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Malala is not the best mascot for universal education

Even though Malala probably has a full scholarship to her school, it is from a platform of very narrow elitist privilege that she is seen as championing universal education. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

columns Updated: Nov 21, 2013 02:41 IST

Malala Yousafzai is one of the best known teenagers in the world - and she's doesn't sing pop, twerk or act in Harry Potter films. She has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and she has been given all sorts of awards.

She became famous by being shot in the head for being a defiant champion of female education and against the Taliban who hold sway in and at times controlled the near-anarchic Swat Valley of Pakistan.

She survived the attack and was operated on in Britain, her life saved and her mind and body restored through the remarkable capabilities of modern surgery.

Being shot was not her achievement. Subsequently offering a publicised defiance to the misogynistic ideology, posing as religion, which denies women the right to equal education was.

Malala became the beacon of a challenge to that backwardness and is now universally (except in the miserable darkness of some Islamist redoubts) acclaimed as the champion of a right to universal education - for girls primarily but by empathetic osmosis to all the children of the planet.

Malala now lives in Birmingham. She has written her autobiography which tells us that she was shot on the way to her school where her father was the headmaster. In fact he wasn't.

The review in America's TIME describes him as a school administrator or principal. He wasn't quite that either though he did administrate this school which he started in partnership with a friend as a low-fee-charging business enterprise at Mingora, the capital of Swat.

He and his friend invested their savings of Rs 60,000 to complement the several schools that had been started up by entrepreneurs who had seen a gap in the market and a demand for English language education of children, even in Swat.

Malala's father's story is glancingly told in her autobiography, which has been banned in Pakistan. Indeed he can be said to be the hero of it. His school wasn't a registered government school and he was asked by Pakistani education ministry officials to pay a sizeable bribe to register as a recognised institution and derive some benefits by way of government grants.

He refused to pay the bribe and began a campaign to fight this corruption by recruiting other affordable-fee-paying schools into the Swat Association of Private Schools. His campaign led to his election as president of the association and its membership grew to 400 of these schools.

Malala now attends Edgbaston High School for Girls. It's in Birmingham and is a fee-paying Independent school. The word 'Independent' means that it is not a State school, not paid for by the government and not free for its pupils.

Some of the Independent schools, constituted as charities refer to themselves loosely as 'public' schools, though under a charter of the late 19th Century this term applied exclusively to seven schools including Eton and Harrow.

The non-British can be forgiven for being confused: the 'Public' schools are private schools whereas the schools to which the general public go under free universal education which is legally compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 16, which should be called public schools are referred to variously as State schools, Academies and Free Schools.

The word 'free' doesn't signify that pupils don't pay - which they don't - but to the independence of the school from control by the elected municipal authority.

These Free Schools are in the process of being set up by the present government and are paid for by the tax-payer through the education ministry. They have not so far been allowed to set up for profit but the present government, following its ideology of free-enterprise capitalism is contemplating moves to allow just that.

These profiteering schools will have to provide an inspected and supervised curriculum and will be allowed to charge the State a standard rate per pupil. If they can meet the specified standards and make a profit, so be it.

These plans are contentious. They amount to introducing the profit motive into compulsory State education.

The opposition to this ideology comes from the teaching unions, the Labour Party and probably from the majority of the voting public though this last body of opinion has not expressed itself or been tested in a general election.

Yet it is clear that only a tiny minority of the British public can afford to pay the fees that Eton and even Edgbaston High charge.

Not surprisingly then, Malala's autobiography and the reviews and speeches devoted to it and to her omit any mention of the fact that she now attends a public and not a State school.

Even though she probably has a full scholarship to the school, it is from a platform of very narrow elitist privilege that she is seen as championing universal education.

The private schools that her father set up and induced into his association are different.

They represent the ambition of the poor of Pakistan to advance themselves through a structure of meritocracy and education that the State shambolically, hopelessly, with absolute contempt for its masses and what's more corruptly, fails to provide.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London

The views expressed by the author are personal