Can private schools teach the world?

Lagos school, December 2012 Opening horizons: Pupils in Lagos - but Nigeria now has the highest number of children without access to even the most basic education

Despite international pledges, there are still millions of pupils around the world without a basic education.

Could the private sector be a more effective way of reaching these millions of pupils who are missing out?

Should donors be supporting low-cost, low-fee private schools, rather than trying to build state education systems?

Or would such schools further deepen the barriers to education for the poorest and most excluded?

A meeting at the House of Commons last week heard strongly opposing views on such private sector involvement. Here are some of the arguments for and against, from Sir Michael Barber and Professor Keith Lewin.


Start Quote

Sir Michael Barber

It is clear that the current approach is not working.”

End Quote Sir Michael Barber Chief education adviser for Pearson and formerly head of delivery unit in 10, Downing Street for Tony Blair

"Getting every child in the world into primary school and learning is proving to be a tough challenge.

In spite of repeated global commitments, we are not currently on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. At present over 60 million primary children are not in school at all and another 250 million or more are in school but barely learning anything worthwhile.

Apart from being a betrayal of human rights this is storing up huge problems for those children and their families, and for all of us. In some countries such as Nigeria the number of out-of-school children is actually rising.

In spite of the best efforts of some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some governments and the international donor community, it is clear therefore that the current approach is not working.

Around the developing world poor parents themselves understand this all too clearly. They know that the only route out of poverty for their children is a good education. When the state fails what do they do?

The answer for many is to choose a low cost private school, charging perhaps 5-10 dollars a month. There has been a vast expansion of the low cost private sector in the last 15 years.

Across the Punjab in Pakistan, out of 20 million children around 9 million are in these schools; and in Lahore, Karachi and Delhi in India, around 70% of children attend them.

Classroom in Tanzania Tanzania has been among the countries where progress has been reported in the drive to provide a primary education for all

By Western or Pacific Asian standards these are poor schools, but they are usually better than the government alternative, often significantly so.

So many poor parents have voted with their feet that it is no longer possible to solve the problem of universal primary education without taking the low-cost private sector into account. The cat is out of the bag.

Some leap to the conclusion that if the public sector is not up to the job then it should get out of the way and leave it to the private sector, but a purely private approach is no more likely to work than a purely public one.


  • The most recent monitoring report from Unesco estimates 61 million children do not receive any primary education, down from 108 million in 1999
  • There were international pledges in 1990 and 2000 for universal primary education - with the latest target of 2015 likely to be missed
  • Half of the world's out of school children are in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Since 1999, India is the most improved, Nigeria has moved furthest backwards
  • Reasons for children not having access to any school include political violence; inability to afford fees; exclusion because of gender or culture; mismanagement and corruption
  • Low-cost private schools have grown rapidly in countries including Kenya, India and Pakistan

The road to hell in education is paved with false dichotomies. What we need is to unleash the moral force, energy, commitment and investment that the two sectors combined could bring to bear.

What would this look like in practice? First, governments need to ask the right question: "How do we get every child in our country a good education as fast as possible?" They need a reform strategy that will benefit every child, not a list of initiatives or boutique projects.

As many countries have done in other sectors such as health and transport, this means government should be funder (and yes they will need to spend more) regulator and quality assurer of education - but not the sole provider.

Often NGO and for-profit providers of schooling are doing a better job; so learn from them, make them part of the system and see them as part of the solution. On enrolment drives, urge parents to get their children into a school, regardless of whether it is public or private.

While millions of very poor parents choose low-cost private education, some of the poorest can't afford even low fees. This group often can't afford 'free' government schools either because there are hidden fees, for uniforms or sometimes bribes.

One solution here is to learn from the Punjab Education Foundation in Pakistan which, with Department for International Development support, is providing targeted vouchers to poor families whose children aren't in school.

It is an experiment involving 140,000 children. The early signs are encouraging. Any school that accepts the vouchers has to demonstrate that children are making progress - and they are.

Makeshift outdoor classroom, Jalalabad, November 2012 Makeshift outdoor classroom in Afghanistan: Education is often a casualty of war. About half of children without education are in conflict zones

Alongside this of course every effort should be made to improve government schools too. This means getting the basics of management right - for example, it is an outrage that across India teacher absenteeism is often 25%.

It means fixing facilities by getting the money devolved to school level. It means tracking the data on enrolment and attendance at every level and acting when there is a problem. It means appointing managers at district level on merit, not for political reasons. And it means tackling corruption head on wherever necessary.

The major donors need to encourage governments to set ambitious goals and get behind strategies such as these.

They should reject the notion that money alone is the answer or that all it takes is a little more patience. How long do we think we've got? Equally they should reject the notion that it can't be done. We know what to do; we just need the courage and will to get on with it."

Sir Michael Barber is also chair of the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund.


Start Quote

Keith Lewin

The greatest enrolment gains have been after school fees have been abolished”

End Quote Professor Keith Lewin Centre for International Education, University of Sussex and director of DFID Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity

"The proposition that development aid should be used to support private, fee-paying, for-profit schools to educate poor children in low-income countries sounds odd to many people.

But there are those in the debate about universal access to primary education who have managed to convince themselves that this makes sense.

And they are not talking about "free schools" or academies, in the UK sense, or other types of grant maintained arrangements, but truly private for-profit, fee-paying schools, targeted on the poorest.

As I understand their rhetoric, it seems to argue that such private schools are sweeping up the poorest un-enrolled children all over Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

But the rising numbers of children in school in poor countries, up by more than 50 million children since 2000, have not been mostly enrolled in such fee-paying private schools.

This progress has been overwhelmingly the result of public investment in public schools.

The greatest enrolment gains have been after school fees have been abolished in government schools. Those who have not noticed this must have been unusually somnambulant.

Where there has been growth in low-price private school numbers, it is often because of specific circumstances, such as where a high level of migration into cities has not been matched by an expansion in public services.

When there is access to state schools for migrants and more state schools are built, such as in Beijing, the demand for low price fee-paying schools falls away.

Kindergarten for migrant workers in Beijing, November 2012 A kindergarten for the children of migrant workers in Beijing. Fee-charging schools grow in cities where state provision cannot meet the demand for places

Those proposing more support for private for-profit schools also seem to believe that such schools consistently out-perform equivalent state schools.

But it's impossible to generalise about whether for-profit or public schools are better, because the research produces contradictory results. There is a large overlap between the performance of different types of school.

Some studies show for-profit schools achieving better academic results than very poor state schools. But this may not be much of an achievement if it means being the equivalent of three years behind the national curriculum rather than four.

A school only has to be a bit better and affordable for it to begin to attract children from a worse school. Private for profit schools cluster in wealthier parts of poor or rural areas, since they follow the money.

Low accountability, poor governance, and little transparency afflict both private and state schools and are often associated with unacceptably low levels of achievement.

Even the title "private schooling" is a misnomer. There is only schooling which is privately financed. There is no "private physics" or "private history".

If some state schools are better than some private for-profit schools, which they invariably are, then the problem is not the ownership but the operation.

Teacher protest in Bhubaneswar, India, Noveber 2012 Teachers in Orissa state in India protested last month over pay and job security: The quality of teachers is seen as central to education standards

There are also questions about the quality of teaching - as those promoting private schools also seem to believe that teachers working for a fraction of a state school teachers' salary can still be as effective and not be exploited.

Such for-profit schools can only be low price if they pay teachers little more than a dollar a day and exploit local labour markets for unemployed, untrained secondary school leavers who, more often than not in South Asia, are female.

Turnover of such teachers is typically high, career development is not available, there is no job security, and pedagogy unlikely to be innovative.

If teachers are at the centre of efforts to improve quality, as most recent international reports suggest they must be, then such fee-paying schools will have trouble competing for the best teachers.

Another consequence of fees is that children and households desperate for educational advancement may borrow in the micro-credit markets that typically charge annual interest rates of at least 40%.

There are also claims that the introduction of private for profit schools means a wider choice - but the opposite is the case for the poorest families.

The growth of private, fee-paying schools can lead to very stratified choices linked to affordability. Competition between private schools can see them differentiating themselves by charging higher fees - with higher quality being associated with higher fees.

Start Quote

Private, for-profit schools are a reality... but they do not reach the poorest reliably”

End Quote Professor Keith Lewin Centre for International Education, University of Sussex

The widest school choice for poor households comes when there are no tuition fees at all.

Moreover, every pound households spend on school fees and other school charges is a pound not spent on child nutrition, health care, medicine, clothes, shelter or sanitation and clean water.

There are better alternatives. For instance, there are ideas recommended by the CREATE programme - the Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity - which is funded by the UK's Department for International Development.

This sets out a programme that includes schools without fees, state and community-led enrolment drives, a more relevant curriculum, fully professionalised teachers, decent buildings and learning materials, better governance. This is where aid should be focused and not on the growth of for-profit services.

Private, for-profit schools are a reality - and they perform both well and badly. They do contribute to the education of those who can afford them, but they have limits to their growth, depending on their affordability and the quality of the free state schools with which they compete.

But they do not reach the poorest reliably, and have no future in countries aspiring to become middle income, except for households well above the poverty line who can pay for advantage.

The sustainable 10-year ambition should be universal access to schools with choice unrestricted by affordability.

This is what successful developing countries have achieved. Charging poor children for their education will never make sense, it will only reduce their choices and make their households poorer."

These are abbreviated versions of speeches given at a meeting in the House of Commons hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Education for All.

Would the growth in private schools in developing countries help or hinder the goal of universal primary education?

Speaking as a Philadelphian, where a large majority of our public schools have shut down, and the remaining ones will be taken over by charter/privatized organizations, it's absolutely abhorrent to see that anyone would propose a concept like this to work around the world. In America, one of the most 'developed' (depending on what you value) countries in the world, we can't even guarantee our students a decent public education, let alone offer them access to more selective, private institutions.

Leroy, Philadelphia, US

Private schools here in Addis Ababa are ripping people money off. they don't give special education to students only take huge sums of money from the poor families who hope their children would have a better education.

Alem, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Why not just give international aid direct to poor parents and let them choose which school to send their children to. All other opinions about public versus private then become irrelevant.

James, Newcastle

There are increasing number of low cost private basic schools in Rural Ghana. The basic School Examination results have been very encouraging. Some of the pupils are able to get the high grades to compete with the expensive private basic schools in Accra, the Capital to enter prestigous High Schools in the country. Developing partners can target these rural schools to provide the needed support. The support can be for infrastructure and learning tools as well as support for teacher salary. Most of the teachers do not have training in Education (Pupil teachers) but the performance is far better than government schools where all the teachers have training in Education some up to the University level.

Solomon, Accra, Ghana

Oh this is a nightmare of a problem.... as a small charity we sponsor around around 3000 children through education in Africa and India. The problem with private schools is that they disappear after a few years but public schools do not always provide enough teachers.

Sharon, Farnham, UK

To suggest 'the current approach is not working' negates all other issues around extreme poverty. Education, or the lack of it, cannot be seen in isolation - children without school places is one of the many tragic side-effects of a world where it's in the interests of rich countries to keep others poor. I teach in Malawi, and am amazed by the standard of teaching and learning in government primary schools - up to 120 children in a class can learn (with much dedication) as well as any other children I've met. Unfortunately only around the top ten percent of primary school leavers get the chance to go on to the government secondary schools. The rest have to either forget it or fork out cash for private schooling. When you're earning pennies, it's a pretty dismal choice.

Kate, Malawi

Private schools are not the sustainable and equitable system to build a healthy society. Public schools systems are not perfect but they represent a social goal and political commitment from governments to its people and children.

Carlos, New York, US

This is an interesting debate and both sides have plenty of credible reservation and contradiction of the alternative perspective on private sector versus state provision of primary education. However, I am the product of partly of private sector provision having spent my formative years in a poor developing country. I know from experience that the private sector can and does make a significant and positive contribution to poor state provision. But perhaps the focus should be more about how the international community can improve the income of the poor through meaningful reforms of trade and related issues so they can make these choices. I don't believe state monopoly in the provision of public goods is either good for innovation or efficiency nor indeed for diversity and enhanced access. In the final analysis it is quality of provision and access that really matters. The more I hear about studies and stats the more I am convinced that the debate is descending in to some sort of ideological conflict. This is not helpful. Just focus on these unfortunate children and the fact that education is possible the best opportunity for them to escape from what is often several generations of poverty and exclusion. Perhaps this is even more profound--the opportunity for dignity and a lived humanity.

Dr Leslie Taylor, Zhejiang Province, China

Yes, in the context of developing countries the only viable solution to the issue of illiteracy and out of school children is to support low cost private schools. Rather, I would say that donor agencies and governments should work on supporting 'community based schools' (CBS) established and run by local community bodies and networks. This, as we have experienced, in many parts of Pakistan ensures that the school remains not-for-profit as the ownership is with the community not with individuals. I suggest this because, with low cost private school the risk remains high that after getting funds from donors and the government they improve and enhance quality of services and infrastructure and then raise the tuition fee to enhance income of the school and ultimately of the owner. Resultantly, children from poor families are deprived of the opportunity and become victims of the vicious circle as exists in the society.

Dr. Karim Panah, Gilgit, Pakistan

There are private schools in The Gambia, which are shockingly poor in standards, and there are good ones. People here perceive the high fees to be related to quality, which is definitely not the case. Public schools here have very low fees, and costs in terms of uniform. books etc, but it is still unaffordable for the majority of Gambia's poor rural families. Having any kind of increase in private schools at the expense of public schools will only damage education and development here.

Gareth, Kerewan, The Gambia

Where I live 'free' public schools are unable to reach the poorest either. The state has removed all fees - but then there are hidden charges - you pay a bribe to get admitted, you have to pay 'teacher incentive fee' to remain in the school, you pay furniture fee if you want to sit on a chair, you pay to attend extra-classes if you want to learn. Where I live, a parent remarked that public schools can be worse than free. Perhaps that is why these poor parents are voting with their feet. If we cannot help these poor parents to pay for the fees in low-fee private schools, at least we should not instigate their national government to take the only viable choice from their communities.

Ken, Kasoa, Ghana

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