Low cost private schools in the developing world are a bad thing – yes or no?

06 Mar 2017 |

Welcome to the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017 Debate Chamber. This debate will see both sides argue over the benefits and dangers of private schools in the developing world. But what case might each side make at Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai? 

When people in the developed world talk about private schools they tend to think of highly expensive and exclusive institutions, renowned for their exclusive families, endless resources, and lower quality of teacher training .

However, the global reality of private education is a world away from the realm of the elites.

It is estimated that there are now one million private schools in developing nations typically charging just a few dollars per month, and this number looks likely to grow.

In India in 2013, for example, 29% of children were taught in non-government schools, up from 19% in 2006. Across Nigeria 26% of primary-age children were in private schools in 2010, up from 18% in 2004.

Private schooling’s growth has attracted hostility from teachers, governments and NGOs, with lack of regulation and accountability leading its detractors’ concerns.

At the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017 different sides will argue the opposing views that low cost private schools in developing nations are either something to be celebrated and supported, or denounced and stopped. Here’s how they might go about mounting their cases.

The case for low cost private schooling

  1. Governments are failing to meet demand

The best argument that can perhaps be made for low cost private schooling is that they represent the market meeting a need not being met by governments. Despite publicly-funded schools being available in many developing nations, the reality is that these schools can often be overcrowded and can suffer from problems such as corruption and absenteeism.

A study by the World Bank found that teachers in state-run primary schools in some African countries were absent 15-25% of the time. Since 2009 Sierra Leone has struck 6,000 fake teachers off its payroll by checking identities before paying salaries, and a national survey in Pakistan recently found that over 8,000 state schools did not actually exist.

  1. Private schools are local and innovative

Privately run schools tend to be smaller and more rooted in local communities, with tin hut schools often appearing in the slums of major cities. Teachers are employed because they are known to local people and, unlike their public school counterparts, aren’t unionised, and therefore tend to be more results-driven.

Equally, some low cost private schools are proving a fertile testing ground for innovative teaching methods. The best example of this are the practices employed by teachers at schools belonging to the Bridge International Academies chain.

Bridge has 100,000 pupils spread across Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda and India and aims to teach 10 million children—the size of Britain’s pupil population—within the next decade. It is funded by tuition fees, investors and by donations from wealthy individuals like Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg.

Teachers in Bridge Academies use tablets to follow lesson plans set by academics in Boston. The tablets are monitored to ensure a teacher has swiped through the whole lesson, introducing a level of standardisation and accountability that can be rare in both private and public schools in developing nations.

The case against low cost private schooling

  1. Private schools are unregulated

While Bridge Academies may employ some innovative teaching methods, not everybody is a fan.

The chain is facing opposition in Kenya and Uganda where teachers’ unions there criticise Bridge for hiring unlicensed teachers. In Uganda the government has said that it would shut Bridge’s 63 schools on the grounds that the company expanded without receiving permission from the Ministry of Education.

These instances of opposition to one chain of private schools betray a wider concern over private schools’ lack of regulation and accountability.

For example, it is difficult to measure these schools’ effectiveness on pupils’ progress, as children in private schools tend to come from families more motivated and equipped to support their educational progress.

Even supposedly solid outcomes such as exam results are called into question. For example, some private schools are accused of entering their best students into one exam centre, and less able pupils into a separate exam, then only publicising the high-scoring results.

  1. They reinforce social divides

In singling out the growth of private education in Ghana, Chile and Uganda, the United Nations warned that the rapid growth of unregulated private education in many cases represented a violation of human rights.

As well as potentially reinforcing social divides, there are also fears that low cost private schools reinforce gender divides: with limited incomes, poorer families are more likely to focus their investment in education on boys rather than girls.

The answer is…

While organisations like the United Nations make the case for more scrutiny and regulation of low cost private schools, supporters of these institutions argue that in many developing nations, more regulations simply offer another excuse for unscrupulous government officials to demand bribes.

The best compromise may be a hybrid approach that allows such schools to thrive, but with an element of government involvement that can help establish proper accountability.

In 2015 the Global Education & Skills Forum stimulated discussion about ‘The Business of Education’.

In 2017 the Debate Chamber will apply this thinking to whether low cost schools can create ‘real’ global citizens.

Which side will prevail? Find out by attending the Debate Chamber at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2017, taking place in Dubai on 18th and 19th March. Find out more here.