Book Review: A beautiful Tree by James Tooley


It was on Deeshaa.org. that I first read about this book. A beautiful tree. It is about authors experience about how the poor, not the poor people like me but the most desperately poor people try to educate their children. His experiences were from various countries such as India, Ghana, Kenya and China. The name of the book comes from what Gandhiji use to call the pre-colonial education system.

Here was another source pointing to the phenomenon of private schools for the poor — why weren’t they better known then? The PROBE team’s findings on the quality of public schools were even more startling. When their researchers had called unannounced on a large random sample of government schools, in only half was there any “teaching activity” at all!

In fully one-third, the principal was absent. The report gave touching examples of parents who were struggling against the odds to keep children in school, but whose children were clearly learning next to nothing. Children’s work was “at best casually checked.” [Read Excerpts]

In the light of government passing a “right to education” bill this is a fact that will put anyone to think. If the public schooling system over which government spends astronomical sums is not adequate for all the poor to get them self decent education what do they do?

The Beautiful Tree.

Unfortunately for the government as well as the NGOs would love paint a rosy picture that they are the only ones to serve the poor, that whatever they are doing is enough while the private schooling is only for the richer class.

James Tooley finds his own discovery surprising. It seemed that in many places the public education was not good enough. Despite better buildings, free or cheaper education the schools fared very bad at the thing that mattered. That is educating the children. The teachers dint turn up, they treated the kids as slaves etc etc.

The private schools for poor were run by the business minded among the poor themselves. The fees ranged from Rs 200 to 600  a year in countries like Ghana where as around Rs. 100 per month in Hyderabad. It was affordable for those poor and they preferred this private education over the government-run schools. These people run the schools as a profit making business despite such low fees. Far from ripping off the public they offered completely free education who could not even afford these minimal fees.

The best part is that James finds everyone in denial about the very existence of these schools. He notices that right from world bank officials to the district level education administrations denies that there are private schools for poor. If they exist, they claim, they are only to rip off the poor. James finds that the truth is exactly the opposite. He notes that parental love and entrepreneurship among the poor can be a major contributing factor in getting poor educated.

I have always felt that it is the government that has failed to give way to it’s people’s aspirations by constantly misguiding them. The schemes like NREGS actually handicap the poor. They make them dependent on government dole. The public education system with absolutely no accountability to the public it serves actually prevents the children from getting better education.

Whether it is education or occupation, poor people certainly starve for more. They also show tremendous ability to innovate within their spheres of existence. Mumbai’s dabbawalahs to Pan shop owner you can see them struggling for existence by constantly innovating. I am especially very impressed with the kids that market very weird products in the Mumbai locals. The way they talk would put TeleBrands t.v. anchors to shame.

I guess it works this way. The government pumps in more money to show people that it cares about the education. But then it is like trying to hold water in a mesh. No matter how much money you pump in it disappears without showing results. The reasons for this inefficiency are far deeper and shameful than the government would like to admit. Hence it attributes its own failure to more lack of funds.

Rich countries like USA, Japan and institutions like World Bank provide more and more money to various government projects. In due course of time everyone finds incentives in blaming “lack of funds” fo

r the inadequate results. The rot continues.

James Tooley is certainly deeply concerned about the education system world over. This book explores the facts which no one ever bothered to bring in front. It is really worth a read for anyone who cares about education system.

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