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Should Public Money Be Used for Private Schools?

published 13 October 2013 updated 14 October 2013
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Over the past three years,the Department for International Development ( DFID) has made the controversial move to support low-cost private schools in some countries, such as Nigeria, Ghana, or Pakistan, where public education systems are in desperate need of investment. In doing this, the DFID is following in the ideological footsteps of the World Bank. Indeed, a recent DFID Guidance Note on low-cost private schools argues that such schools have a key role to play in expanding education provision, despite acknowledging the fact that “there is still a lack of data and comparative analysis on education outcomes to assess value for money”. This begs the question of whether or not it is a good use of public money from UK taxpayers to invest speculatively in for-profit private schools in poor countries?

Low-cost private schools thrive in very particular contexts; for example, they flourish in illegal slum settlements in marginal urban areas, where governments fail to provide public schools because they do not recognise the settlements. Yet most slum dwellers would much prefer their governments to open schools. Low-cost private schools are also evident in other contexts: for example, where government services are largely absent, such as in rural Pakistan. Simple analysis shows that this is the result of the government failing to invest in education. Pakistan spends only 2.4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education against a benchmark of good practice of 6% of GDP. In this context DFID ought to be making the case for increased domestic investment, as it is the only sustainable solution.

These low-cost private schools share a common thread in that they extract a profit from the fees received, by either employingteachers who lack training and/or qualifications,or by paying teachers much lower salaries than those earned by teachers in government schools. In India, for example, low-cost, private schools often pay less than one fifth of a teacher's salary. Typically teachers are given short-term contracts; they can be hired and fired at the whim of the private provider: this has dangerous systemic effects on the status of teachers and the credibility of the teaching profession.

UK aid is supposed to be focused on ending extreme poverty and support for low-cost private schools inherently contradicts this; instead, such schools actually exacerbate inequality. DFID concedes that in India, “no schools charging below $8 are able to perform well”. For parents with four children, living on a dollar a day, paying $8 or more per child per month consumes more than their entire income.  In such contexts, parents may choose to send just one child to the low-cost school; and usually boys are prioritised, thereby excluding girls and children with disabilities. DFID has found that: “Evidence does suggest that there are serious equity and choice barriers associated with the growth of low cost private schools”, yet, it seems that these concerns are not enough to stop new and further DFID investments.

In recent years, the biggest gains in education occurred when governments eliminated user fees to deliver on the right to education, leading to tens of millions of children enrolling in school for the first time, and supporting low-cost private schools mocks the importance of that evidence.  A recent survey in Ghana found that of 450 children enrolled in low-cost, private schools, 449 were previously enrolled in government-subsidised schools – those schools that will now suffer as a result of poor investment.  Even private schools that charge the lowest fees will not help extend access to the 57 million children not in school today.

Proponents of low-cost, private schools argue that privatised schools offer a model of higher educational quality; but it is here that the evidence is highly contested and inconclusive. Proponents tend to be highly selective in quoting what is often flawed, and superficial research about improved learning outcomes. The biggest flaw is that most comparative studies fail to control for the socio-economic status of children as well as the self-evident motivation of parents. The latter point is crucial, as parents who opt to pay have prioritised education in their households and will provide a more supportive home environment – which is a key determinant of educational success. Even if there was some marginal evidence of an increase in gain of quality, it is questionable as to whether or not this could be retained on a larger scale. Furthermore, and there is no evidence to suggest that the “competition effect” of low-cost private schools helps to aid in the process of put increasing pressure for improvements in the quality of public schools (in fact, private schools do the opposite, draining and pauperising the public sector).

The narrative surrounding the causality of any (flawed) claims of difference in learning outcomes tends to relate to teacher attendance and school accountability. The proponents of privatised education argue that private schools make a difference by ensuring that teachers are in the classroom and that schools are accountable to parents. If so, the coherent response should be to invest in teachers within the public system: expanding and improving training and support, making school inspectorates work effectively and strengthening school management committees. Such investments yield systemic, nation-wide returns in improving quality – a much more strategic and effective use of public money.  Thankfully, most DFID funding for education is still spent on such efforts.

We desperately need to improve the quality of public schools, and this issue needs concerted attention and support. We need to mobilise new resourcing for education, securing at least 6% of GDP and 20% of national budgets. We need to support progressive macro-economic policies over austerity and we urgently need to expand the domestic tax base of low income countries, for example by ending the unnecessary and often corrupt tax holidays given to big multinational companies. Lost revenues from tax exemptions given away unnecessarily by governments add up to $138 billion annually- which is more than enough to ensure we deliver on the full education and wider development agenda in every country. For many years the DFID has been a global leader in supporting sector-wide public education reform through the Global Partnership for Education. Let us hope they do not break the broad global consensus on education reform by pursuing ideological distractions that threaten to undermine the right to education.

david.archer@actionaid,org Twitter: @DavidArcherAA

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.