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Review: The Beautiful Tree

The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves

By James Tooley (Washington: Cato Institute, 2009)

Reviewed by John Fox

The Beautiful Tree is not a comfortable book. It questions any number of orthodoxies and stereotypes, with a bracing willingness to confront conventional assumptions. But at the same time it is a beautiful book—alive to the grace of people, and their desire for a better life, a better future and a better education.

Written by educationalist James Tooley, The Beautiful Tree tells the story of private education among the world’s poor— not mission schools for the rich, or government schools, but co-operative, community schools. These schools are not run for the poor by a government department, but are accountable to, and paid for, by the poor themselves.

We are used to thinking of private education in terms of green playing fields and elites. But in the slums of Hyderabad, where the book begins, and in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and China, where it goes next, private education confounds our stereotypes.
In a compellingly readable style, James Tooley tells the story of the slum schools of the developing world. Paid for by scrimping and saving, making the best of substandard facilities, community schools bring education to those who are so often written off, or the subject of patronising, top-down do-goodery. The stories of the working poor and their passion for education and their children, is one of the most moving aspects of the book. Tooley introduces us to Mr Mustaq teaching Robert Frost in the Scholars’ Model School in Hyderabad; to another teacher referred to as BSE, teaching in the Makoko slum in Lagos, Nigeria; to Theophilus Quaye, headmaster and proprietor of the “Supreme Academy” in Ghana. The stories of private schools paid for by “the world’s poorest people” goes on, through Kenya and India to China. Tooley tells their stories, and gives them voice. In every place, he traces a similar story— the forgotten and undervalued community school, paid for like a business but accountable to, and a part of, a local patch, doing the work of education when the government schools have given up.

In the words of “Sajid-Sir,” headmaster of a community school in Hyderabad, “There are three corners of the triangle— parents, teachers, and students, and this triangle must not be a scalene triangle, it must be an equilateral triangle.” Beginning by going house-to-house on his bike, Sajid-Sir taught pupils and in 1982 built a school “with 15 students on the floor of his rented house. From there, he progressed over the next 19 years to an enrolment of nearly 1000 students, on three rented sites,” in ramshackle buildings and with few trained teachers, driven by a desire to help and a love of teaching. Tooley quotes another teacher from Ghana: “This is an offering job … you sacrifice yourself for the children.” The story of small schools beginning in homes with parents, and then growing, taking root in the earth and helping to transform their communities, makes The Beautiful Tree a beautiful book. The stories of developing countries, as Tooley points out, mirror the story of the 19th century in the West—small, parish schools, run by committed teachers. But alas there is another character in these stories. The interference and micro-management of bureaucracy also rears its head.

In every country, Tooley tells a story of governmental bloat, deafness and corruption, and a contrasting story of self-help, community effort, love of learning, and joy in teaching. He faces squarely the problems of the private schools—lack of facilities and lack of teacher training—but the book moves effortlessly between stories and the research those stories inspired—academic examinations of the extent, usefulness, and history of community education. It is this beautiful balance which gives the book its power—statistics appear, research is done, but Tooley never forgets the people he meets. He gives them the basic respect and agency which the government bureaucracy so often fails to give. In many government schools visited by Tooley, the teachers fail to teach, the children fail to learn, the administrators and bureaucrats skim resources off the top, and Western aid, fixated on government-driven, top-down solutions, simply makes the problem institutional. In the words of one school in Nigeria: “We hear there are funds in the budget. But we don’t see it in our community. We don’t know where the money goes.” Tooley offers example after example of community schools chosen by parents over government schools despite their inferior facilities, for the quality, regularity and commitment of their teachers.

Tooley’s story of community education holds a tough challenge for aid donors, educrats, governments and teachers, in both private and public sectors. He reminds us of a crucial fact so often in danger of being forgotten in the education debate. At the heart of teaching and learning is what Sajid-Sir calls “the triangle” between child, school, and parent. Education exists, schools exist, for the sake of the children and the families they serve—as outgrowths and flowerings of local community, pride and involvement. The very language of our “education system” locates power and agency in the wrong place—with “the system,” “the Ministry,” the important people, the big-wigs. Tooley’s insights are a reminder to us in New Zealand, as in the developing world, that education is about helping families and children to grow, to rise, to stand independent and connected in their communities—to flower and to find the sunlight. It is that task teachers and communities are called to—growing good people. The Beautiful Tree is their story.

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