Malala for free schools

Why does the media hide the fact that she's for educational choice — as are so many developing nations?

9 November 2013

That Malala Yousafzai, the girl the Taleban tried to murder, is a brave and resolute young woman is not in doubt. The youngest person ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, she has won many awards, including the Sakharov Prize and an honorary degree from Edinburgh University, in her campaign for ‘the right to -education’.

But something curious is going on. Something crucial to her experience is always omitted when her life and mission are described by international agencies and the media. Education International, the global teachers’ union umbrella group, is typical. Malala is campaigning, they say, so that all can benefit from ‘equitable public education’; that is, government education. The BBC summary of her talk on her 16th birthday to the UN highlighted only ‘her campaign to ensure free compulsory education for every child’. Meanwhile Gordon Brown, now UN special envoy for global education, used the same event to ‘renew the call for all governments to guarantee equitable quality education for all’.

But it wasn’t to governments that Malala and her family turned (or are turning now) to get an education. In fact, everything in her life story — related so beautifully in her just-published autobiography, written with journalist Christina Lamb — points to something importantly different. In her life story, she’s not standing up for the right to government education at all. In fact, she’s scathing about government education: it means ‘learning by rote’ and pupils not questioning teachers. It means high teacher absenteeism and abuse from government teachers, who, reluctantly posted to remote schools, ‘make a deal with their colleagues so that only one of them has to go to work each day’; on their unwilling days in school, ‘All they do is keep the children quiet with a long stick as they cannot imagine education will be any use to them.’ She’s surely not fighting for the right of children to an education like that.

But if not government education, what is she standing for? In fact, Malala’s life story shows her standing up for the right to private education.

For the school she attended, on her way to which she was famously shot by the Taleban, was in fact a low-cost private school set up by her father. This reality gets hidden in some reports: not untypically, Education International describes her father as a ‘headmaster’. Time magazine describes him as a ‘school administrator’. Headmaster, school administrator: these obscure the truth. In fact, her father was an educational entrepreneur.


In 1994, he started a private school in Mingora, seeing few other private schools there and market demand for English-medium schools high. He and his friend invested their entire savings of 60,000 rupees (about $1,754 or £1,127 at contemporary exchange rates). It was a struggle, but they succeeded. When Malala was born in July 1997, the school fees were 100 rupees a month (about £1.50). That’s definitely a low-cost private school, accessible to poor families. Her father joined the Swat Association of Private Schools, and quickly became vice-president. Government officials tried to make him pay bribes to get his school registered — the going rate was about 13,000 rupees, or around a quarter of what he had been able to invest to get the school going. He encouraged other school owners to fight this corruption. ‘Running a school is not a crime,’ he told them, according to his daughter’s book. ‘Why should you be paying bribes? You are not running brothels; you are educating children!’ Pretty soon he was president of the organisation; under his leadership it expanded to 400 school -owners.

This all seems remarkable, and surely part of Malala’s story. Against the odds, her father, with at least 400 other educational entrepreneurs, have created private schools for the poor in a remote region of the world, because even poor parents don’t want to acquiesce in the mediocrity and abuse of government schools. But it’s all studiously ignored by the international agencies and media, who continue to use Malala’s story to push the case for government schools.

Perhaps commentators reason that what happened to her is exceptional, relevant only to a remote, Taleban-infested part of Pakistan where girls aren’t allowed education? Perhaps someone like Malala’s father is needed to create educational opportunities, just as Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea is about the necessity of an American showing up to create schools in similar remote places?

If that is the reasoning, then it is not true at all. What is happening in Malala’s native Swat Valley is happening everywhere across the developing world. What Malala’s father created is not some curious detail to be swept under the carpet. Far from being unusual, Malala’s story points to a global movement in which her father is a key player.

Low-cost private education, private education for the poor, is ubiquitous. I’ve been engaged in research on this subject for over a decade, and the results are astonishing. No one really knows the exact proportion in private education in Pakistan, because many of the low-cost private schools are unregistered — perhaps because they can’t afford to pay bribes. But we have some indications. A senior economist at the World Bank, Jishnu Das, suggests that in Pakistan generally there were 50,000 private schools in 2005; that meant one in three of all schoolchildren in private education, many of them attending the kind of low-cost private schools created by Malala’s father. Moreover, across Pakistan, private school enrolments are increasing much more rapidly than government ones, so the figure is likely to be considerably higher now. Urban enrolment is highest of all. In Karachi, for instance, fully three-quarters of primary school children goes to private school.

It’s not just in Pakistan. At least half of India’s villages have access to a low-cost private school, and they are estimated to serve the vast majority — 70 per cent or more — of the urban poor. Nor is it just in South Asia: research has shown the same phenomenon in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, as well as in ‘fragile states’ more akin to the situation in which Malala found herself, in Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Sudan. A study just completed in Lagos State, Nigeria, shows 73 per cent of primary-school-age children are in private schools. In the slums of Monrovia, Liberia, only 8 per cent of children use government schools; while 21 per cent are out of school, 71 per cent — from some of the poorest families on the planet — use low-cost private schools.

When she writes about the right to education, this is the reality that Malala is alluding to. To pigeonhole her as ‘the girl who stood up for education’, and include under that rubric only government education, misses something important about what she and her family stand for. Not mediocre government education, as is found in Pakistan and the developing world over. But the right to educational choice, to educational freedom; the right to a private education.

And where is she going to school now that she’s living in Birmingham? To private school of course, Edgbaston High School for Girls. She and her family have made the same choice here as they did back in Pakistan. It’s odd that this detail is not mentioned in her autobiography, where she just says ‘It’s a good school’ — nothing about it being private. I wonder why not. Is it because she and her family take it for granted? Or because her ghostwriter felt it might undermine her story?

On the contrary, it wouldn’t undermine it at all. Malala and her father are part of a global movement, where families choose low-cost private schools because they don’t think government schools are good enough. Those running low-cost private schools around the world, in places sometimes as difficult as the Swat Valley, against the odds, with governments and international agencies often unsympathetic, need Malala and her father to stand up for them, to be their champions.

But all the commentators who have jumped on the Malala bandwagon proclaim her as only fighting for the right to public education. Nothing in her and her family’s actions, her past or present life story, suggests that she is.

James Tooley is professor of education policy at Newcastle University, where he directs the E.G. West Centre. His The Beautiful Tree is now in paperback.

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  • Shaka

    The sort of trendy, pushy, self righteous crap expressed herethat has destroyed this country.

  • Bring Back Free Speech

    Yes, the left wing media do try and cover up the failings of state education, while challenging independent education’s right to exist. There was a documentary on Tom Daley which failed to mention he had been forced to leave his comprehensive because of bullying over his achievements. It also failed to give credit to the independent school which awarded him a sports scholarship so he could attend it.
    In the documentary ‘A Very English Education’ the interviewer tried to push the idea that it is ‘unfair’ that the those from the independent sector domintated positions. The sparky Rupert Gather said it was an indictment of the state sector with its poverty of ambition, and the state sector should learn from the private schools, not damn them. Good for you Gather, and you too James Tooley!

  • Edubeat

    Love it!

  • Chet Carter

    Who is paying for her private education in England? Hopefully not the British taxpayer.

  • alistairofabuhabi1951

    I found James Tooley’s piece Malala’s School Wars absurdly disingenuous and surprisingly unworthy of someone who has done a good deal to promote the development of education in so many impoverished places in Africa and Asia. Tooley’s assertion that “something funny is going on” is nonsense, a sanctimonious and rather smug attempt to ‘have a go’ at organisations and journalists who do not share his views, his conviction that state education (i use the term loosely) is hopeless and bound to fail whether in Manchester or the Swat Valley. Needless to say, the implication is that the ‘usual suspects’ i.e. Left-leaning journalists, UNESCO etc. are exploiting Malala’s brave stand for civilised values. All a bit silly, really.

    It is hardly groundbreaking journalism to highlight the deficiencies of education in what used to be called ‘The Third World’. Bribery, corruption, maladministration and low standards amongst teachers are often evidence, but there is much that is good and many reasons for optimism. I am sure that Mr. Tooley has seen much ‘good practice’ on his travels, in state schools as well as parlour schools. To put it quite simply, is it really surprising that children will do as well, if not better, in private, low-cost schools if the teachers are trained and motivated and there is at least basic provision?

    Sadly, what comes across more than anything else is, I feel, Tooley’s own agenda to promote private education, nicely exemplified by his woeful remark about Malala’s school in Birmingham, “nothing about it being private”. Of course, her security and the security of the school in a world of tabloid journalism and, yes, terrorists, had nothing to do with it!

    His observation that Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography is “not standing up for the right to government education at all” is a totally unnecessary and fallacious criticism as any reasonable person knows…Malala is manifestly arguing for the right of every girl and young woman in Pakistan – and in all other places where such benighted attitudes prevail – to be educated in schools where there is appropriate resourcing, properly trained and rewarded teachers, equality of educational opportunity (as far as this is humanly possible) and ethical management. Whether it is a so-called government school or a private school is neither here nor there! To imply that she – or her autobiography – is in some way making a devious political point about the competing merits of ‘private’ and ‘public’ education is ridiculous. Is she not simply a remarkable young woman, brave and principled, the survivor of a brutal attempt to murder her, for god’s sake?

    • J.B Stanfield

      I agree, it is not that surprising that children will do as well, if not better, in low-cost private schools. Millions of parents in developing countries who send their children to these schools also seem to recognise this. This begs the question, why is this inspirational grassroots development in education – which is a remarkable success story – not being applauded by every international agency, NGO, development expert and Make Poverty History campaigner? Why does UNESCO continue to refuse to include unregistered private schools in its official figures on school enrolment, thereby helping to completely distort the situation on the ground? For example, according to UNESCO the number of out of school children in Nigeria has increased from 7.4 to 10.5 million since 1999 – and this total now represents one in six out of school children globally. Nigeria is therefore seen as part of the global education crisis and no doubt UNESCO will recommend an enormous increase in international aid to help save the people of Nigeria from themselves.

      However, UNESCO only include figures for government and registered private schools and so as most low cost private schools are unregistered these enrolments are ignored. Instead these children are identified as
      being out of school. But when total school enrolments are calculated (including unregistered schools) a completely different picture emerges. For example, research in Lagos State has found that total enrolments figures could be above 90%! If this is the case then this is a remarkable success story which other countries can perhaps learn from.

      As you can see this is no trivial matter and so the more people who can speak out to stop this from becoming an embarrassing farce the better.

  • Simon Daley

    Does anyone else find it deeply offensive that Professor Tooley seeks to promote his own ideological agenda on the back of Malala? She is more than capable of speaking for herself and representing her own views and she has been explicit about supporting universal free education.

  • http://www.brandaware.co.uk/ Paddy Briggs

    I have no doubt that the facts in Mr Tooley’s article are correct – but his conclusions are perverse. To suggest that the Malala story is not a passionate plea for Government provided education is bizarre. Malala’s father set up his school precisely because there were no adequate State schools. Had there been good schools for her would he have set up a private school. Why would he? Gordon Brown’s call for “Government’s to guarantee equitable quality education for all” is spot on and the Malala case supports that position perfectly.
    I have lived in countries (The Netherlands an example) where the State education is so good that few send their children to anything but a State school. That’s the template that we should all aspire to. That this is not achieved in many countries, including Britain, is regrettable and that the Private sector steps in for those who can afford it nothing we should be product about. Anywhere.

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