Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

UN Thwarts Slum Schools – Part 2

UN committee rejects educational progress, refuses to respect the choices of the poor. Read Part 1 here.

When James Tooley, an international education expert, began researching private, parent-funded schools in some of the world’s most desperate slums, he was told they didn’t exist.

So he secured funding. Then he assembled and trained research teams. In the years that followed, his researchers documented more than 1,000 of these schools in three sample populations in India, more than 350 schools in a Nigerian study, and nearly 600 in a study conducted in Ghana.

Then the goalposts moved. Tooley was told there was still nothing to see here. After all, went the refrain, these facilities are run by unethical people ripping off the poor. Many of the teachers lack formal credentials, therefore the quality of the instruction is surely substandard.

So Tooley raised more money, assembled larger research teams, and spent additional years systematically testing thousands of students. His data showed that kids in parent-funded slum schools routinely outperform those in government-funded schools.

That’s when the opposing arguments became nakedly political. These slum schools are unfair. Because some kids don’t have parents able or willing to scrape together the small fees involved, these facilities deepen inequality. They’re a threat to free, public, government-provided education. Shut them down. Regulate them out of existence.

In his book, The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves, Tooley describes this uphill battle. People ostensibly committed to helping the poor didn’t want to hear that the poor were actually helping themselves. They didn’t want to hear that the poor have their own priorities and perspectives.

Eventually, the hard work of Toolely and his team paid off. The ideas in the final chapter of his book were condensed into an essay that won a prestigious prize and got published in the Times of London. Investors, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and even the British government’s international aid department began to take an interest. A movement that provides a superior educational experience at a fraction of the normal cost was suddenly recognized and celebrated.

Funding from non-parent sources soon became available. Vouchers made it possible for girls to attend these schools in Pakistan. Elsewhere, micro loans helped these facilities upgrade. Financial assistance for orphans expanded. Branded chains of low-cost private schools were launched.

This is an amazing, inspiring, good-news story. This is about things going right, about progress being made.

But not according to the UN. The committee tasked with enforcing compliance with the international Convention on the Rights of the Child is demanding that the UK stop funding this movement (see Part 1 here).

The very people who are supposed to put children’s interests first are stubbornly opposed to an educational vision that delivers superior results. They’re still determined to inflict a foreign, thoroughly broken educational model on the developing world.

That’s sin number one – and it’s a doozy. Sin number two is that the UN imagines it has the moral right to tell sovereign nations how to spend their aid dollars overseas.

Arrogance. Chutzpah. Call it what you will – this is repugnant.


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The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves
James Tooley
  • my previous commentary: UN Thwarts Slum Schools – Part 1
  • What Happens When We Sign a UN Treaty?
  • watch an 18-minute TEDx video, in which James Tooley explains the importance of private schools in poor countries here
  • a similar 15-minute TEDx video featuring Pauline Dixon, Tooley’s research colleague, is here
  • the 2016 scolding of the UK by the UN committee associated with the Convention on the Rights of the Child may be downloaded here. The objection to the funding of private, low-cost schools appears on p. 4.


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This entry was posted on February 13, 2019 by in children, education and tagged .
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