I first discovered for myself the phenomenon of private schools for the poor while consulting for the International Finance Corporation, the private finance arm of the World Bank, in Hyderabad, India, in 2000.
I’d just published an argument for privatization of education, Reclaiming Education, and was wrestling with the criticism from even sympathetic readers that what I’d argued might be good for the middle classes, or richer countries, but what about the poor, especially in poor countries? That criticism bothered me. I knew from my reading of E. G. West’s book Education and the State that the poor in Victorian England were largely provided for by private education, before the state got involved. Why wouldn’t the same be true of the poor today? Out of curiosity, I left my work—looking at private schools for the elite and middle classes—and took an autorickshaw into the slum areas behind the imposing 16th‐century Charminar in the center of the Old City. And to my surprise, I found private schools on almost every street corner. Inspired by that, I grew to know many of the school owners, teachers, parents, and children; I learned of their motivations and difficulties and their successes and requirements.
Since then I have found private schools in battle‐scarred buildings in Somaliland and Sierra Leone; in the shanty town of Makoko built on stilts above the Lagos lagoons in Nigeria; scattered among the tin and cardboard huts of Africa’s largest slum, Kibera, Kenya; in the teeming townships perched on the shoreline of Accra, Ghana; in slums and villages across India; among the “floating population” in Beijing; and in remote Himalayan villages in China. Indeed, I have yet to find a developing country environment where private schools for the poor don’t exist. My teams have combed poor areas—slums or shanty towns in and around the major cities and villages inhabited by peasant farmers and fishermen—going down every lane and alleyway, asking people in marketplaces and on the streets where the poor are sending their children to school. And while we’ve been conducting the censuses, we’ve been finding out as much as possible about the schools, what their facilities are like, whether teachers are teaching, building up a comprehensive picture of the private schools and comparing them with the government alternative. Then, most important of all, we’ve been comparing the achievement of students in the private and public schools serving the poor areas; testing a stratified random sample of 4,000 children in each country, chosen equally from registered private, unregistered private, and government schools; and using advanced statistical techniques to control for as many background variables as we can, to find out whether the poor are better served by public or private education. Although the study is ongoing and additional findings are anticipated, there are seven themes that have emerged from the data that I can report on in general terms.
Seven Features of Private Education for the Poor
First, there are startling facts about the private‐sector provision of schools for the poor. In each of the poor areas studied in detail, we’ve found that a large majority of the schools serving the poor are private, with either a large majority or a substantial minority of poor parents taking the private option.
Second, contrary to expectations, we find that the majority of private schools are run not as philanthropic endeavors but as businesses. Those private schools are created largely by local entrepreneurs responding to the needs in their communities. In general, after studying the reported income and expenditure of the private schools, we can see that they are profitable institutions—which of course helps explain why there are so many of them—with the vast majority of income coming from school fees rather than, as some might expect, philanthropic donations.
Third, there are large differences between the pay and commitment of the teachers in public and private schools serving the poor. Private school teachers are recruited locally from the communities served, unlike public school teachers who are bused in from outside. Teachers in private schools are paid considerably less than are teachers in the government schools. Yet the private schools do not in general suffer from teacher shortages, suggesting that the market rate for teachers is considerably lower than that set by teachers’ unions in the public schools. When our researchers have called unannounced in the classroom, in every case they have found significantly more absenteeism among the public school teachers than among those in the private schools. And when teachers are present, the researchers found much higher levels of teaching activity in the private than in the public schools.
Fourth, we have found considerable statistically significant differences in inputs between the public and private schools. The pupil/teacher ratio is lower in the private than in the public schools—with the unregistered private schools usually having the lowest of all—and school facilities such as libraries, toilets, and drinking water are usually better provided in the private than in the public schools.
Fifth, there are differences between countries in the relative costs of public and private schooling. In countries where public schooling is entirely free at the point of delivery—India for instance—clearly, the private schools cost more for parents. But in other countries—China and Ghana, for instance—where public schools charge low fees or “levies,” we find that sometimes the private schools are undercutting public schools, because the really poor can’t afford the public option. What makes the private schools financially attractive is that they allow the parents to pay on a daily basis—perhaps 10 cents a day—rather than to pay for the full term up‐front as they must for the public schools, even though this might work out more cheaply if they could afford to pay it. In Kenya, the government has recently introduced “free primary education,” but our interviews with parents point to many “hidden costs” of public schools, such as the requirement for full uniforms, which mean that, in practice, private slum schools often turn out to be less expensive.
Sixth, private school owners themselves are very much aware of the plight of the poorest of the poor: for those parents who are too poor to send their children to private school, or as an aid to those children who have been orphaned or who are from large families, the school entrepreneurs themselves—in nearly 20 percent of all places in one Indian sample and nearly 10 percent in the Nigerian sample—offer free or subsidized scholarships.
Finally, our first results on the achievement of pupils show that the private schools substantially outperform the public schools in mathematics and English, after controlling for the school choice process and for a range of background factors. All this is for considerably lower per pupil costs. If our results withstand scrutiny, then it would seem that the poor are making sensible choices by sending their children to private, rather than public, schools.
Three Surprising Areas of Agreement with Development Experts
The odd thing is, it turned out that my “discovery” was not a discovery at all but a phenomenon that was actually quite widely known, at least by some key figures in development circles. But no one seemed to be drawing the obvious conclusion. Instead, those influential in development circles seemed to be engaged, if not in a conspiracy of silence, then at least in a refusal to explore the implications of where the evidence seemed to lead. In development circles, all were repeating the same refrain that “education for all” required government intervention, assisted by international agencies; the presence of private schools for the poor was irrelevant.
Many development experts seem to have no problem accepting three propositions that seem to me to lead in an altogether different direction from the one in which the experts see them heading:
First, it seems to be widely accepted that private schools for the poor are burgeoning. The Oxfam Education Report, for instance, the Bible of many development education experts, looking at evidence from a range of developing countries, challenges the “misplaced” notion that private schools service the needs of only “a small minority of wealthy parents” and points to the “lower cost private sector” that has emerged to “meet the demands of poor households.” One of its sources of evidence is the Probe Report on education in villages in five northern Indian states. That report says that “even among poor families and disadvantaged communities, one finds parents who make great sacrifices to send some or all of their children to private schools, so disillusioned are they with government schools.
Second, among the same experts, it seems to be common currency that the reason why poor parents are sending their children to private schools is, at least in part, the gross inadequacies of state education, especially teacher absenteeism. The Oxfam Education Report states clearly that it is the “inadequacies of public education systems” that have “driven many poor households into private systems.” Those inadequacies include “inadequate public investment,” causing staff and pupil demoralization and the provision of poor facilities. Most important, however, says the report, is the problem of teacher absenteeism and commitment. The Probe team reported that when their researchers called unannounced on their large random sample of government schools, in only 53 percent was there any “teaching activity” going on at all! In fully 33 percent the head teacher was absent. The report gives some touching examples of parents who are struggling against the odds to keep children in school but whose children are clearly learning next to nothing. The Probe team observed that in the government schools, “generally, teaching activity has been reduced to a minimum, in terms of both time and effort.” Significantly, “this pattern is not confined to a minority of irresponsible teachers—it has become a way of life in the profession.”
Those problems were not found in private schools serving the poor. When the Probe researchers called unannounced on their random sample of private unaided schools in the villages, “feverish classroom activity” was taking place. Indeed, private schools for the poor, the Oxfam report says, sometimes “offer cheaper and better‐quality alternatives to State provision.”
So what is the secret of success in the private schools? A third proposition seems to gain widespread agreement among the development experts. The Probe Report put it succinctly: