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January 09, 2006

How cheap private schools are educating the children of the poor in Nigeria - and why some British academics cannot accept this

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Harry Phibbs is impressed with the research of Prof. James Tooley which shows how cheap private schools are educating the children of the poor in Nigeria. Prof. Tooley's work, however, remains unpopular with some academics.

Ronald Reagan liked to quip that economists would say:

that looks fine in practice but how will it work in theory.
I was reminded of this while watching School's Out, about the emergence of private schools for the poor in Nigeria. This is a pretty remarkable phenomenon.

Professor Keith Lewin when confronted with the evidence of what was happening simply refused to accept it because his theoretical understanding was that it could not be. Private schools are for the rich not the poor, is Lewin's mindset.

Unfortunately the United Nations seem to agree with Lewin. They are still blinkered by leftwing ideologues and are trying to persuade the Nigerian Government to scupper these schools. They are interpreting their remit to provide free education as a prohibition on education being offered which isn't free. The UN say that 115 million children are missing out on education. But many are in unregistered private schools. Closing the fee paying schools to force children into state schools might improve the UN statistics but it would not improve the reality.

A research study is under way in Lagos state on the coast of Nigeria, being undertaken by the E. G. West Centre, in conjunction with the Institute of Public Policy Analysis (IPPA), and the University of Ibadan. Its remit is to investigate the nature and the extent of private schools serving low-income families in Nigeria. It is looking at the number of private schools and how they compare with the Government schools.

Tooley's research has attracted the interest of the BBC who devoted a documentary to the subject last year on their BBC World channel. A shorter version of the programme has also been shown on Newsnight. It is to the credit of the BBC that they produced such a film (although it included critics as well as proponents of private schooling.) It is unusual for the BBC to give serious consideration to a free market solution to a problem in the developing world. This may not be conscious bias - rather BBC staff may find it impossible to imagine such a point of view existing.

But for sceptics it is all there on screen. Footage of the private schools certainly shows the buildings are rickety - but so what? Rather more damning is the footage from state schools which showed one teacher interrupting the class to chat on her mobile phone and another teacher sleeping through the lesson. What is most extraordinary is that one must remember this was with the cameras openly filming. The crew didn't sneak in. They had an appointment and were quite open about their plans.

Off camera Tooley's research also gives us an idea of what was discovered when visits were unannounced. His research study found that only in about 53 per cent of the state schools visited unannounced in Lagos State was there any "teaching activity" going on. In fully 33 per cent the head teacher was absent. These are quite staggering findings.

Often they would find that the lack of any teaching was combined with impressive facilities. There would certainly be good infrastructure - proper building in good repair. There would be modern teaching aids and a good pupil teacher ratio. Just no actual teaching would be taking place.

Tooley has written about the subject for the Financial Times asking:

Isn't private school only about the elites and middle class? Actually no. In the urban slums and villages in developing countries, increasing number of poor parents are sending their children to private schools - with fees of $2 per month or less, run by educational entrepreneurs who want to serve their community as well as make some money.
Tooley makes clear that very cheap private schools aren't just a novelty for Nigeria:
My research has found such schools in battle scarred buildings in Somaliland, in the shanty towns built on stilts above the Lagos Lagoons in Nigeria, scattered among the tin and cardboard huts of Africa's largest slum, Kibera, Kenya, in the crowded slums and villages across India and even in remote Himalayan regions of China.
Those of us who dream of the availability of cheap, widespread private schooling in Britain and wonder if it could be practical could not fail to be inspired by the determination of even the very poor to get the best they can for their children even if they have to pay for it. These are independent schools which have achieved better results than the state schools not because they have higher budgets, or even equivalent budgets.

Typically their budgets are a small fraction of those enjoyed by the state schools. If parent power can triumph in the shanty towns of Nigeria, it can surely triumph in Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle and Hackney.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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Does anyone know what happened to the New Model School which Civitas (IIRC) set up? Their website doesn't give a lot away as to how they are doing.

Posted by: Bishop Hill at January 10, 2006 02:48 PM
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