Why Private investors, Governments, and Aid Agencies Should Rethink Their Strategies

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

Dr. Prachi Srivastava, Associate Professor, School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa
E: prachi.srivastava@uottawa.ca W: www.prachisrivastava.com Twitter: @PrachiSrivas
I have been researching low-fee private schooling for over a decade. In fact, the term, ‘low-fee private schooling’ did not exist until I coined it.
In 2001, when I began researching the sector, there were almost no published studies in the scholarly literature. People spoke of ‘budget schools’, ‘private schools for the poor’, or ‘teaching shops’. Technical reports on unrecognised or ‘spontaneous’ forms of private schooling started to emerge, and a monograph by James Tooley, now a well-known and influential advocate of the sector who has since co-founded the Omega Schools chain in Ghana, captured the attention of policy elites.
I used the term, ‘low-fee private schooling’, to operationalize what seemed to me at the time, a nebulous set of independently owned and operated private schools claiming to serve socially and economically disadvantaged groups for my study in India.
Crucially, I did not use the term ‘low-fee’ to mean that fees at these schools would be considered ‘low’ by all, especially by the poorest of the poor — just that they charged tuition fees at a level lower than the more typical elite, high-fee schools that existed at the time. This distinction is lost in much of the subsequent research, and many initiatives and studies do not specify what they mean by ‘low-fee’.
What seemed at first like an atomised phenomenon of individual schools ‘mushrooming’ in specific contexts where there was little or poor quality state provision, has taken root as a phenomenon of some scale, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
In certain countries (e.g. Ghana, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Uganda), low-fee private schooling is being scaled up by networks of private non-state actors (e.g. corporate and venture philanthropies, social impact investment firms, private foundations, consulting firms, corporations, etc.), bilateral aid agencies like DFID, and domestic ‘public-private partnership’ education mechanisms (e.g. India, Pakistan, Uganda).
In view of generally accepted claims of poor state sector quality in many developing countries, it is often posited as ‘the poor’s best chance’. 
But what do we really know about low-fee private schooling? What does the research say? And, does it really offer the best chance for the ‘poor’?
Here are some of the facts about low-fee private schooling based on a global review I conducted of the research since the earliest published studies. The review covered countries such as Ghana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Pakistan, Uganda, and others. The comments below are undoubtedly simplified, within the limits that this medium affords.
1. Affordability: Affordable for whom?
Affordability is not a one-time event. For the most disadvantaged households and daily wage earners, it is linked to insecurities related to seasonal migration for work, health (including orphaning due to AIDS), rising costs of food, among other issues. Furthermore, daily wage earnings are volatile, and most households have more than one child to school.
Evidence shows that the most insecure households (including those in Tooley and his team’s research in India and Nigeria) and most daily wage households cannot afford the ‘low’ fees charged at these schools. Furthermore, fees and costs are not the same thing. Tuition fees only constitute one part of the total out-of-pocket costs, which also include books, transportation, testing fees, uniforms, etc., and can run anywhere from 3% to 30% of household income per child.
In the face of all this, those who can, bargain or negotiate lower fees. In cases where those parents are successful, schools acquiesce because they don’t want to lose clients, since having a full school projects an image of popularity that, in turn, helps to attract more clients.
Of course, not all parents are successful. And those who aren’t, exit — usually to the state sector.
2. Equity: Who gets to go, and who gets left out?
Given the full costs of low-fee private schools, most disadvantaged households have to make difficult decisions about whom to send. This choice most often favours boys (also evident in Tooley and his team’s research in India) and aggravates gender inequities. Children from ethnic minority, lower-caste groups, and the bottom-20%-earning households have limited access.
Children disadvantaged by location also tend to get left out. A number of studies in India have shown that private schools tend to be in rural areas that have relatively better public infrastructure (e.g. access to roads, electricity). Low-fee private schools do not tend to reach children living in the most difficult-to-reach areas, and if they do, they are not sustainable over time. If these children have longer-term access to a school, it tends to be to a state school.
3. Quality: Are low-fee private schools really better?
The full portfolio of evidence is inconclusive.
On achievement: These schools tend to do somewhat better in mathematics, but not always in English or local language (also evident in Tooley and his team’s research), or in final board exam results. In some instances, there is a negative effect of private school attendance on learning levels, in others, private school students do only marginally better. The latter results were also confirmed in a randomized control trial (RCT), often dubbed the ‘gold standard of research’, in Andhra Pradesh, India. Impacts on higher order skills, like creativity and critical thinking, are not known.
On inputs: Evidence is mixed regarding school infrastructure. Low-fee private schools are better than state schools on some inputs, and worse on others. But all studies show that the only way low-fee private schools keep costs low is to hire unqualified, short-term contract teachers and pay them extremely low wages. The key is primarily to recruit teachers who are young, local women since they are ‘the cheapest source of labour’ (I am quoting from a published study on Pakistan here). This raises serious broader issues about the para-skilling of teachers and the potential exploitation of the female labour market.
On recognition as a quality marker: In most countries, private schools are meant to go through a process of recognition once they meet basic standards or quality norms. This is supposed to be a mark of baseline quality. However, in many countries low-fee private schools gain recognition through corruption and bribery (also found in Tooley’s research in India). Delayed inspections, lost forms, postponed committee meetings, cumbersome paperwork, and complex land registration requirements, prompt many owners to pre-emptively open their schools without recognition, operate underground, or bribe officials without meeting set norms. This further undermines the education sector as a whole.
On household perceptions: In the absence of objective quality markers (e.g. recognition standards; effective, honest inspections) low-fee private school choice by households that can afford to access them, may be a marker of perceived quality in certain instances, but it may not be in others. This is not to say that state sector dysfunctions do not exist, and that households do not judge on attributes they consider indicative of ‘good’ schooling. But, low-fee private school choice has also been shown as a way for households to project higher social status and gain prestige, uphold gender norms, fulfil parental aspirations or, for some, as a way to distance themselves from others considered even more ‘disadvantaged’.
So much of the global evidence on low-fee private schooling raises serious concerns or is inconclusive. Wouldn’t private investors, governments, and aid agencies want to rethink their strategies? If I were part of any one of these groups, I certainly would.
The fact remains that the majority of the poorest, most disadvantaged children in most developing countries continue to access the state sector. Those schools need to do better. Those children deserve better.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in those schools and make sure they get better?
For more in-depth discussion of these issues by Dr. Prachi Srivastava, see the full review, ‘Low-fee private schools: issues and evidence’ in her latest book, Low-fee Private Schooling: aggravating equity or mitigating disadvantage? (Symposium Books, 2013. Visit her website www.prachisrivastava.com to download publications or contact her.