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Private schools: punishing the poorest, or providing much needed access to education?

published 24 April 2015 updated 24 April 2015
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Private education, on the rise since the World Education Forum convened in Dakar (2000), is the subject of heated debate, with many asking: where governments are unwilling or unable to provide quality education for all children, should relatively poor parents be made to pay, even low fees, for access to basic education during the compulsory grades? And for parents who ‘choose’ the private school option, what are they really getting for their money? These issues are addressed, in part, in the 2015 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, launched last week entitled ‘Education for All 2000-2015: Achievement and Challenges.’

Particularly controversial in this debate is the role of small, ‘low-fee private’ schools targeting relatively poor families and communities. These schools, often established in cities in the Global South, are springing up unplanned and largely unregulated, where government provision is perceived to be failing or, in some cases, simply absent. This is clearly the situation in the sprawling urban slums in Lagos, Nairobi and New Delhi. As the 2015 GMR shows, over 40% of the poorest families in Kenya’s slums attend private schools.

The umbrella term ‘private school’ covers a whole array of more accurately labelled non-state schools: schools run by NGOs, charities or philanthropic groups, as well as faith-based and community schools. Some, though not all, of these schools charge parents higher or lower fees for their child’s attendance. Some schools may receive government subsidies or other types of funding beyond user-fees, making the line between the private and the public schools blurred and complicated.

Overall, however, the evidence suggests that non-state schools have grown substantially in number since 2000. They account for more than 31% of all children enrolled in pre-primary schools in half of countries with data worldwide. In South Asia now, about one-third of 6- to 18-year-olds attend private schools. On average the non-state share of primary school enrolments has more than doubled in many parts of the Arab States, Central and Eastern Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Private fee-paying schools have traditionally served children whose parents had the means to pay tuition costs and other fees. Much of the debate today is about how private schools provide fee-paying options to children from relatively poor families, with predictable impacts on social and educational equity. The 2015 Report shows that the poorest are four times more likely to be out of school and five times more likely not to complete primary education than the richest. These findings underscore the chronic need for countries to be doing more to remove all cost barriers to education. In Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan, for instance, low-fee private schools enrol many children from relatively poor backgrounds, despite these countries being home to very large numbers of poor people, and many out of school children. Of this group only India has achieved the goal of universal primary enrolment.

What do parents receive in return for paying fees for their children’s education? The evidence is mixed. Students in private schools often, though not always, perform better on learning assessments than those in government schools. In large part such differences arise because teachers in the latter group face less favorable teaching conditions: classes are larger, student learning needs are more diverse and many children hail from impoverished backgrounds. In Andhra Pradesh, India, for example, over 70% of students attending government schools belong to the poorest 40% of households, compared with 26% in private schools. Having said that, in some cases government schools actually out-perform private school pupils meaning that there is no inevitability that private means quality and government equals failure.

Another potential reason that learning levels are often higher in low-fee private schools is that they have lower pupil/teacher ratios. In private schools in parts of Nairobi, for instance, there are 15 students per teacher, compared with 80 in government schools.

Moreover private schools have the edge in greater accountability and potential responsiveness to parental demands and concerns, increasing the likelihood teachers will be both present and teaching effectively. Often this is achieved at much lower unit cost than in government schools, since private schools pay only a fraction of a permanent government teacher’s salary – sometimes below the poverty line, and often below the minimum wage. With better accountability and lack of labour protection, job security is reduced -- teachers are more easily dismissed on a moment’s notice -- and, as a result, are expected to work harder.

These represent major reasons why some studies find that students in private schools perform relatively better than those in government schools even after a student’s socioeconomic status is taken into account. But the ‘relatively better’ is crucial. In many places where this occurs, both low-fee private and government schools are performing poorly, with the former only somewhat better than the latter. The actual ‘private school effect’ often proves very small, as DFID’s Rigorous Literature Review on private education recently concluded. Nevertheless, for parents who are deeply concerned for their children’s future, even a small perceived learning advantage may be enough to entice them to pay the additional costs required to access private schools.

As the GMR 2015 highlights, governments will always retain the overarching responsibility of ensuring that minimum quality standards are observed in all schools, whether in the government or non-state sector, even where public-private partnerships are found. But the Report points out that ‘few developing countries have supervision services that are adequate for the task. In Benin, Guinea, Mali and Senegal, supervisors lack vehicles and funds for travel while the number of teachers per officer has grown’. Such challenges hamper government efforts to quality-assure their schools. This challenge will need to be met before all children access schooling of objectively (not just relatively) good quality, wherever they attend. If increased access through non-state provision exacerbates inequalities, then the ambitious education vision of the Sustainable Development Agenda will not be secured.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.