Opinion: Privatized education's growing role requires data, attention and planning

By Nicholas Burnett, Maya Ziswiler 18 October 2016

Morning assembly at a primary school in Ghana. Photo by: Arne Hoel / The World Bank

In the privatized education debate — both in developed and developing countries — we are quick to judge: judge parents for sending their children to private schools, judge governments for letting them, judge international organizations for championing one side of the debate or the other. But, as a new report published by Results for Development  and the UBS Optimus Foundation makes clear, such judgements stand on shaky ground.

In developing countries, sometimes neither private nor government schools offer adequate access to quality education. This leaves parents with a difficult decision between two deeply flawed options. We owe it to them to produce and provide as much quality information as possible; we owe them not only access, but the opportunity of an informed choice.

The report, “Implications of education fees and their effect on household decisions in Ghana,”  examines this critical debate through the context of Kasoa, Ghana, a community of more than 70,000 people. The real-world data and testimonies of the report track with trends and concerns about private education that are playing out across the international development community.

The role of perception

At the crux of any conversation about privatized education in developing countries is the question: Why are so many parents choosing to enroll their children in private schools? The Ghana households report found that families in Kasoa perceive private education to be superior to that of government schools. This perception is primarily based on better infrastructure and teacher attendance in private schools. Tellingly, 83 percent of families in Kasoa have at least one child in private school, and 29 percent of all primary schools in Ghana are private.

Many private education critics argue that the high cost of private schools puts them out of reach for people in the lowest income bracket and creates a great burden for many others. But R4D’s report reveals that the question of school fees is far more complex. Although private schools are more expensive than public schools (household costs are 50 percent higher for private schools), public education in Ghana is not free. Extra fees, many of which are hidden, are widespread and comprise a significant proportion of household spending on education for publicly and privately enrolled students alike. School lunches were found to be the largest expense, but fees on uniforms, textbooks, exam fees, mandatory extra classes and parent teacher association contributions were all significant. In fact, publicly enrolled students were found to pay 93 percent of their costs through these extra fees, while students in privately enrolled classes report 74 percent of their education costs coming from fees.

There is also a question of the total cost to educate a student by all parties. Although the household costs of private schools are greater than those of public schools, these figures represent the entire cost to educate a student. In 2015, the government spent 6.74 billion Ghanaian cedis ($1.7 billion) on education. When this expenditure is combined with the extra fees that families reported having to pay in Kasoa, the total cost per student (to both households and the government) at a private school is very significantly lower than at a government one.

The information gap

The Ghana households report concludes that a lack of information (and sometimes of choice) constrains households’ abilities to make informed school choice decisions. Households often have incomplete data on schools’ effectiveness, and the Kasoa report finds that assessment information on learning outcomes is not readily available. Parents are also often unaware of financing or other scholarship options that are supposed to be available. The few support measures that are present are inconsistently applied, depending largely on the school head knowing the family and not based on any objective criteria. Parents are generally unaware of these subsidy measures, with very few respondents in the household survey mentioning them.

R4D’s report shows government schools have not kept pace with the needs of fast-growing peri-urban environments. Families perceive the quality of public schools to be lower than private institutions, and since extra fees exist for public and private schools alike, a significant majority are choosing a private education for their child. This reality points to the need for policy response: both public and private schools will have to make significant changes to increase access to quality education in developing countries.

Providing an informed choice

The recommendations included in the report require policymakers to act, but other stakeholders have an important role to play. Nonstate implementers can seek to adapt assessment frameworks that are currently in place in most public institutions. Current dissemination strategies used by public schools, such as the sharing of exam results in local newspapers and radio, can also be adopted.

Additionally, given the constraining effects that unpredictable fees were shown to have in our research, practitioners would be well served to explore additional fee variations, such as different intervals for payment (daily, weekly, monthly, termly) and different methods of payment, including mobile, voucher, and cash.

On a global scale

The trend is undeniable: Private education is playing a growing role in the developing world. In some regions of India, as many as 61 percent of students are enrolled in private schools. This month, private operators will take over 120 government schools in Liberia with the goal of creating a nationwide charter school system. Even Malala Yousafzai, the inspiring advocate for free and compulsory education for all, herself attended a low-cost private school.

The families we surveyed in Kasoa, like all of us, just want the best opportunities for their children. To them, education will not only enable their children to get a valuable job and give them independence but also enable them to gain the community’s respect and make informed life decisions.

“Life without education is worthless” said one participant.

“Because I couldn’t go, my child must go” explained another.

Rather than criticizing, or worse ignoring, the implications of such enrollment decisions, educators and policymakers must seek to understand their motivations with real-world data. Only then will constructive responses be possible, so that all families can make an informed choice about their children’s future.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the authors

Nicholasburnett ed
Nicholas Burnett

Nicholas Burnett leads the global education portfolio at Results for Development. His work centers on addressing tough challenges in the field of global education that are often neglected, especially using combinations of analysis, financing, model identification and connecting key stakeholders. Current areas of activity include innovation in education (through the Center for Education Innovations), education financing and innovative financing, the linkage between secondary education and skills for employment, out-of-school children and early childhood education.


Mayaziswiler ed
Maya Ziswiler

Maya Ziswiler is program director at the UBS Optimus Foundation. She joined the Foundation from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria where she was responsible for managing public-private partnerships such as (RED) or the MAC AIDS Fund to provide treatment, care and support for HIV/AIDS and malaria programs in Africa and the Caribbean. Previously, Maya worked for UNICEF in Peru, building partnerships to support early childhood development programs there.


Join the Discussion