Latest postcard: People-sized solutions

In previous postcards I’ve talked about how with capital and an entrepreneurial outlook the inherent inequalities in
Malawi might begin to be tackled.  And, although it sometimes seems like a drop in the ocean, the formula works.  Lend small amounts of capital to individual women (whose life on the poverty line consists already of a fair bit of careful budgeting and making ends meet) and support them with business training and ongoing mentorship.  Lend only to individuals who form a group with around 18 other borrowers and who agree to guarantee each other’s loans.  Ensure the group has the full support of the traditional authority structures within their village.  If the organisation supplying the loans has effective backroom procedures and doesn’t splash out on shiny white Land Rovers, within a short amount of time the interest rates it charges will allow it to be self sustainable, not dependent on constant western fundraising.  Its repaid loans (the MicroLoan Foundation has a typical repayment rate of 95% – compare that to any
UK lender, or even better to the repayment rate for credit cards) can be ‘turned over’ and lent out again and again.

It seems to me that the reason for the success of microfinance, or at least of the MicroLoan Foundation here in Malawi, is that it follows the principal tenet of any social entrepreneur – to observe the situation before transferring resources to meet a need.  It offers a solution on a scale designed to bring the best out of the people involved.

E F Schumacher is probably the grandfather of such people sized solutions.   In his most famous book, ‘Small is Beautiful’ (misleadingly titled because he’s not advocating a return to cottage industries, just that the size of a production unit should match its purpose), Schumacher says, ‘…people can be themselves only in small comprehensible groups.  Therefore we must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small scale units’.

Anybody who has heard me discussing the state of the
UK education system may chuckle now as they observe me trying to crowbar into this postcard a cause I’ve been ranting about for a little while now.  The average
UK comprehensive school strikes me as manifestly the most absurd and serious example of a unit size being utterly unfit for its purpose.

In education, if nowhere else, effective, subtle and complex human interactions constitute the most important process.  Yet we cram the kind of numbers together which can only result in unsubtle, often brutal, certainly unproductive interactions occurring.  As a deputy head of year and history teacher I had indirect responsibility for around 400 pupils.  I didn’t know all of their names.  Give me a couple of classes of 25 and I will call every child’s parents every week, actually implement differentiated lesson plans, and take them all out bowling every other weekend. (The reality in a good number of the charter schools I visited in New York and
Washington DC last summer.)  A federalised small school structure is probably best.  One school of 1000 pupils is divided into five units of 200 each with their own structure and leadership, but retaining the head teacher’s team to oversee whole school issues.  The charity ARK is, I believe, currently working on such a model in
London.  I’ve got more discussion on the benefits of small schools on my blog, and an article on innovation in the education system.

Such small schools, I suggest, would be easily affordable within the existing education budget.  But if the treasury was looking for extra cash I can think of no better way than (to crowbar in another favourite cause) to fund these schools from an annual land value tax. 

When government spends taxpayer money on infrastructure, land values often rocket.  Instead of putting this taxpayer cash into property owners’ pockets, capturing a percentage of the increase would finance the treasury without harming the economy. (It is not a tax, after all, on things we want to encourage, like employing people or buying things.)  An annual land value tax would be paid by the landowner and exclude any capital investments he’s made (so, the value of the building on the land isn’t taxed).  The use of an annual land value tax to fund school building seems particularly suitable.

The lesson of microfinance in
Malawi is that even in the coldest of transactions (it’s not often you think of money lending as affirming your faith in the human race) it pays to recognise the conditions under which individuals excel.  I wonder if small, federalised schools funded by an annual land value tax could put a little more   people-sized humanity into the
UK – no crowbars needed.


2 thoughts on “Latest postcard: People-sized solutions”

  1. There is no doubt in my mind that the best way to create a positive school culture and atmosphere is with small schools. Once you have that atmosphere, learning becomes the focus. Our School population is expanding rapidly. Berlin Brandenburg International School has 500 students K-12 and we predict we’ll have approx. 800 in 3 years time. Our campus is being developed to have a capacity of around 1000. Our main concern, as we expand is how to keep a small school feeling and atmosphere in a larger school. We introduced a middle School section at he beginning of the current academic year encompassing grades 6-8 (years 7-9 UK system). Our School is now divided into 3 sections, Elementary, Middle and High with plans to Open up a seperate Early childhood division.
    The Middle School is developing a unique culture of it’s own. I have currently only 120 students in the Middle School. I know all of their names, I have met all of their parents and I can tell you something about all of them as far as their personal interests are. As Principal I find it very important that I know the students and they know me.
    I would recommend the work and writings of Dennis Littky to anyone interested in this topic. He has set up a series of schools called MET schools in the states. They have had funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
    Take a look at for more details.
    Here’s a quote form Dennis Littky’s book ‘The Big Picture;Education Is everyones business’
    ” In less than four years of grantmaking, the Gates Foundation has transfomed the notion of replacing large, “comprehensive” high schools with smaller, more personal models into a national movement. The World’s wealthiest philanthropy has earmarked nearly $700 million to the states, school systems, and a range of non profit organizations to create 1,400 mostly urban high schools of 400 or fewer students each-some of them in new locations, some of them in large existing high school buildings that have been subdivided…”

    A really interesting topic and like Jacob, one close to my heart.

    Ben Kestner
    Middle School Principal
    Berlin Brandenburg International School

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