Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Regular visitors here will know that I don't like it when states get involved in education and the general shaping of our minds. Early on this blog I compulsory, uniform, education. On my old blog I suggested that education would be better provided on a free market (Scroll down about a third of the way - titled "Schools of Thought") than for free and funded by taxation by the state.

Obvious responses to suggestions that schools be voluntary and private, entirely and completely, are questions of how the poor are to afford an education if it is supplied on a free market?

Well, I suggest that a great answer to that question would be to ask the poor who are actually getting it!

One of the myths perpetuated about poverty in Africa is that lack of funding by governments has left the vast majority of people without access to education, and that government efforts and international aid are essential to reversing this fact. The international development secretary Hilery Benn pointed to free primary education in Kenya, funded by the Kenyan government, $55m from the World bank, and £20m from the British government, as a shining example of aid not being wasted but used for something positive. Gordon Brown visited a primary school on the outskirts of Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya and Africa, and declared (without asking anybody if it was true, and in complete defiance of the case for compulsory taxation in the first place - i.e. that it funds what people wouldn't voluntarily pay for) that British taxpayers fully supported having their money spent in ways such as this. Bob Geldoff and Bono, the new court bards for the corporate state, rave about how a million children are now enrolled in state run private schools in Kenya, and how we should all spend £3.8m to £4.4m more a year so that other countries can emulate Africa's success. Millions have been saved by the benificience of the international community.

The trouble is that this is all a myth. The poor of Africa have not been sitting back waiting for relief, as James Tooley shows:

Private schools for the poor have emerged in huge numbers in some of the most impoverished slums and villages in Africa. They cater for a majority of poor children and outperform government schools, for a fraction of the cost.

My research has found this in Kenya — where the international community might excuse the inadequacy of state education as a blip while free primary education beds down. But it’s as true in Ghana and Nigeria too — where free primary education has been around for a long time, supported by generous handouts from the British government and the World Bank.

Tooley found that in the poor areas of Lagos, Nigeria, and in Ghana, more than 70% of school children are enrolled in private schools. More than half these schools are unregistered, and therefore do not appear in statistics. In the shanty town of Makoko, where 50,000 people live in houses built on stilts in the Lagos lagoon, Tooley found 32 private schools, serving 4,500 children. Thats 75% of all school children. And all from the families of poor fishermen and fish traders, and out of view of the state.

In Kenya, Tooley found the same. Here he was told by the education minister that private schools were for the rich, not the poor. However, Tooley went to Kibera, a slum town where half a million people live crammed into a single square mile.

Within a few minutes I found what I was looking for. A signboard proclaimed Makina primary school outside a two-storey rickety tin building. Inside a cramped office, Jane Yavetsi, the school proprietor, was keen to tell her story. “Free education is a big problem,” she said. Since its introduction her enrolment had declined from 500 to 300 and now she doesn’t know how she will pay the rent.

Her school fees are 200 Kenyan shillings (about £1.45) per month, or about 10% of the expected earnings of someone living in Kibera. But for the poorest children, including 50 orphans, she offers free education. Yavetsi founded the school 10 years ago and has been through many difficulties. But now she feels crestfallen: “With free education I am being hit very hard.”

This wasn't the only private school, though. There was another next door. And another just down from her. And two more on opposite sides of railway tracks. Tooley's team searched all the muddy roads and alley ways in the area and found a total of 76 private schools, serving more than 12,000 school children. In the local government schools there were 8,500 school children. But half of these children came from middle-class suburbs.

Of course, the statists fight back against the evidence that private schools are providing an education for the poor. Based on his conversation with a representative for the Commissioner of Education in Ghana, Tooley reported,

The commissioner’s representative, however, described parents who send their children to the mushrooming private schools as “ignoramuses”, wanting the status symbol of private education (saying this, without irony, standing by her brand new silver Mercedes), but hoodwinked by unscrupulous businessmen

The advice of the commissioner's representative was simple: "They should all be closed down." This, of course, would give the state a monopoly on education that it could use or abuse at will - children would be forced to either accept it or get no education. However, as Tooley notes, at least she admitted the private schools existed. Tooley reports that "the British government’s representative, co-ordinating the Department for International Development’s £20m aid (all to government schools) denied flatly that private schools for the poor exist." Not all representatives of foreign state control are so narrow minded, though. "Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa concedes that mushrooming private schools exist, but reports that they “are without adequate state regulation and are of a low quality”."

But why is it that parents choose these private schools over these government alternatives? Is it true that African parents are all ignoramouses hoodwinked into sending their children to inferior quality schools? No. Of course it isn't. Tooley spoke to parents at the private schools, some of whom had previously enrolled their children in the state "free" schools. The reports he got back were all the same, "in government schools, class sizes had increased dramatically and teachers couldn’t cope with 100 or more pupils, five times the number in the private school classes." As any economist knows, the lower the price of something for which there is demand, the greater the demand for that thing will be. It is called the elasticity of demand. Offering education for free dramatically increases the demand for it, and at a far greater rate than it can be provided. Hence oversized classes.

Parents compared notes when their children came home from school, and saw that in the state schools, notebooks remained untouched for weeks; in contrast, in the private schools children’s work was always marked. One summed up the situation succinctly: “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.”

And the final catch is that the government schools themselves are not free. Sure, the education is free, but other things are not, and the intention is to make sure that the slum children are kept out.

certainly the headmistress from Olympic, where the chancellor visited, was candid that she objected to the “dirty, smelly and uncouth” slum children in her smart school — state schools insist that parents purchase two sets of uniforms before the term starts, including shoes — prohibitively expensive to parents from the slums. One parent told me: “I prefer to pay school fees and forget the uniform.”

So, on one hand we have a representative of the Commissioner for Education in Ghana and spokes people for Tony Blair's Comission for Africa claiming that parents are duped into private schools because they are all ignoramouses after a status symbol, and that these schools are unregulated and are of inferior quality. But on the other hand, we hear that parents don't send their children to public schools because they value their childrens education above status symbols such as a clean uniform, and detest the inferior quality of schooling at the free government schools! In Ghana,

Parents gave the same litany of complaints about government schools, that teachers don’t turn up, or if they do they don’t teach. I visited the three government primary schools on the outskirts of Makoko; although my visit was announced, and I came with the commissioner of education’s representative, I saw the headmistress beating children to get them into the classrooms, and found one teacher fast asleep at his desk. The welcoming chorus of the children didn’t rouse him.

But what of the quality of education at the private schools? Was Blair's Commission for Africa correct when it claimed that the private schools are of a low quality? Already we have heard of the much greater attention to teaching paid by teachers in the private schools, with the teachers in the private schools marking books and not stopping to chat on the phone and... staying awake! What of the actual quality of the education they provide?

But was the commissioner’s representative right about the low quality in the mushrooming schools? We tested 3,000 children in maths and English, from government and private schools, controlled for background family variables, and found that the children in the unregistered private schools, so despised by the government, achieved 14 percentage points higher in maths and 20 percentage points higher in English than children in government schools. Teachers in the government schools were paid at least four times more than those in the unregistered schools. The private schools were far more effective for a fraction of the cost.

So, in education as in anything, State control is undesirable, dangerous, makes things worse, and we can do without it!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I first read the Tooley story and then read that Gordon Brown had donated £20 million of tax exorted money to fund the State system in Ghana, I wanted to shout out loud with fury. It is bad enough that Brown is attempting to undermine a voluntary grass roots educational system that actually works. It just adds insult to injury to know that he if forcing me to pay for it.

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is another often overlooked and perhaps even more striking example of grass roots voluntary education, that I wrote about on my blog last year - the post civil war freed slaves.


3:01 PM  

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