Why we don’t need education for the poor

Low-cost private schools offer a better education in everything from pupil/teacher ratios and performance in Maths and English, to higher IQs, according to a survey of 32,000 children across schools in India, China and Africa. I was at the Free Market Foundation headquarters in Bryanston, Johannesburg to hear Dr. Pauline Dixon from the UK’s Newcastle University present her findings.

The majority of poor families send their children to low-cost private schools. They believe that teachers at these schools are better educated and more accountable as they are from their own community. Paying fees encourages self-reliance and pro-active behaviour, giving parents the confidence to complain and to threaten to move schools if they are dissatisfied. Governments frequently underestimate their country’s education enrolment figures. Many of these schools are unrecognized and not registered. So the belief in a free education for all, said Dixon, keeps the money pouring into the government-run sector regardless of the poor outcomes.

When the World Bank poured $55m into the provision of free education in Kenya in 2003, there was an initial drop in attendance in the low-cost private sector and an increase in attendance at the new free government schools. However by 2008 many had returned to their private schools due to the low standard of education being provided at the free government schools. The high teacher/pupil ratio, lack of seating, cost of uniforms and other hidden costs also ended up making them more expensive to attend than the independent alternatives. These findings have increased calls for market-led initiatives as opposed to aid hand-outs. Aid is viewed as pouring water into a leaking bucket: on e-books where there is no electricity, on toilets where there is no water to flush, on text books which are never delivered, and where funds disappear into the pockets of corrupt officials.

But whatever the case for a low-cost private alternative, there are still questions to ask about the quality and content of the education that is being offered to the poor. Why are horizons so low? Don’t the poor of poor countries deserve more than a basic education? Is it really enough to achieve adequate levels of literacy and numeracy? Is education no more than a stepping stone to a mundane and low paid job in tourism or catering? In the best schools, private or public, it is the passion of teachers transmitting their knowledge to a new generation that inspires. That passion is rooted in the subject matter. For Dixon’s team, though, getting a job and learning moral lessons around issues such as abuse were seen as more useful for children from poor families.

But the truth is that most parents who send their children for low-cost private schooling want the same education as that received by the children of the former colonialists: an education that transforms the individual and opens doors to a world of opportunity not restricted by background, status or class. In England, this is what the grammar schools offered working class students; and today it is what the free schools, like East London Science School, can offer too. Of course not all children will go on to further studies or feel inclined to pursue an academic path, but they should at least have gained an education that will have broadened their minds and raised their expectations. Instead of providing education for the poor let’s admit them to the education of the elites.

Written by Sharmini Brookes. The Social Policy Forum will be at the Battle of Ideas on 19th and 20th October at the Barbican, London. Over 70 debates over the course of the weekend include Development aid: hindrance or help? and Private education: public harm? We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor

Picture by: Simon Davis/ Department for International Development

3 responses to “Why we don’t need education for the poor”

  1. Muthal Naidoo says:

    Nobody needs poor education, not the poor or anyone else. But the poor often do not have those inspiring teachers who transmit their passion for knowledge to learners. Dixon’s team’s view of education for the poor is condescending; it suggests that nothing can be done for poor children and the best one can do is to get them to adopt middle class norms and values — without their having the same environment and opportunities as children from the middle class. The East London Science School offers a better solution — free quality education.

  2. Rob Ridley says:

    To suggest  that the educational levels of former colonialists is desirable I find astonishing. The bias and prejudice of such times towards local populations must have permeated the content of such an education.  The actual level of quality would also be variable to say the least. Any form of private education arguably will provide a patchwork of coverage and quality. Private education also will arguably lead to the growth of elitism that may be anti-democratic. Those who can pay get the education for their offspring regardless of their actual ability and the reality is poor families with exceptionally gifted children do not get a look in. I find it difficult to believe educationalists see this as acceptable. I do not believe freemarket provision of education is a solution that is fair and equitable. The promotion of this form of education is retrograde. The focus needs to be delivering effective free education and not pandering to freemarket elitism. 

  3. Will Meyrick says:

    It is naive to suggest that a market orientated system will somehow offer a miraculous emancipation of the poor. Lest we forget, it is the structures within a society that can really hinder the advancement of the poor. For example, in South Korea, poor families pour hundreds of dollars a month for their children to attend private extra lessons in science, maths and English in an ultra competitive system that rinses students of their childhood and leaves many unhappy (I worked there). Many of these families find that the same old structures exist in Korea that do in many societies where movement between classes is a semi-permeable boundary based on not what you know but who you know. But there is mass hysteria and a fear of being left behind in a grand race to keep up with the Joneses. Unless you are part genius and work very, very, very hard with many feeling the futility and frustration of the proverbial carrot on a stick, or just lucky, then often your destiny is already laid before you. Koreans are fantastically knowledgeable and learn the most obscure English words that even we native speaker never use.- often to no advantage. Understanding societies on a grass roots level is the only way of measuring the impact of blanket policies from Western-centric think tanks.