The rapid growth of private schools has been one of the most important trends in developing countries over the past few years, with recent studies stating that they now account for over 20% of primary school enrollment. However, this phenomenon has been seen as controversial to many who claimed it is in conflict with the recognition of education being a human right, meaning that it should be state’s responsibility to provide the best education to everyone.
An enormous gap
As recently reported by The Economist, half of the children in South Asia and a third of those in Africa who complete four years of schooling cannot read properly, and in India 60% of 6 to 14 year olds cannot read at the level of a child who has finished two years of schooling. Although more kids worldwide are making their walk to school every morning, this does not mean they are actually learning something in class. In Guinea-Bissau, independent surveys suggest that only a quarter of schoolchildren are able to do even the most basic arithmetic and less than one-fifth can read and comprehend words. It is not just small African states but it is a global problem: in India only around one in four 10 and 11 year-olds (most of whom completed their primary education) can read a simple paragraph, perform division, tell time and handle money.
Absenteeism is another problem public schools face in many developing countries, given that as many as 25% of teachers do not even show up for work on a regular basis. In rural Indian schools, a quarter of teachers are absent, in Africa the World Bank found teacher-absenteeism rates of 15-25%, Pakistan recently discovered that it had over 8,000 non-existent schools and Sierra Leone spotted 6,000 “ghost” teachers.
Private schools are not a marginal story in developing countries as they are in the West and in many rural areas students at such schools are the majority. The failure of state education, combined with the shift in emerging economies from farming to jobs that need at least a basic education, has caused their boom. Across the developing world a fifth of primary-age children are enrolled in private schools, twice as many as 20 years ago: in Nigeria they were 26% in 2010, up from 18% in 2004, in India in 2013 the percentage was 29%, up from 19% in 2006, and in Liberia and Sierra Leone around 60% and 50% respectively of secondary-school enrollments are private.
Again in India, two-third of urban children and 28% of rural children attend private schools – the poorer districts have more rural private schools than the richer ones – and in Pakistan roughly one-third of children attend private primary schools as well. Parents spend about 10 cents a day on private education, which is for sure less than what it costs in developed countries but it’s a lot of money in a country where more than a half the population subsists with less than $2 a day. Keeping in mind that these schools are private and so have to charge fees, it would be obvious that they exclude the poorest. Though because of a voucher mechanism with which governments subsidise private schools, letting parents send their children at the school they prefer, public funding provides access for the most disadvantaged and boosts social inclusion.
Reasons to support the private sector
Private education in this context is good for three reasons. Firstly, it brings in money, not just from parents (even though, as said above, they are usually charged a very low fee – just cents per day – thanks to vouchers), but also from investors and venture philanthropists, some in search of profit. Secondly, the private sector has the ability to reduce costs and so are often much more cost effective than public ones as they are able to achieve results at a third of the cost (sometimes as little as $1 a week) and produce essentially similar or better results. The difference in cost is driven mostly by teacher salaries since private schools hire new and inexperienced teachers, paying them far less. Yet they produce the same results because they are held accountable and can be fired if they do not work properly. Finally, private schools are innovative and since technology has great – though yet mostly unrealised – potential in education, this could be important.
The question on private schools as a good alternative is still open and the answer to the problem is not necessarily mass privatisation. In any case, ruling out any engagement with the private sector on principle ignores millions of parents who want the best education for their children and most of the times cannot afford that.