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Low-fee Private Schools in Kenya: Affordability and Tradeoffs

published 8 September 2015 updated 8 September 2015
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As the international community moves ahead with defining the post-2015 development goals, low-fee private schools (LFPS) are increasingly seen as an attractive policy option for extending education access to children in marginalized communities in the context of insufficient governmental provision of quality, free, public education. But two issues receive insufficient attention. These issues are, on the one hand, affordability for families and, on the other, the tradeoffs that accompany LFPSs in practice even when they receive governmental support. The research paper linked to this blog entry sheds light on these issues with a specific focus on LFPSs in Mathare Village, a densely inhabited slum in Nairobi, Kenya, (called informal settlements) with an estimated population of 900,000 including 300,000 school-aged children.


James Tooley and his colleagues—known LFPS proponents—argue that LFPS fees are affordable. In one study they report the costs of one child attending a LFPS in an informal settlement in Nairobi to represent somewhere between 4.7 percent (for nursery level) and 8.1 percent (in upper primary classes) of a household’s monthly income. However, this finding on affordability lacks much meaning because it overlooks the fact that a household income in informal settlements (where parents work in the informal economy selling vegetables or second-hand clothing, for example) is typically insufficient to cover all the household’s basic needs. As a result the majority of families operate on a negative budget (i.e., live in debt or are behind on payments such as rent on a regular basis). In Mathare Village, where the average monthly income is about Ksh 3,000 – 4,000 ($40.50 – $54.05), the monthly rent is estimated to be Ksh 1,000 ($13.5), and a subsistence-level monthly food budget is Ksh 3,000 ($13.5), it remains unclear how families still manage to pay Ksh 200 – 500 ($2.70 – $6.76) of monthly school fees to LFPSs on a per child basis, especially since families tend to have multiple children. This suggests that families must often choose to spend money on education rather than essentials for survival. Families need water, fuel for lighting, transport, medical care, clothing, etc., but these needs either go unmet or are met on an ad hoc and opportunistic basis.

Tradeoffs of governmental support

Since 2005, LFPSs in Kenya operating at the primary level have been eligible to receive small grants (~$9 per pupil per year) for the purchase of textbooks on the condition that they register with the government, submit to government supervision (in the form of verification and monitoring through periodic visits), and include local parents in the school management committee (SMC) where they can participate in school decisions and monitor the textbook procurement process. In practice, through this policy, a number of important findings emerge:

  1. Legitimacy: LFPSs, by registering with and being supervised by the government, have achieved a newfound level of legitimacy in the eyes of community members. Subsequently, this newfound legitimacy puts upward pressure on enrollment, which, in turn, puts downward pressure on quality (as student-teacher ratios rise) such that, ironically, there are more pupils than textbooks (or desks).
  2. Exam result advertisement: LFPSs know that parents place a premium on advertised exam results and thus they announce the high scores from those few individual students who perform well on the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, which is thought to secure entry to a public secondary school. This feeds on and promotes unrealistic hopes related to their children’s future, to the extent that parents may even have their children repeat the final year of primary school multiple times on the chance they will earn a sufficient score to enter a public secondary school.
  3. Concessionary spots: SMCs pressure head teachers and school directors to retain students who either cannot afford to pay or who cannot pay the full amount of the school’s fees. This form of parental pressure—rather than LFPS benevolence—seems to be the source of concessionary spots, which LFPS advocates suggest are normally offered by LFPSs as a standard practice. An implication of this finding is that LFPSs are not typically accessible by the poorest of the poor.
  4. Inequity through screening: LFPSs exacerbate inequity, as when they screen applicants by interviewing them and thus creating an opportunity to deny admission to students who have low ability, who are particularly poor, and who have been out of school for a period of time.
  5. Fee setting: Textbook grants from the government have not reduced fees (as hoped). Instead, LFPSs now use these grants for books while also pocketing any donations from parents.
  6. Efficiency: Individual LFPSs are concerned with survival and profits, not efficiency. On a systemic level, efficiency can only be claimed (inappropriately) in that the government provides fewer resources, that LFPSs tend to exceed their capacity for enrollment, and that teachers are paid less (though sometimes not at all, if fee collection is insufficient). In such a context one wonders what efficiency means. LFPS proponents focus on costs when making efficiency arguments, but even “low costs” have high prices for the impoverished parents who pay the fees and for the teachers who are tentatively employed (without union protection). Moreover, from a societal perspective, and from the perspective of education as a public good, the long-term costs associated with this kind of severely unequal and low-quality schooling arguably should not be considered efficient, in the sense of being the best use of scarce resources for optimal outcomes in the interest of all concerned.


LFPSs entail inherent trade-offs, tensions, and unexpected dynamics in operation that have serious consequences for quality and equity even when supported by a formal government policy designed to address these aspects. Thus, these aspects and consequences need to be understood and incorporated into discussions around LFPS policy, particularly as a range of philanthropic, corporate and bi-/multi-lateral organizations are increasing their support for such schools, with this last group contributing $260.6 million in financing to extend these initiatives around the world during the period of 2007-2011.

However, the question of government support for and even the very existence of LFPSs are contentious issues. There is some consensus among critics that for-profit schools and the commercialization of education are problematic. While the schools studied here were private and fee-charging, the government attempted to improve their quality by officially recognizing them, by requiring parental participation, and by subsidizing textbooks. Yet, overall, as critics point out, LFPSs produce an uncertain effect on quality and a negative impact on equity, exhibit poor treatment of teachers, show antipathy to teacher unions, tend to siphon resources away from public schools, and give legitimacy to charging fees, which contradicts the notion of education as a human right.

The existence of LFPSs is a fact of life, and most agree they should be regulated.  But whether or not they should be supported by the government is an open question. The authors of the study argue that government resources should go to public schools, not private ones. If public schools are improved in reach and quality, and are made truly free, then LFPSs will disappear. This important point is particularly salient as new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals will soon replace the previous Education for All and Millennium Development Goals. The effort to achieve the very ambitious Sustainable Development Goals will increase the pressure for governments in Kenya and elsewhere to legitimate and to subsidize private sector ventures in education. As we move toward and beyond the setting of the post-2015 goals, it is essential that we keep in mind the unaffordability of LFPSs for poor families as well as the unexpected, and often harmful, side effects of LFPSs in practice, even when officially regulated and supported by government policy.

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