The Impact of Low Cost Private Schools

Special Focus : Quality Education for All: Are Low-Cost Private Schools the Answer?
Access and Inclusion April 28, 2014

In recent years there has been growing interest from donors in supporting low cost private schools in low income countries as part of global efforts to achieve progress on education.
Indeed there is growing support from donors like the World Bank and DFID despite the lack of evidence that this is an effective use of resources. A recent Guidance Note by DFID highlights that “There is still a lack of data and comparative analysis on education outcomes to assess value for money”.
Low cost private schools thrive in very particular contexts. They flourish in “illegal” slum settlements in marginal urban areas where governments fail to provide public schools because they do not recognise the settlements. Yet, when given the option, most slum dwellers would much prefer their governments to open public schools in the slums – and this is often one of the primary demands of slum dwellers.  It would seem to make sense to support these demands rather than support fee-charging schools that the poorest parents struggle to pay.
Another trend is that private providers open English medium schools in countries like India where government schools are required to operate in State languages. English is seen as the language of power so English medium schools become a status symbol and are attractive to poor parents even where the quality of teaching is very poor. There are really complex issues for the government of India to grapple with in responding to this phenomenon – with potentially
massive ramifications for national languages and cultures. 
Low cost private schools arise too in other contexts where government services are largely absent, for example in remote rural areas for example Pakistan. Any simple analysis shows that this is the result of the government failing to invest in education. Pakistan spends only 2.3% of its GNP on education (less than it spends on its military) against a benchmark of good practice of 6% of GDP.  It also gives away huge amounts of potential tax revenue in offering tax exemptions and holidays. The EFA Global Monitoring Report 2014 shows that by making modest reforms to tax revenue and spending a fair share on education, spending per school age child in Pakistan could rise from $62 to $262 each year – which is more than a four-fold increase. The World Bank and other donors would do well to support the government to make these reforms so that a sustainable public education system can be put in place, removing the need for low cost private schools.
There is one common thread across these for-profit low cost private schools. That is, they extract a profit from the fees received by either employing non-professional teachers or paying their teachers much less than in government schools. Indeed in India, low cost private schools often pay under one fifth of a teachers’ salary. Teachers are given short term contracts and can be hired and fired at the whim of the private provider This has hugely dangerous systemic effects on the status of teachers and the credibility of the teaching profession – at a time when the latest EFA Global Monitoring report recommends the urgent need to support quality teachers as a key part of ending the learning crisis.
It is also worth noting that it is internally contradictory with a market ideology to use aid money to support low cost private schools. This sort of subsidy will distort the market, advantaging existing providers and excluding new providers – effectively undermining future initiative.  
Perhaps the most compelling argument for not supporting low cost private schools is that they do not in fact reach children out of school or help the most disadvantaged children.  DFID’s Guidance Note  observes that in India, “no schools charging below $8 are able to perform well”. For parents with four children living on a dollar a day, paying $8 or more per child consumes more than their entire income.  In such contexts parents may choose to send just one child to the low cost school – and the common result is to prioritise boys, excluding girls and children with disabilities. Indeed, DFID’s guidance note concedes that “Evidence does suggest that there are serious equity and choice barriers associated with the growth of low cost private schools”.
The biggest gains in education in recent years have occurred when governments have eliminated user fees to deliver on the right to education, leading to tens of millions of children enrolling in school for the first time. Supporting low cost private schools flies in the face of this evidence.  A recent survey in Ghana found that of 450 children enrolled in low cost private schools, 449 were previously enrolled in government schools – schools which will now suffer from a negative spiral of under-investment.  Even private schools that charge the lowest fees will not help extend access to the 57 million children not in school today.
Those who promote low cost private schools argue that parents are voting with their feet and that the key is that they offer a better quality than public schools. But the evidence on this is highly contested and inconclusive. Proponents tend to be highly selective in quoting what is often flawed and superficial research about improved learning outcomes. The biggest flaw is that most comparative studies fail to control for the socio-economic status of children and the self-evident motivation of parents.

The main narrative put forward for causality of any (flawed) claims of difference in learning outcomes tends to relate to teacher attendance and school accountability. It is said by proponents that private schools make a difference by ensuring that teachers are in the classroom and that schools are accountable to parents. If so the coherent response should be to invest in these within the public system, expanding and improving teacher training and support, making school inspectorates work effectively and strengthening school management committees. Such investments yield systemic, nation-wide returns in improving quality.
One other argument put forward is that low cost private schools can become spaces for creativity and innovation, for example using technology in new ways – as they are not bound by the constraints of a bureaucratic system.  This may be the case in some cases but it is also the case within public school systems where individual schools or districts often innovate. There is one big difference here: there is almost no evidence that innovations introduced in low cost private schools leverage changes in the wider education system, whilst innovations developed within the public system often have a greater chance of taking hold and spreading.
We urgently need to improve the quality of public schools and this needs concerted attention and support rather than toying with unproven and divisive experiments. If a public education system is broken it needs fixing and there is a huge amount that we can do, working together, to accelerate progress and ensure that all children are in school and learning.