Malala and Private Education: The Story Not Often Told

Photo courtesy of Deutsche Welle

Malala Youfsafzai, the young woman who risked her life speaking for education rights in Pakistan, has captured the attention of the world, and rightly so. She grew up and attended school in the country’s Swat Valley, where the Taliban had at times banned girls from attending school, and nonetheless courageously appeared in multiple television interviews and wrote articles, detailing her situation and promoting girls’ education. The Taliban retaliated, shooting and critically injuring her in an assassination attempt on October 9, 2012 while returning home on a school bus.

Undaunted by continued death threats, Malala bravely continues advocacy for education in Pakistan and abroad. She is the youngest person ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and has received many awards, including the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded by the European Parliament, as well as an honorary master’s degree from Edinburgh University. 

Most media reports surrounding Malala’s compelling story have described her as “an advocate for girls’ education.” The BBC labeled her campaign as one “to ensure free compulsory education for every child.” In a recent article for The Spectator, James Tooley, a professor of education policy at Newcastle University and a researcher of education trends in poor and prosperous areas across the globe, points out that the media is missing a vital aspect of her family’s involvement in Pakistan’s education sector. Malala is advocating increased access to education, yes, but what type of education did her family actively promote and engage in? And how is this, in fact, surprisingly representative of the educational reality of most in the developing world?

“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 Taliban, was in fact a low-cost private school set up by her father,” states Tooley.

Mr. Yousafzai has been labeled a “headmaster” in some reports, a “school administrator” in others. But this only diminishes the reality that he was an education entrepreneur, meeting a demand for high-quality private education that wasn’t previously prevalent in his region of Pakistan.

Tooley explains Mr. Yousafzai’s educational approach:

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.

When urged by government officials to get his school registered by paying bribes, he refused and encouraged other school owners to fight this corruption. Mr. Yousafzai’s initiative to develop private schools is not unique; in fact, many in Pakistan and throughout the developing world choose private education over government education. This may come as a surprise to some, perhaps particularly in the West, where the received wisdom is that private education is for the elite and the middle classes. But in the developing world, private schools are very common and service the middle class, as well as the poorest of the poor. They are driven by entrepreneurs aiming to provide high-quality education that many government schools fail to provide, at a fraction of the teacher cost.

Tooley explains, “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.” Mr. Yousafzai became president of the Swat Association of Private Schools, and under his leadership it expanded to 400 school-owners.

The prevalence of private schools can be witnessed in many other parts of the world. Tooley continues:

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.

Tooley makes an important distinction between public education and the for-profit model. He maintains that “when parents pay fees they demand more of the schools, and the schools themselves are more accountable to the parents.” Making a financial commitment to education empowers parents to be more conscious of and committed to the education process, and urges schools to be good stewards of the resources given to them by parents. Owing to this accountability factor, Tooley found the rate of teacher absenteeism to be higher in most government schools than private schools. His research also uncovered that student performance in many private schools was noticeably higher.

When Malala writes and speaks about the right to education, this is the framework she is coming from. She attended a private school, like a significant number of Pakistani children, and witnessed her father’s tireless work to provide low-cost private schooling opportunities. And while private education is understood differently in the United States and Western countries, this is not a good reason to exclude it from Malala’s story; it is in fact an excellent opportunity to share the accomplishments of her family in expanding educational choice and the encouraging global movement of others succeeding to provide low-cost, high-quality private education in communities throughout the world.

For more information on Tooley’s work visit his PovertyCure voice page

For additional material on private education in the developing world check out the PovertyCure Education Issue Page and my previous blog post on the topic: Free primary education is a fundamental good. Isn’t it?

Nov 132013
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