Keywords: Education, politics, current affairs, international development

Title: The Beautiful Tree

Author: James Tooley

Publisher: Cato Institute

ISBN: 1933995920


On the whole education is not a good news story in many nations in the West. Falling standards, social engineering, non-educational agendas (obesity, climate change etc), lack of student motivation and poor levels of attainment… The list of bad news headlines is far longer, and more familiar, than those few examples of good news that are high-lighted in the media. Despite of increases in spending and endless processions of new initiatives and ideas, the fact remains that education, in countries such as the UK at least, is seen largely as being in crisis.

One would think that the picture in developing countries would be worse. With lower levels of investment, patchy provision and poor infrastructure, the environment should be set for a decidedly bad news story. However, the story that emerges from James Tooley's A Beautiful Tree is anything is anything but bad - it is surprisingly positive and, dare one say it, optimistic. What is more it reveals, perhaps, the heart that is lacking in what is increasingly a sterile education debate in the more advanced economies.

Tooley outlines a number of journeys in different parts of the world - India, China, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria - where he discovers, in the teeth of official denial, the existence of 'underground' schools providing education outside of the state system. As the book progresses you get to know what to expect - first out-right denials that schools outside of the state system exist, then the discovery of these schools tucked away in small towns and villages, often in tumble down buildings or in the homes of the teachers and then an exploration of what these schools do and how they do it. And, often, official denials of the existence of the schools lead on to grudging acceptance by officials that they exist followed by hostility or a down-playing of the educational value that these schools provide.

The common feature of these schools is that they are 'private' schools. Being outside of the state system, these schools charge fees - it is the only way that they can survive. That these fees are low, and can be afforded by the poor parents who send their children there seems not to mitigate the hostility that these schools get - both from state education authorities and also from Western NGOs and aid agencies. Tooley makes the point repeatedly that these 'private' schools are not in the same class as the elite private schools that only the rich can afford - this is not where local elites send their children. Nor are they like the private schools we have in this country. They are small schools in small towns and they offer relatively basic unsophisticated education. In some of the best parts of the book, Tooley contrasts the lack of care and down-right neglect offered by state schools with the care and attention offered by these schools.

In contrast to the educational fads and fallacies inflicted on the children in our schools, here the emphasis is on teaching children to read, write and count. Forget social engineering, or using schools as extensions of social services, here children go to school to learn. And, as is made clear, parents who do not have money to spare still make the extra effort to pay, to make sure their children get the best chances. They pay for teachers who teach rather than for teachers who turn up and get paid whether they teach or sleep or do anything but work. If the private schools don't teach then they fail as parents send them elsewhere (including to the state system which is free).

That outside agencies, such as foreign aid agencies and charities, are utterly hostile to these private schools is predictable but no less depressing for that. These schools are prejudged simply because they exist outside of the corrupt and failing state systems that they compete with. However, these schools seem to be thriving even in the face of official neglect or hostility.

This book is a pleasure to read, and at a time when pessimism is de rigueur in the media, it is good to find something that is actually optimistic. This is a book that is filled with hope, and one cannot be feel moved by the struggle of poor parents and their children doing their best to get into education for all the right reasons. Who knows, perhaps there is something that even we in the more advanced economies can learn from the examples outlined here. At the very least we can try and understand that education is something that is good in itself, rather than as something imposed on unwilling kids by a state that seems more interested in moulding model citizens than anything else.

Very highly recommended.

Review © Pan Pantziarka, 2010. Site © London Book Review 2010. Published June 3 2010