Over the last decade or more there has been a considerable increase in ‘low-fee’ or ‘low cost’ private schooling in many developing countries. Countries as diverse as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Mongolia, China and Vietnam have all seen a dramatic growth in private schools aimed at some of the poorest families these countries. Where there has been a demand, a range of individuals, small groups, non-governmental and religious organisations have stepped in to provide schooling for those who cannot afford high fees, but are able and prepared to spend a significant proportion of their income on low-fee schools. There is no set definition of ‘low-fee’, but one commonly used is that the fee per month is less than an unskilled labourer would earn in a day. There is great diversity in these schools with some being profit-making, others charities and others just designed to meet a perceived need and simply breaking even. Similarly, there is wide diversity in the quality of teaching and facilities offered.
Proponents argue that low-fee private schools are playing an important part in achieving Education for All targets and the Millennium Development Goals. In contrast, others claim that the contribution that private schools make to these targets is small, and are concerned that teachers, parents and children are being exploited.
Factors leading to low-fee private schools
Over-supply of teachers.
In some developing countries there are many more trained teachers than places available due to poor planning and the desire of many to teach. In other countries the over-supply is not in terms of trained teachers, but of graduates who are deemed to be suitable to teach simply because they have a degree.
This means that low-fee private schools are able to employ teachers at a fraction of the salaries that teachers can obtain in the government schools. Critics see this as exploitation, but teachers are prepared to tolerate these low salaries for a short period while adding to their experience of teaching and waiting for a job in a government school. Research shows that teachers in rural low-fee private schools in India earn at most one-fifth of the salaries of government school teachers. They are on average 10 years younger and twice as likely to come from the same village where the school is situated.
Poor performance of the public sector.
The fundamental reason for low-fee private schools is the perceived failure of the government sector. This failure can be simply that schools are not available for all children, or not within what the parents regard as a reasonable distance from their homes. It can also be that the schools available do not offer the type of schooling that parents desire, in particular with regard to religion or the nature of the curriculum.
But the most significant way in which government schools are thought to have failed is in terms of academic success and factors linked to this. In countries with a growth in low-fee private schools, some government schools are doing well, but there are also problems with many schools and there is huge variability. In one Indian study (1), when researchers called unannounced on a large random sample of government schools, only half of the teachers were engaged in any teaching activity. In a third of the schools, the Principal was absent. Examples were given of teachers being drunk, sleeping on the job, getting children to do their domestic chores for them, and teachers keeping schools closed for weeks at a time. The report concluded that, generally, teaching activity in these government schools had been reduced to a minimum, in terms of both time and effort. More importantly, they claimed that ‘this pattern is not confined to a minority of irresponsible teachers – it has become a way of life in the profession’. Similar conclusions have been drawn in other research studies.
But there are also concerns about the quality of the schooling provided in the private sector. These are reasonable concerns given that the fees of such schools are low mainly because the teachers are not paid salaries anywhere near those of government school teachers. Moreover, many teachers in these low-fee schools are not trained or qualified teachers and the schools themselves often lack basic teaching and other facilities. It is important that parents are not being exploited and part of their very limited incomes being wasted. Yet, there is now a wealth of data that show that on a variety of measures (including pupil-teacher ratio, teaching activity, teacher absenteeism, and classroom facilities) private low-fee schools can be actually superior to the comparable government schools. Studies in India (2), Nigeria and Ghana (3) showed that the children in low-fee private schools in general scored higher on standardized tests in key curriculum areas than children in government schools. This was true even when the results were controlled for several background variables to try to account for the differences between the children’s backgrounds. They also showed that class sizes were smaller and teachers’ commitment was higher as indicated by more teaching taking place when the researchers called unannounced. The data are limited to particular counties and regions (and open to debate), but it is clear that in some places low-fee schools are able to provide schooling that is better than that available locally in the public sector (4, 5, 6).
Language of instruction.
The third factor leading to a growth in low-fee private schools is the common demand amongst the world’s poor for a particular language of instruction. Sometimes it is minorities who wish their children to be taught in the language of the home rather than an official language, but parents often believe their child will have an advantage in life if English is learned from a young age. The word ‘English’ is sometimes used in schools’ names to suggest a high status and also indicate that the language of instruction is supposedly English for the main subjects. Whether or not this is correct is a matter of individual investigation.
Should aid go to low-fee private schools?
One important aspect of low-fee private schools is that most of them can be seen as part of a ‘reluctant private sector’. It is only those who seek exclusivity or separation from others who would prefer to use the private sector if they believed that the state-maintained sector provided the quality and nature of schooling that they wanted. Most of the parents who use them have no ideological commitment to the private sector, and most of the people who teach in these schools and started these schools also have no ideological commitment to the private sector. It is simply that the alternatives available in the state-maintained sector are not perceived to meet the parents’ requirements and local people and groups stepped in to provide schools more in line with these requirements. Changes in the government sector – such that teachers regularly turn up and teach the children, for example – would mean that low-fee private schools would not be seen as desirable. Various studies have shown that what parents want is well-functioning, well-staffed government schools, inspected regularly and honestly to ensure accountability.
The obvious answer is that international aid should focus on helping less economically developed countries to improve their government schools. With some countries this is the best way forward, but in others it is unrealistic simply because many of these countries have corruption so strongly embedded that a great deal of funding simply does not reach the schools and much of what does is misused. Many developing countries also seem to have entrenched teacher unions that not only protect their member’s interests (which is wholly legitimate), but also actually act against the interests of the children who should be being taught. Inspection and accountability are feeble, and bribes are a common feature of authority relationships. Cultures do not change fast – certainly not fast enough for these countries to meet their millennium goals.
Some researchers and advocates have emphasising entrepreneurship and profit-making as the main reason for the growth of low-fee private schools. This has led to proposals that aim to support and extend such provision, such as suggestions that international funding should be made available to entrepreneurs to extend existing low-fee private schools and to enable them to build further schools and develop chains of brand-named schools. However, an emphasis on the reluctant nature of the commitment of parents and proprietors to private provision leads to a rather different solution.
There is good evidence that much might be gained by supporting local and community groups and individuals to start their own schools. Many voluntary groups and NGOs have shown that the profit motive is not the only, or the best, way of encouraging the growth of such schools, and working through such groups helps to ensure that quality is maintained. Just as most of the people involved in these schools are not ideologically committed to the private sector, it would be foolish for aid agencies to be ideologically committed to just one way forward.
1. Probe Team (1999) Public Report on Basic Education in India (Oxford Oxford University Press)
2. Tooley, J., Dixon, P. and Gomathi, S.V. (2007) ‘Private schools and the millennium development goal of universal primary education: a census and comparative survey in Hyderabad, India.’ Oxford Review of Education, 33, 5, pp. 539-560.
3. Tooley, J. (2009) The Beautiful Tree, A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves (New Delhi, Penguin)
4. Akaguri, L. (2011) Quality low-fee private schools for the rural poor: Perceptions or reality? Evidence from Southern Ghana. (Brighton, CREATE, University of Sussex)
5. Chudgar, A. (2012) ‘Variation in private school performance: the importance of village context.’ Economic and Political Weekly, 47, 11, pp. 376-390.
6. Macpherson, I. (2014) ‘Interrogating the private school “promise” of low-fee private schools.’ In Macpherson, I., Robertson, S. And Walford, G. (eds.) Education, Privatisation and Social Justice: case studies from Africa, South Asia and South East Asia. (Didcot, Symposium)