Low-Fee Private Schools and Development: What Do We Really Know?

Low-Fee Private Schools and Development: What Do We Really Know?

by Prachi Srivastava

I have been researching low-fee private schooling for nearly a decade and a half. No one could be happier that the issue is finally receiving the high-level attention it deserves, with discussions in development circles and an Economist cover story in August.

When I first started the research it concerned me that there wasn’t much academic interest in the topic. But now I’m worried for different reasons. Why? Even though we have more evidence than before (albeit concentrated in a handful of countries), broader discussions and policy action do not reflect the findings.

I recently experienced first-hand how evidence can get lost in translation when I was interviewed by The Economist for that cover story and briefing. After I described the nuances of the evidence on affordability, achievement, and the development of the sector, I was dismayed by the certainty of claims on the superiority of private provision.

Partly the problem is that, in an age of quick fixes and silver bullets, we are uncomfortable when evidence does not point to black or white conclusions. But there are also confusions over what we actually mean by low-fee private schooling.

In the early days of research on the sector, the term, low-fee private schooling, did not exist. I coined it. I used it for my academic study in India to refer to independent schools charging a maximum monthly tuition fee not exceeding the rate a daily wage labourer earned in a day. Crucially, I did not use the term low-fee to mean fees would be considered low by all, especially by the poorest of the poor.

So does the research really suggest low-fee private schooling offers the best chance for the poorest?

Evidence shows that the most insecure households cannot afford the ‘low’ fees charged.

Here are some findings based on my global review of the research, covering countries such as Ghana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Pakistan and Uganda.

Affordable, for whom?

Affordability is not a one-time event. For the most disadvantaged households and daily wage earners, it is linked to insecurities related to seasonal migration for work, health, rising costs of food, among other issues. Furthermore, daily wage earnings are volatile, and most households have more than one child to school.

Evidence shows that the most insecure households and most daily wage households cannot afford the “low” fees charged. Furthermore, fees and costs are not the same thing. Tuition fees only constitute one part of the total out-of-pocket costs, which also include books, transportation, testing fees, uniforms and can run anywhere from 3-30% of household income per child.

In the face of all this some bargain or negotiate lower fees. In cases where those parents are successful, schools acquiesce because they don’t want to lose pupils, since having a full school projects an image of popularity that helps to attract more parents.

Of course, not all parents are successful. And those who aren’t, exit, usually to the state sector.

Equality, who gets left out?

Given the full costs of low-fee private schools, most disadvantaged households have to make difficult decisions about whom to send. This choice most often favours boys and aggravates gender inequities. Children from ethnic minority, lower-caste groups, and the bottom-20%-earning households have limited access.

Children disadvantaged by location also tend to get left out. Emerging work in India shows that private schools tend to be in urban and rural areas that have relatively better public infrastructure (e.g. access to roads, electricity). Private schools do not tend to reach children living in the poorest or most difficult-to-reach areas, and if they do, are not sustainable over time. If these children have longer-term access to a school, it tends to be to a state school.

Quality, are low-fee private schools really better?

The evidence is inconclusive.

No study shows a universal private-school achievement advantage for every group of private school students, in every subject, across all contexts. Furthermore, private-school advantage, where it exists, tends to diminish or disappear when background characteristics are controlled for. This is also evident in a randomised control trial, often dubbed the gold standard of research, in Andhra Pradesh, India. Crucially, the bulk of studies shows low attainment overall in government and private sectors. Impacts on higher order skills, like creativity and critical thinking, are not known.

Evidence is mixed regarding school infrastructure. Low-fee private schools are better than state schools on some inputs, and worse on others.

Overwhelmingly, studies show that the main way low-fee private schools keep costs low is to hire unqualified, short-term contract teachers and pay them extremely low wages, sometimes below the minimum wage. The key is to recruit young, local women since they are “the cheapest source of labour” as is shown from research in Pakistan. This raises serious broader issues about the training of teachers and the potential exploitation of the female labour market, particularly where teaching is one of the only viable forms of employment for young women.

In most countries, private schools are meant to go through a process of recognition once they meet basic standards. However, research in India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan shows, private schools may gain recognition through corruption and bribery. Delayed inspections, lost forms, postponed committee meetings, cumbersome paperwork, and complex land registration requirements, prompt many owners to preemptively open their schools without recognition, operate underground, or bribe officials without meeting standards. This undermines the education sector as a whole.

The growth of the low-fee private sector has been widely attributed to dysfunctional state schools. But state failure should not be tacitly accepted. The fact remains that the majority of the most disadvantaged children in low-income countries continue to access low quality state schools. And all of us, including the private sector, have a role to play in making sure they get better.

This piece was originally published on Oxfam’s Poverty to Power blog. Read the full version here.

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