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Private or Public: Does the proliferation of low-fee/low-cost private schools improve or impede learning for all?

Children in classe, Ethiopa

Children in classe, Ethiopa - Children in classe, Ethiopa


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A debate with Dr. Prachi Srivastava and Dr. James Tooley


“The number one question policy-makers need to ask themselves is: ‘low-fee for whom?’”

An interview with Dr. Prachi Srivastava, Associate Professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa.
Listen to the audio:

“The way to have education of higher quality is to embrace the private sector.”



An interview with Dr. James Tooley, Global Head of Low Cost Schools (GEMS Education) and Professor of Education Policy, Newcastle University. Listen to the audio here


Q1: What are the main points that education decision-makers need to know about low-fee/low-cost private schools and their relationship to the quality of education in their own countries?

Prachi Srivastava: The first point would be that the terminology, “low-fee” or “low-cost” private schools, is not very well-defined. Many of the schools that we consider to be low-fee, in fact if you are comparing to how much a poorer household would earn—and by this I mean a bottom quintile household—it would constitute a substantial proportion of their household income for just one child. It can range anywhere from 5% even up to 40% or 60% in the case of some chains of schools that term themselves to be low-fee or low-cost. So that’s one issue around affordability.

The second issue is around fees and costs. Costs include much more than just fees. Most policy-makers would know this—that costs of accessing schooling include other household expenditures, such as private tuition, such as textbooks, transportation, meals, uniforms, etc. So again, the terminology is somewhat misleading and also in certain instances hides what the true cost is of accessing these schools.

And the third very general point—and I hope that policy-makers would have more chance of actually reading about this—is that the evidence on issues of quality, if we’re talking about inputs, is contested. The evidence on issues of achievement, if we’re talking about relative gains between private and public school students, is also not clear.

James Tooley: First of all, you’ve got to know about the ubiquity of low-cost private schools. They’re everywhere in developing countries, and a large majority of low-income families use low-cost private schools. For instance, a recent survey from the slums of Monrovia in Liberia showed 71% of children in low-cost private schools. Similar results are found from Lagos, Accra, Hyderabad, and so on. In rural areas, maybe 25-30% of the poor are using them. So there are large numbers using them and there are huge numbers of these schools: 300,000 of them in India alone and 14,000 in Lagos.

Secondly, you’ve got to know that children in low-cost private schools outperform those in government schools. In other words, these low-cost private schools—all the research shows—are of a higher quality than government schools.

And thirdly, they are typically fair to girls. So either there is gender parity in the low-cost private schools compared to government schools, or in those places where there are social inhibitions to girls going to school, the presence of private schools makes things better for girls. For instance, a study from Pakistan shows that in those villages where there are private schools, the gender gap narrows compared to where there aren’t [private schools].

So those are the three major things I would say.


Q2: In places where low-fee/low-cost private schools are proliferating, what is driving the demand for them?

James Tooley: [It’s] very, very simple: parental demand. That’s what’s driving the access. Parents want schools that are accountable to them, and government schools are not. Government schools fail in that regard. Parents want schools that are of as high a quality as they can afford, and government schools again signally fail to deliver high quality. So it’s a very simple position: it’s parental demand that’s driving demand for low-cost private schools.

Prachi Srivastava: Private schools in general are proliferating in areas or in contexts where the government sector seems to not be providing a reasonable quality of education. Where we see the proliferation, we see it as a great dysfunction of schooling sectors that are meant to be free at the point of entry.

We need to ask what happens in instances where households do not have to pay [to attend school], and what happens in instances where households have to pay direct costs. We find that in instances where households have to pay, girls tend to be left out, children that have special needs or special learning problems seem to be left out, and generally from a more macro [perspective], children that come from disadvantaged communities—whether that’s ethnically disadvantaged, linguistically disadvantaged, religiously disadvantaged, or caste-based disadvantage—these children [seem] to be left out. And they seem to be left out much more over time and as the cycle progresses.


Q3: Who benefits from low-fee/low-cost private schools? Who may be harmed?

Prachi Srivastava: What we find in the literature is that these schools may be affordable for the more economically secure—perhaps the working classes, or the ones that have stable employment, and certainly for the middle classes. But when you are actually speaking in terms of underdeveloped areas and households that are economically insecure, then these schools are not actually affordable to them, so they cannot benefit from them for any great length of time.

James Tooley: All those children who are attending private schools have clearly benefitted from them. The schools are of a higher quality than government schools, so as numeracy and literacy are key markers of how children do in later life, clearly children going to low-cost private schools are going to perform better in life than those in government schools.

But yes, you can say that those left behind in the government schools are in some ways harmed by the decision of those going to private schools. Those left behind are not going to be as advantaged as others. But clearly to me the solution is obvious then: you should help everyone get a quality education. Some people think they can do that in the government schools. My view is that the easiest and most efficient way, most effective way of getting there is to allow children stuck in government schools to access the private schools through targeted vouchers or scholarships. That’s how you overcome that inequality problem.


Q4: How would widespread support for low-fee/low-cost private schools impact efforts to improve the quality of education and raise learning outcomes for all?

James Tooley: Remember the figures from West Africa for instance I gave you: in the urban areas, 70% or more of children are [already] using these schools. In India, Pakistan, South Asia, it’s similar. So this is already a huge revolution, particularly in urban areas. It's already making a big impact on raising standards in education. But the point is clear: the evidence shows the quality of education is better in these schools, so it will lead to societal improvements. Education is closely linked to economic improvements. So the more you have education of higher quality, the more you will have improvements on the economic front for a nation. The way to do that, the evidence shows, is to embrace the private sector, not to try and look to other solutions.

What is happening is that the government provision is becoming less and less. The figures for Lagos state in Nigeria, which has been the most studied in this, have shown an [increase] from almost 60% enrolled in private schools to over 70% now, since 2010-11. So in the last five years: a huge change. So it would seem that until governments and international agencies can sort out government education, the private schools will continue to flourish and grow. That seems to me to be wholly beneficial, given the better quality of the private schools.

Prachi Srivastava: Real systemic-level research is lacking. There are not that many studies that actually have looked at the systemic impact of private interventions within state sectors, and certainly within the competition framework.

I would say to policy-makers, if they are really serious about understanding this intervention, then there need to be serious—not just discussions, but even small-scale studies within local contexts to see what is actually happening on the ground and what are some of the interventions that can be scaled up, which are free at the point of entry. I think that is the fundamental issue. It’s not whether or not the private or public sector does a certain intervention better, but actually what can we do in sectors which are privately or publicly managed, that can scale up quality, scale up accessibility, and that do not incur excessive or extra costs for those households.


Q5: What issues have not yet been adequately discussed in the media coverage on this issue?

Prachi Srivastava: I think one of the main issues really does have to do with this question of affordability and definitions. I think when someone hears—at least in the media in the West or in the North, or even in developing countries in terms of policy-makers who may have never directly experienced those real aspects of exclusion or hardship that economically insecure households have to experience—when we hear the term low-fee or low-cost, there is an assumption that it is low-fee or low-cost in absolute terms. That everyone can afford them. And certainly when we start translating those terms to cents per day or dollars per day, you know when we say ‘this low-cost school only costs sixty cents a day to access. But in a local context where the daily wage might only be $1.35, when you look at it proportionately, that is a significant amount of household income that is actually devoted to accessing that particular school, for one child.

So the question in terms of affordability, I don’t think has been adequately discussed, not only in the media, but also addressed in the academic literature, and certainly at the level of policy-making, when we’re looking at trying to understand the bottom quintile, the bottom 20%, the most socially and economically disadvantaged.

When a provider or a chain of schools or a donor says that ‘we are supporting low-fee schools,’ I think the number one question that policy-makers need to ask themselves is: ‘low-fee for whom?’

James Tooley: I think the issue of affordability of private schools, vis à vis government schools is crucial to discuss to understand what’s going on here. People talk about the comparison; they say ‘well, government schools are free. That’s nonsense. Government schools are not free to parents. Parents have to pay for uniforms, for books, for shoes, for transport, lunch and so on, PTA fees, exam fees. All these things are costs at government schools.

Now when you accurately catalogue all those costs to send a child to a government school and all those costs to send a child to a private school, you get a very interesting result. Again, I give you some research from West Africa, from the slums of Monrovia in Liberia. The research showed that the cost to a parent of sending a child to a government school was, on average, 75% of the cost of sending a child to one of these low-cost private schools. Yes, the private school is more expensive, but it’s not cripplingly so, compared to the [erroneous] idea that government schools are free and private schools are expensive.

That’s a very important thing. And private schools, incidentally, are open longer hours than the government schools. So on an hourly rate, private schools may even work out to be cheaper for parents than the government schools. I think this is an issue that needs to be addressed and it’s crucial to putting the whole argument in context. Government schools are not free.


Other resources for further reading

Day Ashley, L.; Mcloughlin, C.; Aslam, M.; Engel, J.; Wales, J.; Rawal, S.; Batley, R.; Kingdon, G.; Nicolai, S.; Rose, P. 2014. The role and impact of private schools in developing countries: a rigorous review of the evidence. Final report. Education Rigorous Literature Review. London: Department for International Development.

This is the most comprehensive review of the evidence to date. Following its release, a series of exchanges have taken place between the researchers and James Tooley.

Tooley, J.; Longfield, D. 2015. The Role and Impact of Private Schools in Developing Countries: A Response to the DFID-Commissioned ‘Rigorous Literature Review’. London: Pearson.
Day Ashley, L.; Mcloughlin, C.; Aslam, M.; Engel, J.; Wales, J.; Rawal, S.; Batley, R.; Kingdon, G.; Nicolai, S.; Rose, P. 2015. What we know – and don’t know – about the impact of private schooling in developing countries. UKFIET Blog.

The discussants also recommended the following resources:

James Tooley:
Tooley, J. (2013). The beautiful tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves. Washington, DC: Cato Institute.
Tooley, J. (2012). Big Questions and Poor Economics: Banerjee and Duflo on Schooling in Developing Countries. Econ Journal Watch 9(3), 170-185.

Prachi Srivastava:
Srivastava, P. (Ed.) (2013). Low-fee private schooling: aggravating equity or mitigating disadvantage? Oxford: Symposium Books.
Srivastava, P. (2015). Low-fee private schooling: what do we really know? From Poverty to Power, Oxfam Blog, 11 August 2015.


Private education

Education primarily supported by nonpublic funds.


Public education

Education supported in part or entirely by taxation.