Commentary

Aid for Education: Ask the World’s Poor What They Want

British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown recently committed the UK government to spending at least US$15 billion on aid for education in Africa over the next ten years. It is an article of faith to him that the only way the poor in Africa can be helped is by massive injections of aid. But has he ever bothered to ask poor Africans what they want?

I’ve been doing that for the last three years, researching some of the poorest slums in African countries — Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria—that have all followed the Chancellor’s lead and introduced free primary state education. Ask parents what they think of the state schools and they’ll tell you that children in them are “abandoned.” They see huge classes — up to 80 or more — and hear of teachers who don’t turn up and, if they do turn up, spend their time sleeping or knitting or drinking.

They don’t think plugging more money into state schools is a prudent use of resources.

These poor parents have not been waiting helplessly for the munificence of Western politicians. My research teams have found that most are sending their children to private schools, run by educational entrepreneurs who charge very low fees—perhaps $3-$5 per month, well within reach of those on the poverty-level income of $1 per day. These private schools, my research has shown, outperform the government schools, at a fraction of the teacher cost.

Take Makoko, for instance, the shanty town visible as you drive across the low viaduct to Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria, where young men punt and women paddle dug-out canoes along the narrow canals between the wooden huts built on stilts sunk into the lagoon.

Nigeria introduced its free primary education act in 1976 and, since then, state education has been backed by huge dollops of international aid. But it’s a dispiriting experience visiting the three massive concrete public primary schools on the edge of Makoko. When I visited, announced, so the school had had time to prepare, in one classroom a young teacher was fast asleep at his desk. Not even the boisterous welcoming chant of the class roused him. In other classrooms, about 100 children sat, doing nothing, some also sleeping, with one girl washing the windows. There was not much learning taking place.

But proceed beyond the public schools into Apollo Street, too muddy for a vehicle, where you’ll need to pick your way carefully through the mud and excrement and piled rubbish, and you’ll find a pink plastered building, with colorful pictures of children’s toys and animals, with “Ken Ade Private School” emblazoned across the top of the wall.

Ken Ade Private School, owned by Mr. Bawo Sabo Elieu Ayeseminikan (known to everyone as “B.S.E.”), is one of 32 unregistered private schools in Makoko, not on any official list of schools, so unknown to government and the international aid agencies. In these private schools, call unannounced and you’ll always find teaching taking place — sometimes up to 5pm in the evening. The fees might be about $4 per month — perhaps 10 percent of a typical fisherman’s monthly earnings.

Not all children pay fees, however. B.S.E. tells me there are 25 of the 200 children in his school who come for free. “If a child is orphaned, what can I do? I can’t send her away,” he says. And throughout the 32 schools in Makoko, I found a similar story — up to 10 percent of all places provided free for orphans and the poorest of the poor.

In poor communities like Makoko in Lagos State, my research estimated that 75 percent of all school children are attending private schools, with more children in unregistered private schools—off the official radar — than in public schools.

But government officials are disdainful about poor parents who send their children to private schools. One senior official told me they were “ignoramuses” seeking a “fake status symbol”—saying this without irony, standing by her brand-new Mercedes.

The private slum schools were a threat to educational standards and should be closed down, she said.

Was she correct? My researchers tested more than 3,000 children, roughly one third each from government, registered private and unregistered private schools, using standardized tests in math, English and social studies. We found the private schools — even the unregistered private schools like Ken Ade in Makoko — outperformed the government schools in all subjects. The mean math score advantage over government schools was about 15 and 19 percentage points respectively in private registered and unregistered schools, while in English it was 23 and 30 percentage points.

But, a further twist, the private schools outperform the government schools for considerably less money. Even if we ignore the massive costs of the state bureaucracy, we find the private schools are doing better for about a quarter of teacher salary costs.

Free primary education in Nigeria isn’t much for the poor to get excited about. But my research teams found precisely the same story in Ghana, which started the process to free primary education in 1996, in India, where free primary education goes back to 1986, and in Kenya, where free primary education was introduced to much acclaim and US$55 million of World Bank aid in 2003. In poor urban and peri-urban areas of these countries my researchers found the majority of poor schoolchildren attend private schools that outperform the state schools, all with lower salaries for teachers.

Not only is Gordon Brown backing the wrong horse, he is also missing a trick: private schools for the poor demonstrate a grass-roots solution to the problem of achieving universal basic education by 2015 — without the huge dollops of aid supposedly required.

If so many children are in private unregistered schools, then education for all turns out to be much easier to achieve than currently believed. Dramatically, in Lagos State, Nigeria, the experts tell us that 50 percent of school-aged children are out of school. My research shows it is only 26 percent — the remainder in private unregistered schools, off the official radar.

This is a good news story to be celebrated. The people of Makoko are on to something. Parents know that by paying fees they keep the school accountable to them. If you ask, they’ll tell you that free primary education is entirely the wrong solution to their needs and aspirations.

James Tooley is professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle and director of the E.G. West Centre.