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Private Schools in the Slums

The City Journal recently published a fascinating article on James Tooley and the basis for his book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves

The article focuses on the story that first fascinated James Tooley, namely the sheer prevalence of pay-as-you-go Private Schools in the poorest neighborhoods and slums around the world. Many of the schools opened as a result of the unacceptable quality of education in the public schools in those areas, but the simple fact that a traditionally recognized private school was beyond the financial dreams of these families.

But the poor have run short of patience, Tooley found, and so they have rejected the development experts’ failed syllogism and created one of their own: You open a school, and we’ll pay you to teach our children. If they don’t learn, we’ll stop paying. Therefore, you will ensure that our children receive a solid education.


In slums around the world, from Lagos, Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya to rural villages in Ghana and China and places in between, Tooley has discovered poor people opening small private schools that offer alternatives to dismal or inaccessible public education. The schools charge only pennies a day, and most also provide scholarships to orphans or children of the indigent. One in five students in the Hyderabad slums, for example, attends a private school on some kind of need-based scholarship. Whether in Kibera (Kenya) or Gansu (China), these schools all seem to boast committed and punctual teachers, efficient and attentive owners, and satisfied parents.

The article addresses the obvious concerns that ramshackle and essentially unrecognized schools would be unscrupulously taking money without really educating their students, however, studies done on the students offered some amazing and surprising results.

The results from Delhi were typical. In mathematics, mean scores of children in government schools were 24.5 percent, whereas they were 42.1 percent in private unrecognized schools and 43.9 percent in private recognized. That is, children in unrecognized private schools scored nearly 18 percentage points more in math than children in government schools (a 72 percent advantage!), while children in recognized private schools scored over 19 percentage points more than children in government schools (a 79 percent advantage).

This is a fascinating look into the lengths that families will go to, in any country and at any financial level, to assure the education and future of their children.

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