It was 15 years ago that James Tooley first drew attention to the significant number of very disadvantaged children in developing countries attending private, low fee schools rather than the free (or otherwise cheaper), public alternatives. But even now, nobody knows exactly how many of these so-called Low Fee Private Schools (LFPS) are out there – largely because so many of them remain un-recognised and uncertified by governments.
However, Annual Status of Education (ASER) Pakistan estimates that 59% of children in urban areas and 23% in rural areas were enrolled in private schools in 2012; Pratham estimates that in India 28.3% of children in rural areas were enrolled in private schools in 2012.
Advocates of low fee private schools tend to blame the public sector for their proliferation, arguing that parents are voting with their feet. Tales of overcrowded classrooms, absent teachers and unresponsive state schools have started to emerge. In contrast, the ‘promise’ of LFPS, as MacPherson (2014) puts it, rests on their supposed ability to expand access and increase choice for the poor, and raise quality not just within the sector but across the system as a whole as a result of increasing competition. However, MacPherson’s study among others has found that this ‘promise’ does not necessarily stand up to scrutiny.
In fact, critics have pointed out that relying on charging the disadvantaged for their education can exacerbate income and gender inequalities. Independent research evidence – and there is a lot of so-called evidence in this field that is not independent – is in fact mixed or inconclusive on the issues of the quality, equity and sustainability of LFPS. Furthermore, the label ‘LFPS’ covers an enormous variety of school types, fee levels and forms of educational experience. This does not facilitate straightforward aggregations and comparisons.
In our research into LFPS in sub-Saharan Africa, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, we draw attention to the huge diversity within the sector in terms of both scale and ambition and the ways in which they are funded, created and sustained. By exploring some overlooked aspects of LFPS, based on different financing models and how the schools operate in relation to other providers and to state policy in general, we call for a more sophisticated approach to the policy debate and for more careful scrutiny of existing LFPS research. Our study raises important questions about the portrayal of these schools as a homogeneous category in policy rhetoric and discourse.
A growing number of policy makers and organisations are supporting the expansion of LFPS, through both funding and advocacy. LFPS generally, and chains like Bridge International Academies in Kenya and Omega schools in Ghana in particular, are getting coverage around the world in international conferences and seminars, publications, reports and websites, where they are portrayed as innovative, scalable and sustainable solutions to some of developing countries’ most entrenched social problems. The chains are being picked up by development organisations and government aid agencies as examples of ‘what works’ and new lines of funding have followed.
Chains of LFPS like Bridge and Omega do not represent the market as a whole but make up a very particular, and very small proportion of schools within the sector. Bridge is an impressive market phenomenon that has secured a formidable funding base that includes Pearson, CDC (the UK government-owned development finance institution) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and some of the world’s largest venture capital firms. With over 300 schools in Kenya and immediate plans to expand to Nigeria and India, the company operates as a corporate enterprise with headquarters in Nairobi and a specialist academic branch in Boston, USA, that designs and monitors the curriculum.
Highly standardised processes for teaching and management have enabled the company to grow quickly and benefit from economies of scale. But the levels of funding and methods of BIA are in stark contrast to those of self-financed, standalone schools operated by local entrepreneurs that make up the overwhelming majority of the LFPS sector. In addition, there are other business models in play including micro-finance and Public Private Partnership schools. The LFPS phenomenon is not unitary but highly segmented both in terms of organisation and offering, and markets, and even within the chains there is also a significant diversity among the providers.
As noted, support to LFPS is rooted in the idea of an education market which introduces diversity and raises quality by putting competitive pressure on government schools. But the debate is separating quality and equity from actual contexts, and lacks a sense of how real markets work in real contexts and in relation to funding structures.
Real markets are local markets. There is a crucial need to understand how competition works in specific settings, to know more about the nature of competition, the range and availability of schools in particular places and who attends different schools, the possible impact of some families seeking advantage for their own children over others — and not just perception of quality.
Unless we are happy for policy action to be driven by ideology and market fantasy, the debate about the role and contribution of LFPS needs to be informed by more little stories that tell us how these schools function in real settings rather than the big stories which draw on aggregate data from diverse kinds of schools in very different contexts.
This blog post is based on insights from the Leverhulme Trust funded research, New Philanthropy, Education Policy and Governance conducted by Stephen Ball, Carolina Junemann and Diego Santori.