh. She gave me a couple of references to look up.
And she was right. I wondered at my own poor detective work in not having located these references before. Perhaps my own lack of recognition for what was taking place was excusable. In the writings she pointed me to, and subsequent ones that I found, discussion of private schools for the poor was somehow veiled, or referred to tangentially, and ignored in subsequent writings.
It was certainly not headlined in any conclusions or policy implications-to which many of us lazily turn when we digest development writings. It was almost as if the writers concerned were embarrassed or bewildered by private schools for the poor.
They could write about these schools in passing, but instead of their leaping out at them as something of great significance-as they had to me when I first "discovered" them in Hyderabad-they didn't seem to impinge in any significant way on the writers' policy proposals or future discussions.
Even for those who didn't deny the existence of private schools for the poor, everyone, it seemed, altogether denied their significance.
The more I explored those references, the more baffled I became. It was one thing to argue that "education for all" could be secured only through public education supported by international aid if you were unaware of private schools for the poor.
But as soon as you knew that many poor parents were exiting the state system to send their children to private schools, then surely this must register on your radar as being worthy of comment in the "education for all" debate? Apparently not.
I read the Public Report on Basic Education (the PROBE Report), a detailed survey of educational provision in four northern Indian states, with growing amazement. It too was clear that "even among poor families and disadvantaged 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."
Here was another source pointing to the phenomenon of private schools for the poor-why weren't they better known then? The PROBE team's findings on the quality of public schools were even more startling. When their researchers had called unannounced on a large random sample of government schools, in only half was there any "teaching activity" at all!
In fully one-third, the principal was absent. The report gave touching examples of parents who were struggling against the odds to keep children in school, but whose children were clearly learning next to nothing. Children's work was "at best casually checked."
The team reported "several cases of irresponsible teachers keeping a school closed or non-functional for several months at a time," one school "where the teacher was drunk," another where the principal got the children to do his domestic chores, "including looking after the baby."
The team observed that in the government schools, "generally, teaching activity has been reduced to a minimum, in terms of both time and effort." Importantly, "this pattern is not confined to a minority of irresponsible teachers-it has become a way of life in the profession." But they did not observe such problems in the private schools serving the poor.
When their researchers called unannounced on their random sample of private unaided (that is, receiving no government funding) schools in the villages, "feverish classroom activity" was always taking place.
So what was the secret of success in these private schools for the poor? The report was very clear: "In a private school, the teachers are accountable to the manager (who can fire them), and, through him or her, to the parents (who can withdraw their children)."
"In a government school, the chain of accountability is much weaker, as teachers have a permanent job with salaries and promotions unrelated to performance. This contrast is perceived with crystal clarity by the vast majority of parents."
Private schools for the poor are burgeoning across the developing world. In many urban areas they are serving the majority of poor schoolchildren. Their quality is higher than that of government schools provided for the poor-perhaps not surprisingly given that they are predominantly businesses dependent on fees to survive and, hence, are directly accountable to parental needs. Those worried about how to extend access to education for the poor could usefully look to the private education sector as a way forward. By increasing what private schools for the poor already offer, such as additional free and subsidized places for the poorest, sensitively applied targeted vouchers could broaden access on a large scale.
Crucially, because the private schools serving the poor are businesses, making a reasonable profit, they provide a pioneering way forward for investor involvement too. Investing in microfinance-style loan programs so that private schools can improve their infrastructure is one way forward. Providing investment for innovation in curriculum and learning, which, if successful, could be rolled out on a commercial basis, is a second possibility. And investing in a chain of schools-either through a dedicated education investment fund or through joint ventures with educational entrepreneurs-could help solve the information problem for poor parents and improve the existing educational opportunities.
Educating the poor is a solvable problem.
James Tooley earned his Ph.D. from the Institute of Education, University of London, and has held educational research positions at the Universities of Oxford and Manchester and the National Foundation for Educational Research. Prior to entering educational research and policy he was a public-school mathematics teacher in Zimbabwe. Now an award-winning scholar featured in PBS and BBC documentaries, he has written several books, and his work has been covered in Newsweek, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. He currently lives in Hyderabad, India, where he works with the entrepreneurs and teachers who inspired his book The Beautiful Tree.