War of Ideas

Private schools for the poor

There seems to be something of a debate growing in international education circles over whether it’s a good idea to encourage low-cost private schools catering to the poor in developing countries. One of the leading proponents of the idea, Pauline Dixon of Newcastle University, has a new book coming out on the topic and explained ...

SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images
SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

There seems to be something of a debate growing in international education circles over whether it’s a good idea to encourage low-cost private schools catering to the poor in developing countries. One of the leading proponents of the idea, Pauline Dixon of Newcastle University, has a new book coming out on the topic and explained her point of view in a TED talk last year. 

According to research by Dixon and her Newcastle colleague James Tooley, in the poor urban areas they studied in India, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya, cheap private schools already outnumber free government schools and, despite their reputation, often provide better educational outcomes:

In each area, we found the majority of schoolchildren attending private schools. In the areas officially designated as “slums” of three zones of Hyderabad’s Old City, we found 918 schools, of which only 35 percent were government schools, fewer than the 37 percent of unrecognized private schools. In total, 65 percent of schoolchildren in those low-income areas attended private unaided school. In the Ga District of Ghana (the lowincome suburban and rural area surrounding the capital city of Accra) we investigated 779 schools in the same way, finding that only 25 percent were government schools and that 64 percent of schoolchildren attended private school.

In the “poor” areas of three local government districts (one rural, two urban) of Lagos State, Nigeria, we found 540 schools, of which 34 percent were government, and the largest proportion, 43 percent, were private unregistered. An estimated 75 percent of schoolchildren were enrolled in private schools.

The raw scores from our student achievement tests show considerably higher achievement in the private than in government schools. In Hyderabad, for instance, mean scores in mathematics were about 22 percentage points and 23 percentage points higher in private unrecognized and recognized schools, respectively, than in government schools. The advantage was even more pronounced for English. In all cases, this achievement advantage was obtained at between half and a quarter of the teacher salary costs.

On the flip side, University of Maryland Professor of International and Comparative Education Steven J. Klees lays out the case against private schools in a blog post, arguing that there’s no credible evidence that private schools improve educational outcomes and that they’re not worth the risks to equity and educational access or the damaging effect they’ll have on the public school system. "While some may not want to go as far as Cuba and Finland which ban private education, the aim should be to improve public schooling so there is little need for private education," he writes. "Privatization is based on ideology, not evidence."

In a recent presentation at the World Bank, senior economist Jishnu Das takes a more balanced view, arguing based primarily on research in Pakistan that the proliferation of private schools is already changing the educational landscape in developing countries: 

Since 1987, the number of private schools in Pakistan has increased more than 10 times, from 3,300 in 1987 to 47,000 in 2005, the latest year for which data are available. More than one-third of children in primary schooling in Pakistan are enrolled in such schools.

Unlike elite schools that the term "private school" usually invokes, the standard private school in Pakistan is in the home of the head teacher, with two rooms, a handful of teachers and 120 children. It costs less than a dime a day. These schools hire young, local women without teacher training and then pay them market wages, which are much lower than in the public sector. In fact, private school teachers earn just one-fifth of an average salary of public school teachers.

Pakistan isn’t alone. About 15 percent, more than 50 million children, are attending private schools in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa alone. And the pace is increasing, after a drop between 1980 and 1990.

That, Das says, represents both an opportunity and a challenge for educational policy.

On the one hand, students from private schools have better test scores in mathematics, Urdu and English and a better grasp of civic knowledge than public school students. For example, they are more likely to correctly name the prime minister and the name of a neighboring country….

On the other hand, the rise of Service Delivery Markets can widen the inequality gap. Private schools, Das’ research shows, tend to locate in populous and relatively wealthy villages. They also require initial public investments, and they are three times more likely to locate in villages with a public secondary school for girls, because students in those schools become teachers in private schools.

The debate seems to mirror the one over charter schools in the United States — and indeed advocates like Dixon want development aid to be structured around vouchers to families rather than aid for government school systems — though from Das’s presentation it sounds like the schools are spreading whether governments and Western development experts support them or not.  

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