by JAMES TOOLEY
James Tooley is professor of education
policy, the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
This essay is supported by a grant from the John M. Templeton Foundation.
The accepted wisdom is that private schools serve the privileged; everyone else,
especially the poor, requires public school. The poor, so this logic goes, need government assistance if they are to get a
good education, which helps explain why, in the United States, many school choice enthusiasts believe that the only way the
poor can get the education they deserve is through vouchers or charter schools, proxies for those better private or
independent schools, paid for with public funds.
But if we reflect on these beliefs in a foreign context and observe low-income families
in underprivileged and developing countries, we find these assumptions lacking: the poor have
found remarkably innovative ways of helping themselves, educationally, and in some of the most destitute places on Earth have
managed to nurture a large and growing industry of private schools for themselves.
For the past two years I have overseen research on such schools in India,
China, and sub-Saharan Africa. The
project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, was inspired by a serendipitous discovery of mine while I was engaged in
some consulting work for the International Finance Corporation, the private finance arm of the World Bank. Taking
time off from evaluating an elite private school in Hyderabad, India,
I stumbled on a crowd of private schools in slums behind the Charminar, the 16th-century tourist attraction in the central
city. It was something that I had never imagined, and I immediately began to wonder whether private schools serving the poor
could be found in other countries. That question eventually took me to five countries—Ghana,
India, and China—and
to dozens of different rural and urban locales, all incredibly poor. Since the data gathered from Lagos, Nigeria, and Delhi,
India, are not yet fully analyzed, this article reports on findings only from Gansu Province, China; Ga, Ghana; Hyderabad,
India; and Kibera, Kenya. These are in vastly different settings, but my research teams and I
found large numbers of private schools for low-income families, many of which showed measurable achievement advantage over
government schools serving equally disadvantaged students.
Education for the Poor Does Not Exist
Undertaking this research was disheartening at first. In each country I visited, officials from
national governments and international agencies that donate funds for the expansion of state-run education denied that private
education for the poor even existed. In China senior officials
told me that what I was describing was “logically impossible” because “China
has achieved universal public education and universal means for the poor as well as the rich.” At other times, in other
places, I met with polite, if embarrassed, apologies that always went something like, “Sorry, in our country, private
schools are for the privileged, not the poor.”
In each venue, however, I struck out on my own and visited slums and villages and there
found what I was looking for: private schools for the poor, usually in large numbers, if sometimes hidden from view. In the slums of Hyderabad, India,
a typical private school would be in a converted house, in a small alleyway behind bustling and noisy streets, or above a
shop. Classrooms are dark, by Western standards, with no doors hung in the doorways, and noise from the streets outside easily
entering through the barred but unglazed windows. Walls are painted white, but discolored by pollution, heat, and the general
wear-and-tear of the children; no pictures or work is hung on them. Children will usually be in a school uniform and sitting
at rough wooden desks. Generally, there are about 25 students in a class, a decent teacher-to-student ratio, but the tiny
rooms always seem crowded. Often the top floor of the building will have various construction work going on to extend the
number of classrooms. The school proprietor will usually live in a couple of rooms at the back of the building.
In rural Ghana, a typical private
school might consist of an open-air structure, often no more than a tin roof supported by wooden poles, on a small plot of
land. To find these schools you’ll have to wander down meandering narrow paths, away from the main thoroughfares, asking
villagers as you go. If you ask simply for the “school,” they’ll send you back to the public school, usually
an impressive brick building on the main road. You’ll have to persist and say you want the “small” school
to get directions.
In the slums of Nairobi, Kenya,
private schools are made from the same materials as every other building: corrugated iron sheets or mud walls, with windows
and doors cut out to allow light to enter. Floors are usually mud, roofs sometimes thatched. Children will not be in uniform
and will usually be sitting on homemade wooden benches. In the dry season, the wind will blow dust through the cracks in the
walls; in the rainy season, the playground will become a pond, and the classroom floors mud baths. Teaching continues, however,
through most of these intemperate interruptions.
In order to conduct research in five countries from my base in Newcastle,
England, I recruited teams of researchers from reputable local universities
and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). While fielding the research crews, I visited dozens of likely study sites, always
in low-income areas, and always found private schools for the poor. I also visited government offices to gain permission to
conduct the research. In the end, all of the chosen countries, apart from China,
were rated by the Oxfam Education Report as countries where education needs were not being met by government systems. Though
China is ranked relatively high on the Oxfam index, we wanted
to include it in our study because of the dramatic political and economic changes there in the past several decades. (Because
of the threat of SARS, however, our first research team spent a long period in quarantine and thus our research there is not
yet complete.) Other countries were chosen for a mixture of practical and substantive reasons. I was particularly interested
in Kenya, where free elementary education had just been introduced
to much acclaim. How would this affect private schools for the poor, should they exist? I had conducted research earlier
in Hyderabad, India, was familiar with
the terrain, and had many contacts in government and the private sector, so it seemed sensible to continue the project there.
And because of a chance meeting with the Ghanaian minister of education at a conference in Italy,
we were invited to that western African nation.
Many difficulties emerged that I had not taken account of as the project progressed. Heavy
rains prevented the research teams from moving around in both Ghana
and Nigeria for weeks at a time; intense heat delayed work
for days in Hyderabad; early snowfalls hampered movement in the mountains of China.
But above all, a major difficulty was getting the extended research teams to take seriously the notion that we really were
interested in the low-key, unobtrusive private schools that apparently were easily dismissed. In each of the settings,
on unannounced quality control visits, I found unrecognized private schools that had not been reported by the teams.
Visit the ultramodern high-rise development of “High Tech City” and you’ll
see why Hyderabad dubs itself “Cyberabad,” proud of its position at
the forefront of India’s technological revolution. But
cross the river Musi and enter the Old City,
with once magnificent buildings dating to the 16th century and earlier, and you’ll see the congested India,
with narrow streets weaving their way through crowded markets and densely populated slums. For our survey, we canvassed three
zones in the Old City (Bandlaguda, Bhadurpura,
and Charminar), with a population of about 800,000 (about 22 percent of all of Hyderabad),
covering an area of some 19 square miles. We included only schools that were found in “slums,” as determined by
the latest available census and Hyderabad municipal guides, areas that lacked
amenities such as indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, and paved roads.
In these areas alone our team found 918 schools: 35 percent were government run; 23 percent
were private schools that had official recognition by the government (“recognized”);
and, incredibly, 37 percent slipped under the government radar (“unrecognized”). The last group is, in effect,
a black market in education, operating entirely without both state funding and regulation. (The remaining
5 percent were private schools that received a 100 percent state subsidy for teachers’ salaries, making them public
schools in all but name.) In terms of total student enrollment in the slum areas of the three zones, with 918 schools, 76
percent of all schoolchildren attended either recognized or unrecognized private schools, with roughly the same percentage
of children in the unrecognized private schools as in government schools.
What is clear from our research is that these private schools are not mom-and-pop day-care
centers or living-room home schools. The average unrecognized school had about 8 teachers and 170 children, two-thirds
in rented buildings of the type described above. The average recognized school was larger and usually situated in
a more comfortable building, with 18 teachers and about 490 children. Another key difference between the recognized and unrecognized
schools is that the former have stood the test of time in the education market: 40 percent of unrecognized schools
were less than 5 years old, while only 5 percent of recognized schools were this new. Finally, tuition in these schools is
very low, averaging about $2.12 per month in recognized private schools at 1st grade and $1.51 in unrecognized schools.
While these fees seem extremely low, they must be measured against the average income
of each person in the student’s household who is working for pay. For students in unrecognized schools, this was about
$23 per month, compared with about $30 per month for students in recognized schools and $17 for government schools. Since
the official minimum wage in Hyderabad is $46 per month, it is clear that the
families in the private schools we observed are poor. Fees amount to about 7 percent of average monthly earnings in a typical
household using a private unrecognized school. For the poorest children, the schools provide scholarships or subsidized places:
7 percent of children paid no tuition and 11 percent paid reduced fees. In effect, the poor are subsidizing the poorest.
The Ga district of southern Ghana,
which surrounds the country’s capital city of Accra, is classified by the
Ghana Statistical Service as a low-income, urban periphery, and rural area. With a population of about 500,000, Ga includes
poor fishing villages along the coast, subsistence farms inland, and large dormitory towns for workers serving the industries
and businesses of Accra itself. Most of the district lacks basic social amenities
such as potable water, sewage systems, electricity, and paved roads. In Ga’s towns and villages our researchers found
a total of 799 schools, 25 percent of which were government, 52 percent recognized private, and 23 percent unrecognized private.
In total, 33,134 children were found in unrecognized private schools, or about 15 percent of children enrolled in school (see
The average monthly fee for an unrecognized private school in Ga is about $4 for the early elementary
grades, about $7 in recognized schools. With a minimum wage of about $33 per month in the area, monthly fees in the private
unrecognized schools are thus about 12 percent of the average monthly earnings of an adult earner. However, many of the poorest
schools allow a daily fee to be paid so that, for instance, a poor fisherman could send his daughter to school on the days
he had funds and allow her to make up for the days she missed. Such flexibility is not possible in the public schools, where
full payment of the “levies” is required before the term starts. (Fees for “public” schools are common
in many countries throughout the Third World, especially at high-school level. Thus the cost of private
schools, we found, can sometimes be less than that of government ones.)
Unlike India, where there are restrictions on private-school ownership (private schools must
be owned by a society or trust), in Ga the vast majority of private schools (82 percent of recognized and 93 percent of unrecognized)
are run by individual proprietors; most of the rest are owned and managed by charitable organizations. Sometimes, as is common
in other African countries, such schools rent church buildings or use Christian-related names, but only in a few cases are
the schools run by churches. Often it is the school that subsidizes the church rather than the other way around!
Education for the Poor Is Low Quality
It is a common assumption among development experts that private schools for the poor are worse
than public schools. This is not to say that they have a particularly high view of public education. Indeed, the World Bank’s
World Development Report 2004: Making Services Work for Poor People calls public education a “government failure,”
with “services so defective that their opportunity costs outweigh their benefits for most poor people.” Yet this
just makes the experts’ dismissal of private schools for the poor all the more inexplicable.
The Oxfam Education Report published in 2000 is typical. While the author acknowledges
the existence of high-quality private providers, he contends that these are elite, well-resourced schools that are inaccessible
to the poor. As far as private schools for the poor are concerned, these are of “inferior quality”; indeed, they
“offer a low-quality service” that is so bad it will “restrict children’s future opportunities.”
This claim of low-quality private provision for the poor has also been taken up by British prime minister Tony Blair’s
Commission for Africa, which recently reported that although “Non-state sectors … have historically provided much
education in Africa,” many of these private schools “aiming at those [families] who cannot afford the fees common
in state schools … are without adequate state regulation and are of a low quality.”
However, these development experts have little hard evidence for their assertions about private-school
quality. They instead point out that private schools employ untrained teachers who are paid much less than their government
counterparts and that buildings and facilities are grossly inadequate. Both of these observations are largely true. But does
that mean that private schools are inferior, particularly against the weight of parental preferences to the contrary? One
Ghanaian school owner challenged me when I observed that her school building was little more than a corrugated iron roof on
rickety poles and that the government school, just a few hundred yards away, was a smart new school building. “Education
is not about buildings,” she scolded. “What matters is what is in the teacher’s heart. In our hearts, we
love the children and do our best for them.” She left it open, when probed, what the teachers in the government school
felt in their hearts toward the poor children.
Facilities and Resources
The issue of the relative quality of private and public schools was at the core of our research,
and we relied on both data on school resources and day-to-day operations and on student achievement scores. Our researchers
first called unannounced at schools and asked for a tour, noted what teachers were doing, made an inventory of facilities,
and administered detailed questionnaires.
Certainly, in some countries the facilities in the private schools were markedly inferior to
those in the public schools. In China, where the researchers
were asked to locate a public school in the village nearest to where they had found a private school, often many miles away,
private-school facilities were generally worse than in those publicly provided. This was predictable, given that the private
schools undercut the public ones in fees and served the poorest villages, where there were no public schools. In Gansu province,
desks were available in classrooms in 88 percent of private schools, compared with 97 percent of public schools; 66 percent
of private schools had chairs or benches in classrooms, compared with 76 percent of public schools. In Kenya,
parallel results would be expected, given that the private schools surveyed were located in the slums, while the public schools
were on the periphery, accommodating both poor and middle-class children. However, given that there were only 5 government
schools on the periphery of Kibera, but 76 private schools within the slum, statistical comparisons would make little sense.
In Hyderabad, however, on every input,
including the provision of blackboards, playgrounds, desks, drinking water, toilets, and separate toilets for boys and girls,
both types of private schools, recognized and unrecognized, were superior to the government schools. While only 78 percent
of the government schools had blackboards in every classroom, the figures were 96 percent and 94 percent for private recognized
and unrecognized schools, respectively. In only half the government schools were toilets provided for children, compared with
100 percent and 96 percent of the recognized and unrecognized private schools.
Finally, in Ghana, the
picture is mixed. For instance, 95 percent of government schools in Ga had playgrounds, compared with 66 percent and 82 percent
of private unrecognized and recognized schools, respectively. Desks were provided in 97 percent of government schools, but
only in 61 percent of private unrecognized; recognized private schools provided them in 92 percent of cases. However, only
54 percent of government schools provided drinking water to children compared with 63 percent of private unrecognized and
87 percent of private recognized schools. And 63 percent of government schools provided toilets, compared with 91 percent
of recognized but only 59 percent of unrecognized private schools. A library was provided in 8 percent of government, 7 percent
of private unrecognized schools, but 27 percent of private recognized schools. At least one computer for the use of children
was provided in only 3 percent of government schools, but in 12 percent of private unrecognized and 37 percent of private
When it came to the key question of whether or not teaching was going on in the
classrooms, both types of private schools were superior to the public schools, except in China, where there was no
statistically significant difference between the two school types: 92 percent of teachers in private schools were teaching
when our researchers arrived, compared with 89 percent in the public schools. When researchers called unannounced
on the classrooms in Hyderabad, 98 percent of teachers were teaching in the private
recognized schools, compared with 91 percent in the unrecognized and 75 percent in the government schools. Teacher absenteeism
was also highest in the government schools. In Ga, 57 percent of teachers were teaching in government schools, compared
with 66 percent and 75 percent in unrecognized and recognized private schools, respectively. And in Kibera, even though the
number of government schools is too small to make statistical comparisons meaningful, 74 percent of teachers were teaching
in private schools when our researchers visited them, and only one teacher was absent.
It was also the case that private and public schools in China
had more or less the same pupil-teacher ratio, about 25:1. In Hyderabad,
private schools, including the unrecognized ones, had significant advantages over the government schools: the average pupil-teacher
ratio was 42:1 in government schools compared with only 22:1 in the unrecognized and 27:1 in the recognized private schools.
In Ga the pupil-teacher ratio was superior in private schools, with a ratio of 29:1 in government, compared with 21:1 and
20:1 in unrecognized and recognized private schools, respectively.
To compare the achievement of students in public and private schools in each location where
we conducted research, we first grouped schools by size and management type: government, private unrecognized, and private
recognized in Ga and Hyderabad; government and private in Kibera, where the private
schools are all of a similar type. (China is not discussed
here because research there is continuing.) As noted above, in Ga and Hyderabad we were comparing public and private
schools that were located in similar, low-income areas, while in Kibera, private schools served only slum children,
and public schools served middle-class children as well as slum children. But this makes the comparisons in Kenya
even more dramatic. Although serving the most disadvantaged population in the region, Kibera’s private schools outperformed
the public schools in our study, after controlling for background variables.
We tested a total of roughly 3,000 students in each setting in English and mathematics; in state
languages in India and Kenya;
religious and moral education in Ghana; and social studies
in Nigeria. All children were also given IQ tests, as were
their teachers. Finally, questionnaires were distributed to children, their parents, teachers, and school managers, seeking
information on family backgrounds.
Our analysis of these data is still in progress. However, in all cases analyzed so far—Ga,
Hyderabad, and Kibera—students in private schools achieved at or above the
levels achieved by their counterparts in government schools in both English and mathematics.Moreover, the private-school advantage only increases with consideration
of the differences in an unusually rich array of characteristics of the students, their families’ economic status, and
the resources available at their schools. In Hyderabad, students attending recognized and unrecognized private schools outperformed their peers in government
schools by a full standard deviation in both English and math (after accounting for differences in their observable characteristics).
the adjusted private-school advantage was between 0.2 and 0.3 standard deviations in both subjects. Finally, in Kenya, where
the raw test scores showed students in private and public schools performing at similar levels, the fact that private schools
served a far more disadvantaged population resulted in a gap of 0.1 standard deviations in English and 0.2 standard deviations
in math (after accounting for differences in student characteristics). The adjusted differences between the performance of
public and private sectors in each setting were highly statistically significant.
In short, it is not
the case that private schools serving low-income families are inferior to those provided by the state. In all cases analyzed,
even the unrecognized schools, those that are dismissed by the development experts as being obviously of poor quality seem
to outperform their public counterparts.
Lessons for America
So the accepted wisdom appears
to be wrong. Though elite private schools do exist in impoverished regions of the world, private schools are not only for
the privileged classes. From a wide range of settings, from deepest rural China, through the slums of urban India and Kenya, to the urban periphery areas of Ghana, private education is serving huge numbers of children. Indeed, in those areas where we were able to adequately
compare public and private provision, a large majority of schoolchildren are in private school, a significant number of them
in unrecognized schools and not on the state’s radar at all.
Ironically, perhaps, the accepted
wisdom does seem to be right on one point: private is
better than public. Of course, no one suspected that private slum schools would be better. Yet our research suggests that
children in these schools outperform similar students in government schools in key school subjects. And this is true even
of the unrecognized private schools, schools that development experts dismiss, if they acknowledge their existence at all,
as being of poor quality.
Clearly the evidence presented here
may have implications for the continuing policy discussions over how to achieve universal education worldwide and for American
development policy, especially programs of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank.
William Easterly, in his Elusive Quest for Growth (see also “Barren Land,” Fall 2002), notes the ineffectiveness of past investments in public schools by the international agencies and developing
country governments, pointing out: “Administrative targets for universal primary education do not in themselves create
the incentives for investing in the future that matter for growth,” that is, in quality education. If the World Bank
and USAID could find ways to invest in private schools, then genuine education improvement could result. Strategies
to be considered include offering loans to help schools improve their infrastructure or worthwhile teacher training, or creating
partial vouchers to help even more of the poor gain access to the private schools that are ready to take them on.
But does the evidence have any implications
for the school choice debate in America itself? The evidence from developing countries might challenge the claim, made by school choice opponents, that
the poor in America
cannot make sensible and informed choices if school choice is offered to them. It may also stimulate debate about whether
public intervention crowds out private initiative, a question raised by the findings from Kenya. If a public school is failing in the ghettoes
of New York or Los Angeles, we should not assume that the only way in which the
disadvantaged can be helped is through some kind of public intervention. In fact, we have already embarked on programs that
support private initiative, with government support, with vouchers and charter schools. The findings here suggest this alternative
approach may be the preferable one.
Above all, the evidence should inspire
those who are working for school choice in America: stories of parents’ overcoming all the odds to ensure the best for the children in Africa and Asia, stories of education entrepreneurs’
creating schools out of nothing, in the middle of nowhere. If India can, why can’t we?