Who Really Benefits From Low-Fee Private Schools?

Access and Inclusion February 05, 2015

Nearly 58 million children globally are out of school and nearly 250 million lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. In developing economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America where the state provision is failing to provide quality education, low-fee private schools such as Omega Schools, PEAS or Bridge International Academies have reached out to families living on under $2 (US) a day with a promise to give their children access to good teaching and learning. Parents choose to spend their hard-earned meager income to ensure a better life for their children through high-quality education. 

But can low-cost private schools really offer quality, creative education to the poorest families and should they be supported? According to Dr. Prachi Srivastava, who has been working on the subject for over a decade, “low-fee private schools have a role to play but we need to be open about whom these schools are really serving. They are not serving the poorest of the poor.” Dr. Srivastava says it is alarming to see poor families make big sacrifices for quality education. “There has been a grave injustice at the level of public and state provision,” she adds.

Dr. Mwangi S. Kimenyi, at the Brookings Institution, points out that the quality of education is often linked to cost. “We need to connect costs with the services that we are getting. When people know a service is free, they don’t care much about it.” The provision of free primary education is considered one of the most important pro-poor services, but it often compromises the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom. For example, in Kenya, where public education is free, parents have very little say in how schools operate. According to Dr. Kimenyi, for private schools, including the low-cost ones, ‘client power’ is very powerful.“When parents pay directly for services, they expect results. Laxity on the part of teachers is quickly acted upon, including immediate termination of non-performers. Failure by the school administrators to deal with provider laxity is punished through exit to other private schools.”

Impact Network ‘s Executive Director, Ms Reshma Patel, feels it is equally important to consider what is best for families in the long run and if it is really worth the investment. “Families who struggle to pay for such an education, are they really better off? It may pay off in 10 or 15 years when their kids are well-educated and can bring that income back,  but in the meantime it’s a question about whether it’s really fair and  if families really benefit,” adds Ms Patel.

Advocates argue that low-cost private schools are playing a big role in helping achieve education for all but skeptics say these schools increase inequality and undermine the state provision. David Archer from ActionAid has been involved with the issue of education in low-income countries for many years. “This is not about providing education to those who can afford to pay, it’s about providing quality creative education to all children.” Archer argues for improving education through public schools. “There are major challenges facing the public education but it seems to me that we do know what to do to improve creativity and accountability in the system.

The 2014 WISE Debate panelists also examined indicators that help monitor learning outcomes at low-cost private schools. Watch the highlights of the WISE debate to find out more.