Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Low fee private schools

Low-fee private schools have been increasingly heralded as a major answer for the poor quality of education in the Global South.  Many arguments have been put forward, from the lack of accountability in govt systems, through to the wonderful pro-poor impact entrepreneurial spirit that will save the world (and which only the for-profit entrepreneurs running such schools apparently have).  Hardly a week goes by without someone exalting operations such as Bridge International in Kenya, or citing James Tooley's "Beautiful Tree".

So, what does rigorous, objective, independent evidence actually show?

1.  Such schools do NOT systematically deliver better quality education once the characteristics of the families using such schools are controlled for.  This is known as selection bias, and basically means that children who go to these schools are typically from slightly better off families (perhaps richer, or slightly better educated parents, or healthier etc).  The children in govt schools are often poorer, less healthy, come from less educated families etc.  Once you control for this to make a like-for-like comparison of the educational impact of these schools, they show statistically more or less the same performance as govt schools.  So, the vast majority of these exorbitant claims of better quality are just plain WRONG.

(There is currently one working paper which seems to show some impact of the increase in private schools in Kenya, although the possibility of what are known as endogenous variables or omitted variables does remain.  The authors are pretty good, and some good economists have been involved in advising them - but I believe the paper is still in peer review, and the admission of this broader lack of evidence around such schools is clearly and fairly acknowledged in their opening preambles).

2.  What is statistically much more proven, though, is that these schools are definitely cheaper all-in to run that govt schools.  The biggest factor in this is teacher salaries - which are much higher in govt schools.  This is usually because of the political strength of teacher unions.  So what can be said about these schools is that they can provide the same quality of education in a much more cost-effective way for a society.  (But that perhaps says that the real problem is with the political strength of teacher unions).

3.  These schools do NOT reach the poorest.  The poorest families (who often also have more children) cannot afford even the low fees, which would represent an unviable percentage of their total income.  So the poorest are often left to go to the govt schools (which often become the "sink schools" in their areas - as even happens in many parts of London!).

A number of interesting points are raised by this.

1.  Why, in the absence of evidence, do the promoters of these schools still make such strong claims for outperformance?  Well, because they're promoters.  Ideology and interest are the prime motivation.  Bridge International's class sizes are already reaching 60, and tipped to reach 80!  And let's be clear, that is an operating model decision to make the profit targets - not a decision to improve the quality of education.  The only school systems in Africa where class sizes are higher are those bastions of quality: Central African Republic and Malawi (check for yourselves here).  Promoters with financial interests in these schools are of course going to claim they're great.  How about some rigorous, independent evidence then?

And I do wonder whether the ideology of marketisation is at work here.  Instead of working to strengthen the effectiveness of the state, they either undermine it or side-step it.  But in their own countries they would never dream of doing that.  The principle of public schooling is upheld and fully exploited in the US, France, UK (house-prices doing the socioeconomic filtration).

2.  There is, however, no denying that the quality of the government school systems generally sucks.  The systems are hugely unresponsive to parents - teacher (and headteacher) absenteeism is massively high, time on task is low, and many parents rightly dismiss the school management committees as toothless (with quality only going up when communities were trained to do it themselves).

3.  So what can be done?  Well, there are quite a few "pedagogical" improvements that are under way, such as teaching basic primary in mother tongue and introducing English (or French) gradually; or basic remedial techniques and so on.  And many are experimenting with different incentive structures - basically as part of institutional reform.

Institutional reform - including greater accountability - is certainly needed.  But I do wonder whether there is a middle ground between the private- and public- sector boosters.  Vouchers.  The state can, and should, have the responsibility to facilitate quality primary education to all.  But if it can be done in a way that maximises parental exit options, doesn't play into strong political economies of unions, and allows for the benefits of competition (league tables etc) then wouldn't that be better?  The state doesn't need to be the provider of education itself, but can certainly finance it.  And so long as that was accompanied by genuine equitable access (through non-discrimination laws or positive discrimination) and objective reporting of school performance, then maybe parents and families would finally have informed, competitive choice they could actually exercise?

It seems to me that the fabled philanthropists and impact investors would be better off trying to work towards such changes that would actually impact millions of children.  But that would detract from their "theories of change" (meaning: agenda to impose their world-view) and financial interests.

This may seem like a diatribe.  But it's then worth reading the points that the head of CGAP makes in this blog post - notice the specific call-out he makes of private schools and the references to actual demonstrable quality & impact... time you read yet more boosterism about low-fee private schools, just remember the emperor has at most a thong on, and it's not a pretty sight.


Anonymous said...

This is a very balanced view on the issue of low cost private schools. Yes, they do help in spreading education but the assumption that the market will take care of quality does not hold - it basically adds to the end result where the rich get the super exciting triple sundae and the poor are forced to make do with flavoured water!

Another important issue i wish to raise here is - yes the cost of low cost private schools is less because of low paid teachers. So are the promoters of 'low cost schools' saying that teachers don't need to be paid more? so teacher (under qualified and under paid) are 'good enough' for the struggling??

Do Small Steps Make A Difference? said...

Thank you for your kind feedback, and the nice metaphor. Yes, the market unfortunately tends to work to the Matthew Effect.

You touch upon some interesting aspects around both the composition and compensation of teachers. Rather than leave a long comment here, I'll try and post on that separately.