“The common are intrigued by the uncommon while the wise are intrigued by the commonplace” – Confucian proverb

If the above adage be held true, James Tooley would be wiser than most on education in the Third world.  His discovery of budget private schools(BPS) in the slums of Hyderabad and in other developing and under-developed countries like China, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Kenya in the early 2000s brought to light a new stratum in the education ecosystem previously unknown. This work led to his book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ in 2009. On 13 March, Prof. Tooley visited us here at Centre for Civil Society where we learned how the tree has flourished globally since the publication of his award-winning book.

Prof. Tooley describes the moment of discovery of the BPS in Hyderabad as one of epiphany and life-changing. Ever since, he has been committed to the cause of identifying these BPS, bringing them to limelight and advocate their importance to poorest of the poor.  He addressed the plight of the Indian BPS, highlighting how BPS closure for not satisfying the infrastructure norms in Right to Education Act, end up harming the very poor the Act seeks to serve.

There are many criticisms against BPS. One major criticism is that they do not offer quality education, where quality is characterized by input norms. Another concern is that private enterprises will not find the poorest quartile a viable market and hence public education system has to address the gap. Prof. Tooley’s work in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and South Sudan tends to counter both these myths and offers insight into how education sector operates there.

Since 2000, Prof. Tooley has worked to establish two types of institutions. The first, chain of BPS in Ghana and Liberia. In Ghana, the Omega schools which he co-established with  Ken and Lisa Donkoh has grown from two schools in 2009 to forty schools in 2013 with 20,000 students through a Pay-to-Learn model that charges the student daily. The second is coalitions of these BPS to enable knowledge sharing and strength to advocate their case in the face of mounting government regulations that force these schools to operate at a higher cost or close down, hence affecting the poor children they educate. Some of these alliances are Association of Formidable Educational Development (AFED) in Nigeria (2006), South Sudan Association of Private Schools of Private Schools in South Sudan (2013), Liberia Private School Association in Liberia and Independent Private Schools Association in Sierra Leone. He also inspired the establishment of National Independent Schools Alliance (NISA) through Centre for Civil Society. AFED, Nigeria has grown to the point where the government has amended policies to recognize new members of AFED as certified schools by default, trusting the internal assessment standards of the Association.

Prof. Tooley’s work has shown that private schools serve the poorest of the poor. Such schools serve local requirements and they often deliver better education than the public system. Countering the opposition to profit-motive, his research in seven slums of Liberia showed that there were 2 government schools and 400 private schools serving the population and of those 400, nearly 60% operated as for-profit entities. Many people found the for-profit model more favorable because the focus of a non-profit school is diverted away from children due to the need to look outside for funding whereas in for-profit schools, the focus is completely on children as the money has to come from satisfied parents. The BPS which was on the dark side of policy discourse in the developing world is increasingly becoming an effective and efficient tool in educating the poorest sections of societies.

On the topic of the business model of his BPS chain, especially the Omega Schools in Ghana, Prof. Tooley had significant lessons to offer. For example, anticipating the days when the household may not have money to pay for the school, the school provides coupons worth 15 days of fees as a starter pack during admission. In addition they offer a grace period and scholarships to students in difficulty. In fact, the daily fee is modeled as a voucher which agents buy at 2% commission and then sell in different localities. In Sierra Leone, Airtel offers a mobile service facility to enable this payment at 1% commission. These are just some of the many innovative solutions that the schools and communities have devised to address various challenges in providing inexpensive and quality education to poor neighborhoods.

The greatest concern raised against these schools was their incentive to improve and ensure quality, especially for the school leadership. Prof. Tooley’s response was that in a competitive environment, a schools’ greatest concern is to offer quality that appeals to parents and hence this is mostly a self-regulating mechanism. However, in addition, schools need to have proximate and meaningful assessment of child’s learning for the parents to be able to gauge the child’s development and hence the school’s quality. These are some of the many solutions one can devise taking into consideration the local requirements.

Prof. Tooley concluded his talk congratulating NISA and its work in consolidating the BPS in India and the efforts of Ms. Ekta Sodha in trying to start a pay-by-day school in Sika, Jamnagar, Gujarat that offers all educational requirements except lunch to the children at Rs. 20 per day. He envisions a global coalition of BPS and greater synergy between them to provide the best education to all deserving children. We hope that his dream comes true and that we can contribute in any small measure in realising it.

To hear his talk, click here.

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