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Private Schools can Bring Education For All


The triennial meeting of the Commonwealth Ministers of Education takes place in Edinburgh at the end of this month (October 27th – 29th).  High on the ministers’ agenda will be how poor member countries in Africa and Asia can meet their ‘education for all’ targets for universal primary education by 2015.  Missing altogether will be discussion of how private education can help.  Some might wonder why this is an issue – after all, isn’t private education only about the elites and middle classes?  Actually no. In the urban slums and villages in developing countries increasing number of poor parents are sending their children to private schools – with fees of $2 per month or less, run by educational entrepreneurs who want to serve their communities, as well as make some money. 


My research has found such schools in battle-scarred buildings in Somaliland, in the shanty towns built on stilts above the Lagos lagoons in Nigeria, scattered amongst the tin and cardboard huts of Africa’s largest slum, Kibera, Kenya, in the crowded slums and villages across India and even in remote Himalayan regions of China. And these schools are not some minority pursuit - in the Indian city of Hyderabad, for instance, official figures show 61% of all children attending private unrecognized schools, and in the slum areas I’ve found the figure to be even higher – with 80% of the poorest families going private.


Everyone in development circles knows about this now. Curiously, there is a blinkered refusal to think through its implications. Oxfam’s Education Report for instance, is quite explicit that private schools for the poor are emerging, and that these schools are superior to government schools for the poor. But then it repeats the same old mantra, that ‘there is no alternative’ but blanket public provision to reach education for all. Why on earth not? The World Bank is funding the provision of free primary education in Kenya to the tune of $80 million, but suburban state schools get the funding, the slum private schools none. The British Department for International Development (DfID) is pouring money into government education in West Africa; simultaneously a mass exodus of poor parents is fleeing the state sector to send their children to private school.


Why are parents paying fees when state schools are free?  It’s because of the failure of state schools across Africa and Asia.  For instance, the Indian government

approved Probe Report paints a disturbing picture of the ‘malfunctioning’ of government schools for low-income families. When researchers called unannounced on their random sample, only in 53 per cent of the schools was there any “teaching activity” going on. In fully 33 per cent, the head teacher was absent. Significantly, the low level of teaching activity occurred even in those schools with relatively good infrastructure, teaching aids and pupil-teacher ratio. Indeed, says the report, “it has become a way of life in the profession.”


Significantly, the Probe Report concedes that such problems were not apparent in the private schools serving the poor. In the great majority – again visited unannounced and at random – there ‘was feverish classroom activity’.  So much so, that the majority of parents reported that ‘if the costs of sending a child to a government and private school were the same, they would rather send their children to a private school.’  And what’s true for India is increasingly true for countries across Asia and Africa. Oxfam agrees: its Education Report points out the ‘inadequacies of public education systems’ that ‘have driven many poor households into private systems’ across the developing world. Especially it cites government teacher absenteeism to be the reason why poor households choose to send their children to the private alternative.


What is the main advantage that private education has over state schools? The Probe Report put it succinctly: accountability. The private schools, the report said, were successful because they were more accountable: ‘the teachers are accountable to the manager (who can fire them), and, through him or her, to the parents (who can withdraw their children)’. Such accountability was not present in the government schools, and ‘this contrast is perceived with crystal clarity by the vast majority of parents’. 


It’s time the implications of this were thought through, not swept under the carpet like the Commonwealth education ministers will be doing.  If poor parents are en masse voting with their feet, taking their children out of the state system into private education, why is the only message from the development experts that they should be dragged back, kicking and screaming, into the government schools?  Why instead isn’t there an exploration of ways in which private schools for the poor can be helped, through loan schemes and low-cost school improvement packages? Why aren’t development experts poring over ways to make the private schools even more accessible, through public and private vouchers?  These are the questions that need to be put to the Commonwealth education ministers as they gather in Edinburgh.  Poor parents have made their preferences clear. They want schools that are accountable to them, where teachers turn up and teach. They want private schools. It is time the politicians caught up with them.



James Tooley is professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. He is directing research funded by the John Templeton Foundation on private schools for the poor in Africa and Asia.

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