Worlds of Education

St Francis Primary School, Buddo Kampala, Uganda (2017). GPE/Livia Barton/Flickr
St Francis Primary School, Buddo Kampala, Uganda (2017). GPE/Livia Barton/Flickr

The toxic influence of the private school system

published 14 December 2022 updated 15 December 2022
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If there was free, quality state education throughout the world, the existence of private schools would probably not pose much of a problem. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and the expansion of the private education system poses a big risk to universal schooling and quality education, foundations of an inclusive and egalitarian society.

Private schools: a business like any other

The most obvious problem with private schools is that more often than not [1] they are run like businesses. The constraints imposed by having to balance the books or even make a profit have a direct impact.

First of all, income. Other than those cases where private schools receive state subsidies – which begs the question: why doesn’t the state invest in the public education system instead? - students have to pay to attend private schools. The cost of schooling, even if considered modest by some, is still a barrier for the poorest families. A myriad of schools can coexist in the same country with very different fees, more or less affordable depending on the family's income. This discrimination, this separation of children according to the social category of their parents, can have long-term consequences for the balance of society.

Secondly, expenditure. The vast majority of education spending is on staff salaries. When they get the chance, the owners of private schools often try to minimise expenditure, in several ways. Either by recruiting less qualified staff, which lowers the quality of education. Or by offering very low salaries, which puts off the better qualified candidates. Or by increasing the number of teaching hours per week, or the number of pupils per class. Or again by asking staff to perform additional tasks. Or all of the above. These poorer working conditions often go hand in hand with a firm policy of banning trade unions. Staff then have two choices: accept or leave.

The central role of money in education

What is less talked about, and harder to pinpoint, is the influence of the money relationship on how schools are run, including in the classroom.

As businesses, private schools operate in a competitive market, which means they have to fight for their survival, to keep – and therefore to satisfy – their clientele, their pupils, and to attract more and more of them. All kinds of methods could be a means to this end, such as pre-selecting the students who are to take an exam in order to have a better success rate.

"In private schools, in the classroom itself, the fundamental objectives of education can be called into question such as, for example, fairness of treatment and respect for the rules of community life, respect for the school curriculum and the expertise that the teacher has acquired through his or her training and experience."

There is an even more pernicious impact. Once a family pays money for their child to go to school, all relationships between the different parties - management, teachers, parents and pupils - are affected. Families may have demands that they consider legitimate because of the financial effort they are making. For example, changing the curriculum, awarding higher grades, moving up to the next grade, or getting a diploma. Students may see the teacher as being subordinate to their demands or behaviour, preventing him or her from carrying out his or her duties ethically. The school management, which sees parents as customers to be satisfied, may take their side against the teachers and impose teaching methods or behaviour of which they disapprove.

Many teachers have gone on record to talk about these abuses, including Luc Nhyomog, president of the syndicat des travailleurs des établissements scolaires privés du Cameroun:

" For the founder, who in reality is the real head of the school because of the money he has invested and intends to make a profit on, the parent is a client to whom one must submit in order to earn their renewed trust. It is therefore not out of the question that a parent would complain, even falsely, about a teacher as a result of their child's statements. The teacher is rebuked in front of the parent and sometimes the pupil. Of course, in this case, the teacher who wants to keep their job is no longer guided by the requirements of their profession, but by the whims of the founder under the guise of the headmaster. The pupil can refuse to carry out the teacher's orders, not bring his or her parent when summoned, without this being the subject of any measure to protect the authority of the teacher, even the headmaster. Sometimes the parent does not respond to a summons about their child's work when the school needs it. So. there is no question of the child being kicked out to force the parent to attend."

Even if, fortunately, the level of pressure does not reach these extremes everywhere in the world, it is obvious that, in private schools, in the classroom itself, the fundamental objectives of education can be called into question such as, for example, fairness of treatment and respect for the rules of community life, respect for the school curriculum and the expertise that the teacher has acquired through his or her training and experience.

In contrast, my experience as a civil servant, a mathematics teacher in state secondary schools in France, showed me how passing the competitive examination protected me from any criticism or pressure on my disciplinary skills. The status of civil servant and the right to unionise also protected me from any pressure from the school management regarding any attempts to go beyond the job description, such as extra teaching hours for example. Such protection is very often lacking in private schools.

Are states powerless, or complicit?

By allowing two parallel systems to coexist in competition, sharing the same mission on paper, states are slowly and indirectly weakening the state school system. Indeed, the operating principles of private schools, often characterised by reduced or no trade union rights for staff, a lower level of qualification and remuneration, and an overly flexible approach to the subjects taught, the content of the courses and/or the rules of marking and certification, risk gradually setting a new standard, towards which the public system will have to align itself. This risk is accentuated by the fact that governments often do not take the trouble to extend to private schools the control exercised over state schools: respect for qualifications and remuneration, pedagogical freedom, equal treatment of pupils in terms of evaluation, etc. Moreover, competition from the private sector is increasingly being seen in state education systems. This may take the form of a subtle selection of pupils, through choices about options or courses of study in which the most privileged backgrounds are over-represented.

States often plead a lack of resources to justify allowing private schools to open and operate. However, there is always room for manoeuvre to levy taxes, it is a question of political will. Moreover, the money given by families to school management would be better invested in the form of taxes that would allow the community to better organise the state education system, from teacher training to school construction. The worst case is when private schools receive subsidies from the state, more or less directly. This may be in the form of staff salaries or grants to facilitate the enrolment of pupils in private schools.

It thus becomes difficult to distinguish between the real difficulties of a state, its indifference, and the tacit, even active, encouragement of the private sector.

It would be highly desirable, in the interests of pupils and education staff, for states to stick to one goal: 'a place in a state school for every child, with a trained teacher and a quality environment'. And one principle: 'public money for public schools'.

1. ^

The regulation of private schools varies greatly from country to country. Within a single country, there can be a wide variety of private schools, some elitist and highly regarded, others mediocre. This short article does not go into this level of detail, but offers an overview of general trends in many countries.

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