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.

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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.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Development, Education, Malala Yousafzai, Nigeria, Pakistan, Private education, Taleban