Tooley says the government’s determination to see a much increased role for the private sector in education is evident in its recent White Paper. But opposition, especially from the unions, is growing. There is a general suspicion of the private sector, and ignorance of the opportunities on offer. Many doubt whether the profit motive should be permitted into educational delivery.
Tooley’s study confronts misconceptions about the role of the private sector in education and challenges the prevailing wisdom that private education fosters social and economic inequality. On the contrary, Tooley found the private sector, as well as being innovative, in many countries provides creative social responsibility programmes, subsidised places and student loan schemes.
His book explores the role of private education in lifting the most disadvantaged out of poverty. In many developing countries, government schools are in a parlous state. But the poor don’t just sit by, waiting for government to make their schools better. Some of the most disadvantaged people on this planet vote with their feet, exit the state schools and move their children to private schools, set up by educational entrepreneurs to cater for their needs. Such schools charging about Â£10 per year are commonplace, and are open to some of the poorest people, including children of rickshaw pullers and costermongers. And, as Tooley points out:
‘These schools may not have ‘frills’ in the sense of the luxuries that are on offer in other … schools…But they are far and away superior to those provided in the state sector, and that is the relevant criterion for comparison.’ (p. 17).
Second, Tooley describes more developments in one of the most innovative education companies in the world, NIIT. NIIT is involved in an innovative public-private partnership that may be of interest to British readers. One state government in India has contracted out its high-school computer curriculum to private companies, which provide teaching to students and staff alike during the day, and then use the classroom as a franchised centre in the evening. As Tooley notes:
‘The contracting out of curriculum areas such as this represents an important step forward in relationships between the public and private sectors, and provides an interesting model worth watching and emulating.’ (p. 19).
Finally, the study brings in new data from China. From being outlawed until the mid-1980s, private education has grown dramatically in China to the extent that now 54 per cent of tertiary institutions and 9 per cent of vocational high schools are private. The reasons why the Chinese authorities are being particularly attracted to private education sound very familiar: to bring more investment, innovation and equal access into educational provision (pp. 24-5).
The examples of innovation, efficiency and educational relevance cited throughout the book invite us, challenges Professor Tooley, to question much about state education and the role of the private sector:
‘Travelling to Brazil and witnessing private education companies so willing to invest in technological innovation and curriculum development in schools set me wondering about the paucity of innovation in state schools in England. Travelling to South Africa and finding private education companies so concerned with the future destinations of their students – to the extent that they buy up recruitment companies – raised questions about the concerns of our state schools. Seeing in India companies so involved with quality control to ensure standards are high for all clients led to doubts about the lack of quality control procedures at home.’ (p. 184).
James Tooley is professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle, and Director of the IEA’s Education Programme.