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Sreelatha Menon: A new lesson

Education researcher James Tooley sees similarity between gurukuls of yore and low-cost private schools that dot slums in India

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

A small rally of barefoot children wearing little dhotis marched through a small village of Kurumbilavu in Thrissur district 70 years ago. They were chanting: Him him pray...him him pray.

They were students of a primary school run by the King of Kochi in Cherpu taluk and were celebrating the anniversary of the king. They meant “pray for him,’’ some former students of the school recall.

That was one of the few schools run by the king. It also charged fees. The taluk had schools run by churches, by wealthy men (like Chittur Mana Narayanan Namboodiri High School). There was also a school run by an Ezhava scholar, called Bodhananda High School. All these still exist.

Before the western model brought by the British or the Church, there were ezhuthu pallis, or writing schools, run by ezhuthu ashans, or writing masters. There were also schools run by wealthy individuals in their homes for their daughters.

In these tutorials, generations learnt to read and write using writing nails, palm leaves and sand, paying fees in kind. Outside Kerala, gurukuls functioned successfully for centuries. And these were always privately-funded. Is this model better than pumping in more public money into inefficient government schools?

That is the question that James Tooley, a British researcher and writer on education, asks in his recent book, The Beautiful Tree. He sees existence of private education in pre-British India as an argument in favour of low-cost private education that can cover every child. He finds virtue in the large number of private schools that are run in the slums he visited.

This goes against the thinking of development experts, including Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze. A study by the latter argues that the solution is to improve government schools rather than close them.

Madhav Chavan, the founder of NGO Pratham, which in its study found that the poor also preferred to send their children to private schools, sat close to Tooley at the launch of the book. But he made it clear he did not share the views of the author.

To say that private schools hold the key to universal education is to say the unspeakable. As unspeakable as saying that the king has no clothes.

Tooley says Mahatma Gandhi himself would have backed him. He cites Gandhi’s writings where he talks about pre-British education, describing it as a “beautiful tree,’’ and his assertion that India’s network of teaching centres (like ezhuthu pallis) died for lack of nurturing after the advent of the British, who introduced the public-funded model.

Tooley sees cheap schools in slums charging Rs 50-250. He doesn’t stop with writing. He has started Empathy Learning Systems, federating several private schools in Mehboobnagar and Hyderabad. He wants to show the experts that the poor deserve better than government schools.

As Tooley starts his mission, the children should say in unison, “him him pray.’’

First Published: Sun, November 15 2009. 00:36 IST