Africa is the fastest-growing continental economy in the world today, thanks in large part to the fact that its population is so young. But one consequence of having a lot of young people is that Africa faces a massive practical problem, the problem of how to educate its millions of poor young people in the knowledge and skills that can make them prosperous. As it happens, a very large number of poor Africans have already found a solution to that problem. But some of the best known aid agencies and international organizations don’t like this solution at all, and indeed some are campaigning hard to put a stop to it.
The solution is private education. A very large proportion of the new entrants to education in Africa and other emerging economies are attending private schools, the so-called ‘low-cost’ education sector that is the most dynamic provider of primary education in countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. These are private schools that offer teaching at rock-bottom rates to the very poorest.
The proportion of poor African children now getting their education from private sources is very high. Exactly how high is difficult to say, because a lot of these private schools are unregistered and don’t figure in official statistics. But a recent survey by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfiD) found that in Lagos the capital of Nigeria about 1.5 million children attend private primary and junior secondary schools, a figure which represents around two thirds of all children in the city.
Some of these schools are costly outfits that cater to Nigeria’s healthy population of multi-millionaires. But these are not the interesting ones. The interesting ones are cheap schools catering to very poor children. In Lagos for example more than half of children categorized as poor attend one of around 18,000 private primary and pre-schools, and it is thought that these private schools are now absorbing most of the growth in the school age population. Many of these schools are delivering high quality education at very low cost, often close to what it actually costs to send a child to a state school once books and uniforms and food are factored in – state schools that frequently do not offer high quality education, and often enough do not offer any education at all.
This is something that is happening across much of Africa. In Nigeria’s West African near-neighbour Ghana and in Kenya, there are emerging large low-cost school chains that offer poor children a complete education package including books, uniforms and food for less than ten dollars per month. In Ghana for example the Omega Schools chain now has 38 schools that charge pupils 65 cents a day for a programme that includes food, workbooks and uniforms as well as daily tuition. Pupils are charged on a daily pay-as-you-go basis through vouchers that can be bought in local shops, allowing poor parents to give their children some education without committing to the full term fees common in more expensive private schools.
Another provider is Bridge International Academies which operates over 350 schools in Kenya and is planning to expand in Nigeria and Uganda during 2015. Bridge also works on a model that combines extremely basic school buildings with a highly centralised curriculum development and delivery process. School administration, classroom scheduling and teaching materials are all managed through networked mobile devices such as cheap tablets and mobile phones, an approach that Bridge calls ‘Academy in a Box’, with every new school drawing on a readymade academic management system. This allows Bridge to charge an average of $6 a month per pupil.
The performance of these low-cost private schools compared to free state education is a matter of controversy, not least because there is only patchy data on results. Yet the fact is that private schools are thriving. Some are good, some are bad, but the demand for schools that offer something more than the state is able to provide is undeniable.
James Tooley, the professor of education at Newcastle University who is one of the founders of Ghana’s Omega Schools, says that it was on a trip to India fifteen years ago when he realised that the world’s poor were choosing low cost private schools over supposedly free state schools. ‘I saw that private schools were everywhere, and the poorer the neighbourhood the more there were. It suddenly seemed to me like an answer to the question of how to move education forward.’
But fifteen years ago the development world was not ready for the idea that profit-making private sector schools could be part of the solution to the emerging economies’ education needs. ‘The fact was that no one believed in the idea of cheap private schools then,’ says Tooley. ‘In fact most people denied they even existed. So I surveyed the urban slums in parts of Africa and India and China, and I found that 65-70% of the children were actually in private schools. We tested the children and found they were actually outperforming the state schools – and at a very very low cost. But even so I had to drag people kicking and screaming to see what was actually happening.’
The kicking and screaming is still going on. While many African governments have abandoned the statist economic policies that in the 1970s and 1980s helped to keep them poor, some of the big international organizations and the charities that make up the development world have not. In the world of development-think, charging small amounts of money for high-quality education – even when the ‘free’ state alternative is actually neither an attractive alternative nor free – is just not on.
‘In terms of the international debate, people in the NGOs and the universities are still very attached to the state schooling model,’ says James Tooley. ‘The Oxfams, the ActionAids, they really don’t like the idea of private schools, and in fact they seem almost indifferent to what the research shows. In fact our research shows that in some cases the cost of sending a child to a private school is very close to what it actually costs a parent to send a child to a state school.’
It is certainly true that in the development establishment there is a strong feeling against private education for the poor. Organizations like ActionAid, the Brookings Institution and the UK’s Overseas Development Institute have lined up against giving any support to private educators.
The charity ActionAid is a vigorous campaigner against what it calls ‘the creeping privatisation of education.’ David Archer, head of programme development at ActionAid says ‘private education appears to be better than it actually is, because it creams off the students from better-off families. When you look at the evidence on outcomes there is actually no evidence of any real return from private education, once you control for the socio-economic background of the students. And what is more it is boys not girls who are going to these schools. We need to get girls into schooling, and private schools are doing the opposite of that.’
But is the ‘evidence’ that campaigners like ActionAid rely on actually reliable? There is no generally accepted body of data on the performance and affordability of private schools serving poor people, and what evidence there is is open to criticism. For example, last year DfiD published its own ‘Rigorous Review’ of evidence on ‘the role and impact of private schools in developing countries’. The Review selected 59 studies and found that the while the evidence was positive when it came to the quality and cost-effectiveness of private schools, it was either negative or ambiguous on equity, affordability and financial sustainability. On the question of private schools tending to favour boys over girls there is also conflicting evidence: the private Omega Schools chain in Ghana, for example, has slightly more female students than male.
This year James Tooley and his Newcastle University colleague David Longfield published a response to the DfiD Review of the available evidence, finding that DfiD’s researchers managed to misread much of the evidence in the 59 studies, repeatedly reporting positives as negatives, missing out data that should have been included in the review, and duplicating other data that should have been counted only once.
‘It just shows that this field is still very ideologically fraught,’ says Tooley. ‘The people DfiD sent to do this survey had prejudices that were so entrenched, they managed to misread virtually every piece of information and data they got their hands on. Just one item after another, it was amazing.’ [DfiD did not respond to a request for their response to the Tooley/Longfield assessment].
In fact DfiD is currently supporting a programme called ‘DEEPEN’ designed to help private schools in Lagos become more professional and effective. The leader of the Lagos project Dr Gboyega Ilusanya says that while private schooling in poor areas is growing very fast, it is often a choice of desperation. ‘Private schools are part of a large, informal and essentially weak education market which is poorly organised, poorly supported and frequently undermined by rules and regulations,’ says Dr Ilusanya.
In other words, the private sector schools serving the poorest often have plenty of problems of their own, even when preferred by parents – which seems to say something about the quality of the state alternative. Bad as some of the private schools may be, parents consider the state offer to be worse. ‘Reaching these children cannot be assured through investment in public education alone,’ says Dr Ilusanya. ‘The current and future reality of education in Lagos is that the private sector will educate an increasing percentage of children – including the poorest. Improving the quality of education these children receive will substantially improve their life chances of moving out of poverty.’
When even bad private schools are preferred to state alternatives, what is the case against private schooling for the poor? It usually rests on the claim that private education will reduce overall school enrollment numbers because it will encourage governments to skimp on education provision even though many of the poor cannot afford the private alternatives.
This is the argument used by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) project – one of the original eight development goals was to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Although the MDG project does not specifically endorse a state-only approach to education, it argues that the great increase in primary school enrollment in Africa over the last two decades is due to increased access to no-fee state education, citing the abolition of school fees in African countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda as being behind the increase in school numbers. David Archer at ActionAid concurs. ‘Fee paying schools are not going to increase enrollment,’ he says. ‘All the data from recent years show that it is the abolition of school fees that gets children into schools.’
‘Unfortunately those figures are complete rubbish,’ says Professor Tooley. ‘When we looked at schools in the slums of Nairobi, and we found that there was absolutely no net increase in enrollment when fees were abolished. What happened was that some children who were in private schools moved to state schools – and then a lot of them moved back because the state schools were no good. In fact we recently did a study in Juba, South Sudan, and we found there the official data on children in primary schools were out by roughly 50%. Which is good news for the number of children in school, but they weren’t in state schools.’
Extending the reach of free high quality state education in Africa and other emerging regions is a good idea. Expecting it to happen quickly enough to educate the millions of African children that today are not receiving schooling is a crazy idea. According to a study just published by UNESCO even if African governments did increase their spending on education to the UN target of over 3% of GDP, the UN’s targets on universal primary education would still not be met until the year 2060.
In the end the argument here is about two different views of how the world should work. Should it work according to theory, or according to practice? Not long ago I saw how the practice worked when I stayed for several days at a private school in rural India, a school that charged the equivalent of a few dollars a month. This primary school was run on a charitable basis – running a profit-based school is technically illegal in India – while a state school serving exactly the same community occupied an adjoining plot. The ‘free’ state school lacked some of the essentials of a normal school, including teachers who turned up for work, and in the wake of some recent storms, it also lacked a roof. The paid-for private school had full classrooms, resident teachers, computers, and books. And meanwhile the pupils of the state school milled about in the road, bleak and angry looks on their faces. It was a sorry sight, implying personal tragedies to come.
‘There might be a powerful abstract argument for insisting on state provision and nothing but state provision,’ says James Tooley. ‘The reality on the ground in places like Africa and India is that many of those government schools are terrible places where parents choose not to send their children. The state-only solution is a nice idea that just doesn’t work in reality.’
Richard Walker is a journalist and digital strategist who has been writing about Africa for two decades.
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