Private schools for the poor

I journeyed to Harare, Zimbabwe recently with some trepidation. After all IEA author Dr Roger Bate is banned and in The Beautiful Tree James Tooley tells of being arrested and questioned heavily.

I was already in South Africa researching a big story so a side trip to Zimbabwe had low marginal cost. My purpose there was to meet and write about Alice Pangwai who runs the Early Bird family of schools, private schools for poor people. No typo there. Yes, private schools for the poor.

For countries for which data is available Zimbabwe is rated last in the world by the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. At first in downtown Harare I wondered ‘why?’ It was bustling and at about 4pm I was enchanted to see so many brightly uniformed, well dressed children with good manners of all ages walking homeward from their schools.

Next morning reality hit home as I was driven 70km east to Marondera on the road to Mutare and eventually Mozambique. I looked right and left and all I could see was previously well cultivated good land now going native with bushes and saplings galore.

My driver explained that white farmers had been driven away and replaced by ‘war veterans’. Given a 200-acre farm such veterans tend say 10 acres or less for a subsistence existence and let 190 go to rot. It’s a lot like set aside under the EU’s evil CAP applied to a whole country.

As the road rose at times I could see miles of countryside and no fully functioning farm anywhere, only brush and decaying infrastructure such as rusting silos and water tanks.

After an hour of bone-shaking driving we reached downtown Marondera, turned right and at the Agricultural Show Grounds found Alice and her private school for the poor. It was inspirational.

In a cluster of odd buildings (used only briefly in September every year for the annual cattle and produce show) around a large fenced showground, Alice and her 18 teachers (with eight support staff) teach 200 students from infant school through good old fashioned O and A levels. Some 25% come from middle class families and 75% from the very poor.

She uses price discrimination: the middle class pay $600 pa; and the poor pay $150 pa. Every parent also has to contribute by mowing grass or making uniforms.

Alice is motivated two-fold: her hatred of the disruption of the education of poor kids as per her own experience as the child of field hands; and her distrust of the state which has strike prone teachers, low standards and enormous classes of up to 60 or more with something called ‘hot-sitting’.

I entered Zimbabwe expecting to pay in local currency but it has abandoned its own dollar and now uses very old, very dirty US dollars –  really disgusting paper. I had some new US currency in my pocket and showed local folk the difference in colour! They were as stunned as I was.

But what about change? I saw signs for say a burger meal at $2.50. If you present say a $5 bill for such a meal you receive back $2 in US currency and the coins as per the South African rand. I wondered: is this unique in monetary history? Paper money from one country and metal money from another. There’s a very interesting paper to be written there. [Author’s note: a paper on this subject has now been published in the Cato Journal.]

I love South Africa. This was my 5th extended trip in 25 years. My ‘Try, Beloved Country’, a report of an earlier visit, is at

I remain confident about South Africa but it surely needs a massive dose of union reform and privatisation. Zimbabwe too has huge potential and long run must do better!

John Blundell is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the IEA. His next bio-comic: Female Force: Ayn Rand appears at the end of June.

3 thoughts on “Private schools for the poor”

  1. Posted 21/06/2011 at 20:08 | Permalink

    Thank you for your piece. You illustrated that ALL people can be innovative, not just those of us in the West. I commend Ms. Pangwai for her courageous efforts in providing an education to the most down-trodden. If all of us would be so bold!

  2. Posted 17/10/2011 at 08:21 | Permalink

    Considering the title of this article, I was expecting more information on the school run by Alice Pangwai. I trust that the author will, in the future, write a more detailed account of his findings.This model could be of great interest to educators globally, especially those in developing countries.

  3. Posted 13/05/2015 at 15:30 | Permalink

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