The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves, James Tooley, Penguin/Viking, Pp 302, Rs 499.00
THE idea of entrepreneurship targeted at the poor has always attracted a fair bit of resistance. In both the developing and developed world, the poorest citizens have long received services mainly from the State in the form of government schools, free healthcare and guaranteed minimum employment or welfare. It is undeniable that the government must provide its citizens with these services because the State’s role is indispensable for the poor, since market-led incentives are highly imperfect when it comes to say, providing a low-income citizen with healthcare or college education.
The theme of this book is universal education with the school entrepreneurs working in poor communities and contributing towards it success. The author, Dr James Tooley, has been working for educating the poor because, as he says, though private schools for the poor had taken off in the early 1990s, yet there was little interest in studying them. The focus within the government and among development and educational experts had been in improving the State school systems. James Tooley, after conducting surveys and studying schools, has presented his findings to say that governments and multilateral agencies must focus more on private schools and that there has been a surge in private schooling for the poor. He says universal schooling can be achieved not through a top-down public-funded programme but through the efforts and creativity of school entrepreneurs in the slums. To prove what he believes, James Tooley is currently engaged in Hyderabad in starting a chain of low-cost schools. After paying regular visits to a number of private schools run by individuals in the back streets of Hyderabad, he describes his experience thus: “It appeared that these private schools, while operating as business, also provided philanthropy to their communities. The owners were explicit about this. They were business people, true, but they also wanted to be viewed as social workers, giving something back to their communities.”
And what surprises him most is why parents are sending their children to these schools at all, especially on seeing the condition of some school buildings, which were “crowded, very dirty, often smelly, usually dark and always on some level, makeshift.What is especially interesting about the book is that the author throws light on what Sir Thomas Munro, Governor of Madras Presidency had said in the 19th century after personally collecting data from District Collectors – the existing indigenous schools were serving about 25 per cent of the male school-age population, but given that many more were reportedly being educated in their own homes, the level of education enrolment “is higher than it was in most European countries at not a very distant period.”
The author concludes his principal findings thus: “The market in education is powerful. It builds on something that no central planner can possibly embrace – the strength of million of decisions by individuals/families, the millions of bits of information grasped by the researchers who relentlessly create and innovate, modify and develop what the people want. The power of educational self-help is strong and you won’t need special glasses to observe its effects.”
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