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Are Private Schools the Developing World’s Learning Solution?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

by Dr. Pauline Dixon, Learning 2030 Advisor


For more than a decade, I’ve been meeting illiterate parents living in states of poverty you couldn’t imagine unless you’ve experienced it.

All of them have something in common. 

No, it isn’t their inability to read (even in their own language) and it isn’t that they feel sorry for themselves because they live in the poorest conditions... It’s the fact that they want the best for their children.

These parents want their children to gain an education so they can pull themselves out of the situation they find themselves in.

Education, for them, provides a route out of poverty.

Succeeding privately 'where government has failed'

In the spauline_dixon_private_school_childrenlums and shantytowns of Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, India, South Sudan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, there has been market success where governments have failed to provide an adequate schooling system for the poor.

Our research from Newcastle University shows that parents have voted with their feet away from government schools to a demand – and even supply – driven private school sector.

Typically in a slum area or in low income zones of cities in Africa and India, between 60-70% of school children now go to low-cost private schools. (In rural areas of India, the number is about 40%.)

Surprisingly doable

Charging monthly fees of around $4-$5 per-month (affordable by parents on minimum wage) and to orphans through school-provided scholarships, low-cost private schools are providing the education that parents crave.

These schools outperform government ones, and at a fraction of the teacher cost. They are more effective and more efficient.

Teaching at these schools is typically by rote, which is what currently works best to allow the children to tackle the private school system’s fill-in-the-blanks exams.

Room for improvement

We can help raise quality of schools in these parts of the world, through market-led initiatives around inputs that are shown by research to improve student outcomes.

We can certainly improve access for the poorest, and it looks like education-targeted vouchers are working to help with this, according to our research with ARK in India, using randomized control trials to analyze their impact. 

Evidence should drive policy initiatives, not philosophical baggage.

A model to build on

There is much emphasis on improving government schools here; and many are still on that track. But in my view, helping those who have been ignored and let-down for so long is the order of the day.

The market in low cost private schools is working. However, nurturing it little by little to help improve it will provide choice to those who still can’t afford it and improve quality so the children can flourish and grow in a way they couldn’t even imagine.

Dr. Pauline Dixon is a Senior Lecturer on International Development and Education at Newcastle University, UK and the author of "International Aid and Private Schools for the Poor: Smiles, Miracles and Markets." 

She will serve as an advisor for Waterloo Global Science Initiative (WGSI)'s upcoming  Equinox SummitLearning 2030.

Watch Pauline’s TEDx talk on this blog’s subject on WGSI's YouTube channel.