By Lee Crawfurd (@leecrawfurd), Research Associate at the Center for Global Development and Susannah Hares (@fihi_mafihi) from Ark.
This week we attended a meeting with an INGO's senior staff and education specialists. We were there, along with a couple of other external invitees, to help them think through their position towards private schools and fees in education. It was a fascinating conversation and we are both grateful for the opportunity to participate. We were asked for our recommendations and takeaways, which we've summarized in this blog. The meeting was conducted under Chatham House rules, so we are only sharing our own opinions, not those expressed by others.
The starting point: move beyond ideology
There are ideologues on both sides. On the one hand there are the market fundamentalists who believe government is incompetent and irrelevant, and that education provision should be entirely in the hands of the private sector. On the other hand, there are those who think that private delivery is wrong in principle and that private schools should be closed down. What is clear is that we should steer away from the ideologues and look for the pragmatic, outcomes-orientated centre ground.
A word on typology: in this sector, definitions are important. Our definition of the private sector is inclusive; encompassing all non-state providers: mission, NGO and community schools, for-profit and non-profit schools. It includes the likes of BRAC who run many thousands of "private" schools and have had a significant impact on the education system in Bangladesh and many other countries. Yet, we should note that despite being one of the largest non-state providers in the world, BRAC has not been subject to ideological scrutiny by global actors in the same way that other private school chains have been.
The policy options
So where is that pragmatic centre-ground? The starting principle should be that the government is the duty bearer for education: government should be the main financer, regulator, quality assurer and guarantor of quality education for all. But this does not mean government must be the sole provider of education.
With that principle in mind, the interesting question is not "what stance should we take towards private schools", but "what should we do given the reality". The reality is that millions of low-income children do attend private schools: in the cities of Lahore, Karachi, and Delhi, almost three quarters of primary pupils are in private schools, in Lagos it is more than half. Millions of parents with very low incomes have chosen private schools for their children. They are choosing to pay school fees rather than opt for the free public alternative. This is a phenomenal trend and policy options need to be seen in this context. So what are the policy options?
• Shut down private schools. This is not a pragmatic policy option.
• Ignore private schools and the children enrolled in them. Focus on improving the public system, even if a minority of children are actually enrolled in those schools. In many instances, this is the option chosen by bilateral funders and a number of INGOs.
• Don't provide financial support directly to private schools or firms, but improve the market that they operate in. For example, providing clear regulation, providing the public good of independent information about school quality, fixing the market failures that hinder the development of better markets for financial services or better quality teacher training services. Jishnu Das has advocated for this approach in Pakistan and elsewhere; DFID's DEEPEN is experimenting in Lagos State, Nigeria; as is IDP Foundation's Rising Schools programme in Ghana.
• Provide public financing for privately managed schools, either through vouchers that follow the student (for example the Philippines' voucher programme), through subsidies for private schools (for example Uganda's universal secondary education (USE) programme), or through contracting the management of public schools to private providers (for example UK academies and US charter schools).
The role of public private partnerships in education
This last approach is being considered by a number of governments, with some interesting experiments underway (for example in the Western Cape, South Africa). But it is a relatively new policy area and there is not yet an extensive base of evidence. Ark's forthcoming rigorous review on public-private partnerships in developing countries found just 22 studies that provide robust evidence on this issue. One of these is Lee's paper, which looks at progress made by children in public, PPP and private secondary schools in Uganda.
Around 25 percent of secondary schools in Uganda are PPP schools, funded through the USE programme. This study found that publicly-subsidized private schools are not better managed and don't perform better than regular government schools. However, digging deeper into one network of secondary schools run by PEAS, a foreign-owned non-profit chain of schools with its own robust accountability and performance management framework, shows it performs significantly better than government or private counterparts. This suggests that a PPP alone may not deliver better outcomes, but that privately managed schools with strong accountability and oversight (ideally by government) do have the potential to deliver better learning gains - as well as potentially opening up space for conversations about different models of management and governance in the rest of the sector.
Our recommendations for the INGO
So, back to the meeting we attended this week. What are our recommendations?
First and foremost, it should reaffirm its principles: that education should be free; that government should be the guarantor but not necessarily the sole provider of education.
Second, it should focus its education reform efforts on setting high expectations for all children and improving accountability for all schools, whether public or private. School inspections, good data, robust assessments: these are all critical components of a good system accountability and should apply to public and private schools alike.
Third, in contexts in which substantial numbers of children already do attend private schools, the INGO could see if there are any clear market failures in the private sector that could be improved by government or NGO intervention. For example, training of teachers, or addressing information asymmetries through better community engagement.
Fourth, where public-private partnerships are planned or in place, the INGO should challenge government and private sector partners to place equity and quality at the heart of any programme. The UK academy programme started out under the Labour government with a very clear objective: to turn around the 200 worst performing secondary schools in the most deprived areas. This laser sharp focus on closing the achievement gap between rich and poor has changed the conversation about education in the UK: a school cannot be rated as "outstanding" anymore unless it can show it is delivering learning gains for children on free school meals.
Finally, and perhaps most radical of all, the INGO could set up its own network of non-profit PPP schools in a developing country. Demonstrating what high quality education for disadvantaged communities looks like would be a significant value add to any system, particularly if delivered through a PPP with the sustainability and public accountability that should bring. The experience of PEAS schools in Uganda shows that it is possible for an NGO to deliver better management practices and improve performance, at the same cost as local operators and with the inbuilt sustainability that comes from domestic government financing. And Ark's own experience of running a high performing network of non-profit PPP schools in the UK shows how much an organisation can learn from actually running a set of schools, and how much more effective advisors to governments this can make them. Finally, establishing more non-profit providers in this space might calm some of the heated rhetoric around some of the international for-profit providers.
INGOs like this one with clear principles based on equity, access and quality, blended with hard-nosed pragmatism, could play a transformative role in fragile and struggling education systems. An approach to the private sector driven by outcomes not ideology, rooted in the principle that the government is the duty bearer of education, could help refocus national and global debates on how we collectively ensure that every child has access to a quality education. We applaud this organisation for addressing this tricky issue head on and we encourage them to be bold and evidence-based as they define their approach and policy position toward the private sector in education.