More School Choice Lessons from Abroad

Published March 1, 2003

The aim of paying teachers in India’s government schools four times what they would make in private schools was to make them better teachers, noted British researcher James Tooley in a recent issue of The Spectator. They also have lifetime job security.

“In India, we have a saying: ‘You can hire him, only God can fire him,'” private educator Ranga Setty told Tooley, who is professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle and head of the E.G. West Centre for Market Solutions in Education.

But Tooley reports private schools are opening in the slums of Hyderabad, where less than 40 percent of all students are enrolled in government schools. Even though the government schools offer free tuition, free books, and free lunches, many poor families scrimp and save to pay the cost of a private school. Even with low fees, private schools can make a profit.

“We want teachers who teach,” one mother told Tooley. “And we want our children to learn English, but that’s not allowed in the government primary schools.”

When the Indian government sponsored an examination of the performance of state schools and private schools in India, the resulting Probe Report described government schools for low-income families as “malfunctioning.” When researchers called unannounced at government schools, they found “teaching activity” in only 53 percent of the schools, with the head teacher absent a third of the time. However, when they used the same approach at private schools, they reported “feverish classroom activity.”

The Probe Report concluded that accountability made the difference: Private schools were successful because they were more accountable.

“The teachers are accountable to the manager (who can fire them) and, through him or her, to the parents (who can withdraw their children),” concluded the report. Similar accountability is missing in government schools, and “this contrast is perceived with crystal clarity by the vast majority of parents.”

Accountability in Africa

Across the Indian Ocean on the Horn of Africa, Tooley describes a similar contrast in responsiveness between government and private schools in Boroma, a primitive city of 100,000 in Somaliland. There, private schools outnumber government schools by two to one, with still more being built.

“If we waited for the government to do it, it would take 20 years,” Professor Suleyman of Amoud University told Tooley, but “we need schools now.”

Besides, added Suleyman, “in government schools teacher absenteeism is rife; in our private schools we have commitment.”

“If the evidence reveals that the poorest worldwide are achieving better educational outcomes without the state, then this should inspire and buttress appeals for increased school choice in rich countries,” concludes Tooley. ‘It also raises anew the question: what on Earth is government doing in education at all?'”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

James Tooley’s article, “A Lesson from the Third World,” published in the January 18, 2003 issue of The Spectator, is available online at§ion=back&issue=2003-01-18&id=2690.

The Web site of the E.G. West Centre for Market Solutions in Education, which studies choice, competition, and entrepreneurship in education, is located at