The role of the private sector in education has become a very hot issue internationally and it has tended to lead to generalised and polarised statements rather than nuanced debates. Attempts to debate the role of “non-State actors” in education often exacerbate the problem - as a huge range of different actors, roles and contexts get lumped together. The reality is more complex than many people (including myself) sometimes make it seem. Therefore, in the attached article, I have tried to disaggregate the debate in a concise form and offer some quick reflections on how we might understand and respond from a rights-based perspective in different situations. I do not pretend to be neutral. My starting point is a firm belief in a rights-based perspective and a conviction that education can and should be a powerful equalising force in society.
The classification of eleven types of non-State provision is far from perfect (many categories could be sub-divided) but includes:
1. Community initiatives in rural areas where the State fails
2. Community initiatives in marginal urban areas where the State is absent
3. English medium schools where governments schools do not teach in English
4. NGO-initiated community schools / NFE centres / Philanthropic schools
5. Inclusive / special schools for children with disabilities
6. Faith-based schools
7. Commercial for-profit providers of low fee private schools
8. Private schools for the middle class and rich
9. Private supplementary tutoring
10. Voucher-based models to give parents a choice
11. Public Private Partnerships (PPPs)
For each category I have tried to identify what might be the immediate engagement or practical response of those who are concerned with advancing the right to education – separating this from what a longer term more strategic response might look like.
Most education systems are diverse, with multiple actors and providers whether government, NGO, philanthropic, faith-based or private sector providers – but the State has a clear obligation to act as a guarantor of the right to education across all these providers, ensuring that each child is able to have their right to education respected, protected and fulfilled. Whilst tolerance of a diverse system is important, it is equally crucial that clear standards are set for all providers and that there is a credible capacity to monitor compliance with these standards. These standards should be consistent with core human rights commitments – such as the right to free education, to non-discrimination, to adequate infrastructure, to quality trained teachers, to a safe and non-violent environment, to a relevant education based on a broad curriculum and to transparent and accountable schools (see Promoting Rights in Schools for elaboration on these). There are tipping points and trade-offs to be conscious of. Sometimes it will be cheaper and more effective for the State to be a direct provider than to invest in a huge regulatory and enforcement framework to monitor compliance by others.
I conclude that we need to be very wary of arguments that suggest that public education systems are destined to fail, that they are the “past” and that competitive private provision is the inevitable future. Every country that has achieved universalisation of education access has done so through strong, coordinated government action and consistent investment in a predominantly public education system. Yes, there are crises in public education systems in many countries but these are often related to years of chronic underfunding – either owing to very low tax intakes (low tax to GDP ratios), inadequate shares of the national budget being spent on education (the 20% benchmark of national budgets should be a minimum for low income countries), poor allocation of budgets (e.g. prioritising tertiary over basic education) or poor utilisation of budgets (owing to corruption / lack of transparency / weak institutional capacity). All of these can be and need to be addressed to rebuild people’s confidence in the role of the public sector in education. Non-State provision might supplement but should not supplant the role of the State. The quality of education children receive should never be stratified, dependent on their parent’s social status or their ability to pay. We need to build diverse but equitable education systems if we want education to act as an equalising force within society.
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