The poorest rely on the private sector for their education


Professor James Tooley, of Newcastle University, delivered the E.G. West Memorial Lecture on  October 19th under the auspices of the IEA.

In his address, Professor Tooley sketched the life and work of E G West  who challenged the accepted notions about profit in education – and stated the case for a free, unrestricted market. Professor E. G. Wests ‘Education and the State’ (originally published in 1965 by the IEA) was regarded as the 20th Century’s most influential work on the free market in education.

Tooley highlighted the fact that most education in Victorian times was delivered by profit making and voluntary organisations, including, particularly within the poorest communities. And most  young people were educated up to reasonable level of literacy and numeracy. Before Foster introduced the Education Act of 1870 ,the Newcastle Commission (1861) found only around 4.5% of the population were not being educated and  so the purpose of the Education Act was to address this issue, not, as is commonly thought now, to make the state responsible for universal elementary education. In fact, the Foster Act allowed  School Boards  to examine the provision of elementary education in their district and if there were not enough school places, they could build and maintain schools out of the rates. But Foster explicitly didn’t want the private and voluntary sectors to be crowded out by grant funded government schools, which is  what in effect  happened. A grant funded school would open up next to a privately funded school. Pupils would migrate to the free school, rolls and standards would drop in the privately funded school, and it would then be ordered to close. This is absolutely not what Foster intended.

Tooleys book The Beautiful Tree (Penguin, New Delhi) which was on the best-seller lists in India in 2010, builds on his ground-breaking research on private education for the poor in India, China and Africa. What Tooley set out to do was find out whether, in the poorest parts of the developing world, the poor were being educated as they were in Victorian times by private providers. He found that they were. Indeed in cities like Lagos in Nigeria 41% of pupils go to private schools, and these schools outperform state schools. He found this pattern across the developing world. In many of the poorest  and remotest areas private schools far outstripped state schools in terms of number of pupils and quality of provision.   Despite this, education aid is still largely channelled through state institutions, although our own DFID appears to be shifting its policies. Their officials and those who advise them   have been impressed by the fact that the poor rely heavily on private and non -state  players in developing countries  to access education. We seem to be witnessing a significant shift in DFID policy in this area.  About time too.


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