The extraordinary revolution of low-cost private schools in developing countries

Twenty years ago this week – on Indian Republic Day, 26 January 2000 – I wandered into the slums behind the Charminar, in the Old City of Hyderabad, and my life changed.

Building on my PhD at what is now the UCL Institute of Education, I had become an expert on private education. Twenty years ago, everyone knew that private education was just for the elite and upper middle classes. But for whatever reason I felt that my life should be about serving less privileged communities. I was in India doing consultancy work for the IFC, the private arm of the World Bank, evaluating elite private school. So there was a discordancy in my life.

On a day off from this consultancy, I went into the slums, down an alleyway and found a small school in a residential building. It wasn’t a state school. It was private, a low-cost private school, charging in those days about USD 1 per month. Then I found another, and another, and soon I was connected to a federation of 500 of these low-cost schools, serving poor and low-income communities across Hyderabad. I spent as much time as I could in these schools after finishing my meetings in the elite colleges that had brought me to Hyderabad. I watched lesson after lesson, where energetic young teachers taught, some in an extremely impressive way.

I remember going back to my hotel room, in an upmarket part of the city, and thinking that the different parts of my life could fit together after all. I was an expert in private education, and private education seemed as much about the poor and disadvantaged as about anyone. My life felt suddenly complete.

For many years I ploughed a lonely furrow, trying to convince those with power and influence that private education was good for the poor. Now, twenty years later, the extraordinary, disruptive revolution of low-cost private schools that is sweeping across the developing world is increasingly acknowledged, sometimes even respected.

In urban slums and low-income communities, and rural villages, poorer parents are abandoning public schools en masse. Instead, they are sending their children to low-cost private schools, typically created by educational entrepreneurs. These private schools are ubiquitous. In Lagos State, Nigeria, for instance, there are 14,000 low-cost private schools, enrolling 2.12 million children, some 70 percent of preschool and primary aged children. Research from Nairobi (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda) and Accra (Ghana) gives parallel results – the highest percentage is from Kampala, where 84 percent of primary aged children in poor areas are in private education.

Similarly, in urban India at least 70 percent of children are in unaided private schools, while the comprehensive Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) shows 30 percent of rural children in private schools, a figure that is growing each year. Extrapolating from recent studies suggests an estimate of 92 million children in India in around 450,000 low-cost private schools.

The private schools are better than the state schools, where there is a lack of accountability; research has shown teachers teaching only half the time. This leads to lower quality of education: research typically finds that children in low-cost private schools outperform those in public schools, even after controlling for socio-economic background variables.  A Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned review of the research literature concluded that “Pupils attending private school tend to achieve better learning outcomes than pupils in state schools.” The private schools don’t typically suffer from gender bias, and are affordable to families on the poverty line. And the majority of low-cost private schools are run as small businesses by educational entrepreneurs (with a minority run by religious organisations and charities), without subsidy from any organisation, whether state or philanthropic. This means that low-cost private schools are already a fully sustainable solution to the problem of improving educational standards for all.

But there are still difficulties to be overcome. Sometimes governments try to close these schools altogether. More commonly they pass regulations that impose impossible conditions, such as the need for very large playgrounds in areas of urban overcrowding, or the insistence that all teachers achieve the same level of certification and pay as their government counterparts, even though this would make it impossible for the schools to charge low fees.

A luta continua, the struggle continues. The work that began for me 20 years ago in the slums of India continues to this day. I’m building a team here at the University of Buckingham to continue to champion the successes of low-cost private schools globally, seeking ways of working together to further improvements where necessary.

Professor James Tooley, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic), University of Buckingham

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