Education experts square off on the public versus private school debate in Africa

Students at a public school in Bamako, Mali. Photo by: Marco Dormino / CC BY-NC-ND

Although it may seem counterintuitive, nearly three times as many primary school children are enrolled in private schools in developing countries than in developed ones, according to United Nations figures.

Across Africa, an average of 16 percent of young people in education attend private schools and in some countries the figure is much higher. In Liberia, for example, 60 percent of secondary school enrollments are private, while the figure is 50 percent in Sierra Leone and 40 percent in Burkina Faso, according to World Bank data.

However, these are not the kind of private schools with smart uniforms and expensive trips. Many are set up in remote, rural locations not served by government schools, and they include both fee-paying and donor funded non-state options. Evidence shows their numbers have been growing dramatically in some countries in recent years.

This trend is central to the hotly contested debate on the role of private schools in delivering education in developing countries — where, according to the U.N., 263 million children, adolescents and youth were out of school as of 2014. While some argue that private schools will be crucial to meeting the sustainable development agenda, which calls for inclusive and equitable quality education for all by 2030, others argue that government schools are the only scalable and inclusive option for ensuring quality education for all.

There are many different manifestations of low-fee private schools, from small community schools run by individual “edupreneurs” to national and international for-profit school chains, which charge families a small fee compared to traditional private schools in Kenya and Uganda. The expansion of low-fee private school chains — such as Bridge International Academies in Africa and Asia, Omega Schools in Ghana and APEC Schools in the Philippines — have been key drivers in the growth of the private school sector in developing countries.

These schools are also at the heart of the public versus private debate. As Devex reported, last year Uganda’s Ministry of Education decided to close 63 Bridge schools, which are backed by major international players including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, for failing to meet national education standards.

Speaking at this week’s inaugural Africa Knowledge Fest at the World Bank’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, education experts weighed in on the debate in the African context.

1. Development institutions are out of touch with the reality that private schools are often the “only game in town.”

While education should be provided free of charge and by the government, the current reality is that governments are failing and private schools are often the only “game in town,” according to Irene Pritzker, president of the IDP Foundation, which supports a network of low-income private schools — charging approximately $15 per term — across Ghana. She drew a distinction between private “chain schools” and the IDP model, which provides microfinance loans, as well as training to community school proprietors.

She said that development institutions are out of touch with this “reality” and fail to understand that schools such as those supported by IDP are responding to “community, market-driven demand.”

“Often the people in… the U.N. offices have never been out in the field at all. They traverse back and forth between the ministries of education and various consulting firms who are hired to do certain things for them and they really don’t understand what it is that drives so many desperately poor people to find a little bit of money to pay somebody to start a school in their village or their slum market,” she said.

Instead of seeing such schools as competition, Pritzker wants the international community to encourage governments to “conflate and band together” with private schools through public-private partnerships and subsidies, since this is the only way that education can be made affordable to the poorest households, she said.

2. School fees are a “regressive tax on the poor.”

However, Katie Bous — policy advisor at Oxfam International, who worked on the 2016 report Private Profit, Public Loss — said that private schools are “regressive” and promote inequality in developing country contexts.

“School fees are a regressive tax on the poor,” according to Bous, who added, “in highly privatized education systems, we see more social segregation and stratification, whereas public education, when it’s working well, is meant to equalize the playing field and level out those differences.”

Furthermore, chains of private schools are driving down quality standards by hiring “largely unqualified and untrained teachers in order to keep costs down” and through the use of e-learning tools such as tablets, which can result in lessons that encourage “rote learning” as opposed to “critical thinking” among students, she said.

“This technology is not making it into children’s hands in the classroom; it’s being used as a substitute for trained teachers through scripted, standardized lessons… being delivered to teachers through tablets... and we’re concerned this is leading to rote learning rather than critical thinking,” she said.

3. Government can be a hindrance when it comes to improving schools.

Reshma Patel of Impact Network — which manages privately run rural community schools in Zambia as part of its eSchool 360 model — has found the opposite to be true and said technology and innovation can improve outcomes.

The eSchools, which cost $3 per month per student but are fully funded by U.S. donors, use tablets and projectors in the classroom. But they are also exploring other uses of technology such as fingerprint scanning to track the attendance of children and teachers. Being independent of government enables them to test such approaches, Patel said.

“It’s not always a public versus private issue — it’s a good idea issue and all schools might benefit from this type of technology, but we’ve found that managing and piloting them in our schools is easier,” she said.

She also defended the school’s use of “untrained” teachers, pointing out that although they may not have been trained to government standards, they are still effective teachers having received instruction in the eSchool program. They are also subject to weekly monitoring and on-the-job coaching sessions, she said.

Furthermore, these teachers are local, which brings jobs to the community but also ensures that the teachers are well integrated within the local community. “We have had non-local government allocated staff and yes they were trained but they had a lot of negative perceptions, which they brought to rural areas and it affected their work and our students,” she said.

4. Private schools do not work for the very poor.

While private schools do have a role to play, they do not reach the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of society since these households cannot afford to send their children to low-cost schools, according to Prachi Srivastava, associate professor at Western University, who specializes in education and international development.  

She said the fees charged by so-called low-cost school chains could represent as much as 62 percent of the lowest wage earner’s income in South Africa; 48 percent in Ghana; and 28 percent in Nigeria. As a result, research “overwhelmingly” indicates that the poorest households cannot afford to send their children to private schools, she said.

“So what do you mean when you say low cost or low fee models? How much of that household’s income is going to school just one child in that context?” she asked.

Furthermore, according to Srivastava, there is “no conclusive evidence” to show that private schools provide a better quality of education than public ones, and that where private school advantages do exist, they diminish when background variables are taken into account.

She added that: “What the studies do show is [that] regardless of where students are going — private or government schools — absolute learning levels are very very low. We know this from the research. Marginal differences don’t mean much in a case where 250 million children cannot read or write.”

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.