James Tooley

A lesson from the Third World

James Tooley on the extraordinary success of private education in Africa and India

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Schoolboy Worlanyo leaves his crowded home in the townships of Accra, Ghana, early in the morning, smartly dressed in brown shorts and a bright but frayed yellow shirt. He makes his way down filthy streets, but walks past the run-down exterior of the government school, where a few children forlornly wait for the doors to be unlocked. The government school teachers won't be there for a few hours, some not at all today, or any day. Worlanyo walks on past, turns off down the next alleyway and enters by the brightly hand-painted signboard the crowded playground of 'De Youngster's International School'.

The elderly Mr A.K. De Youngster looks on with pride as the children begin their assembly with a hearty rendition of 'How Great Thou Art' at the school he started from scratch in 1980. Then there were 36 children in a downstairs room in his house, and he, an experienced headmaster, had opened his doors after pleas from township folk, unhappy even then that government schools 'were not doing their level best' for their children. Now, 22 years later, his chain of private schools has four branches, with 3,400 pupils. The fees are £30 per term - affordable for many of the poor - and to the many who can't afford that he offers free scholarships.

Seated in his office beneath a rickety fan that blows the sweat across his forehead, he chuckles as he tells me that, at the age of seven, he wrote to President Eisenhower from his village in West Ghana asking for help with his studies. 'The Americans wouldn't help me,' he smiles, 'so I learnt to help myself.' And now 45 per cent of Ghanaian children go to private school in Accra, many of these from poor families like the ones he serves, also 'helping themselves'.

In the Horn of Africa, the same story is repeated. Professor Suleyman, the vice-chancellor of Amoud University, the first private university in Somaliland, drives me up impossible roads to a hill overlooking Boroma, a city of 100,000 souls on the road to Ethiopia, and points out the location of each private school, some only half built. Boroma has no water supply (donkey carts deliver water in leaking jerricans), no paved roads, no street lights and plenty of burnt-out tanks, remnants of its recent civil war. But it has two private schools for every government school. 'The governor asked me,' says Suleyman, '