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Popularity of private schools across Africa requires sound policy response

In Kenya, the authorities struggle to keep track of low-fee non-government schools. Dai Kurokawa/EPA

Private schools are becoming more common around the world. The portion of primary school students enrolled in non-government schools globally stood at 16% in 2000. It had risen to 20% by 2009. The demand, particularly for low-fee private schools, is rising even in countries whose governments offer free primary education to all children.

The United Nations says it is concerned about this growth and the effects of privatising education in developing nations. It singles out Ghana and Uganda. In the case of Ghana it suggests that private education is developing fast:

… without the necessary supervision regarding the conditions of enrolment, the quality of education provided, and the transparency and efficiency in the management of education resources.

In Uganda, the UN believes that the rise of private education is “widening … the gap in access to quality education”. This, the organisation’s committee on economic, social and cultural rights says, disproportionately affects girls and children from poorer families.

Despite these concerns, parents will continue to seek out quality education for their children. They have the right to do this, particularly if they feel the government school system is not up to scratch. Private schools are not going anywhere – so it becomes important to devise a sound public policy that is appropriate to manage these institutions.

Why parents choose private schools

Our research in Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana revealed that there are both push and pull factors at play when it comes to parents choosing a school for their children.

On the push side, governments have tended to expand educational access without making the necessary investment in quality. Across Africa, public schools tend to be overcrowded. This means that teachers are often unresponsive to individual student problems.

Nor is free public education really free. We found that the cost of attending an unregistered non-government school (one which is not officially recognised by local authorities) in Ghana is 12% of the minimum wage. The cost of attending a registered non-government school was 20% the minimum wage. And because of the requirements for uniforms, books and desks, the cost of attending a free public school was 16% of the minimum wage.

Then there are pull factors. Low-fee non-government schools tend to be small and personal. Teachers are employed because they are known to the local community and because they are judged by the school director to be good teachers. Parents find it easier to receive an explanation about how their children are doing at any time.

These schools are also perceived to be safe. Because they are smaller and parents know the director and each teacher personally, there is more control over bad behaviour. Children are not bullied or sexually molested. They are not perceived to symbolise government policies and so, in areas where religious or ethnic killings are common, they are generally left in peace.

In terms of staffing, teachers in these schools are poorly paid but say they are grateful to have a job. Teachers in low fee non-government schools in sub-Saharan Africa, as in North America, are not unionised. They must perform to keep that job: teachers in the low-fee non-government school environment can be dismissed at any time if the record of their children’s performance is below expectations, which pushes them to produce better results.

Under the radar

In Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania, it emerged that governments don’t know exactly where low fee non-government schools are located – or, indeed, how many there are. The ministry of education in Western Kenya told us that there were no such schools in the area. We asked a hotel doorman where he sent his children to school and he pointed to a building down the street. Asking about similar local schools yielded a list of ten others.

The point is that low-fee non-government schools often exist under the radar and are not included in the national education statistics. This means that governments do not have accurate data on school enrolment, and health and welfare agencies cannot reach impoverished children deserving of nutrition supplements or public health interventions.

Some argue that both governments and foreign assistance agencies should focus their attention exclusively on improving the public education system. Others argue that private demand represents a key factor in a nation’s development and that government schools help stimulate innovation.

Our own feelings were a compromise. Certainly, work must be done to improve public education systems. But there is no reason why children in low fee non-government schools should remain outside a government’s purview. Steps should be taken to regulate the private schools. These should include:

  • Ensuring that these schools are registered with the education ministry without charge. Modest fees for certain license specialisations may be reasonable, but not for registration.

  • Ensure that poor children in the private system receive the same cash or nutrition benefits as their counterparts in the public system

  • Reduce the regulations, on class size, tuition, teacher training which inhibit non-government schools and allow them the freedom to experiment with how to deliver lessons in ways which improve on the public system

  • Ensure for-profit schools are registered separately from non-profit schools.

  • Give non-profit non-government schools tax exemption.

  • Governments might require that a minimum percentage of scholarships be available in high-fee non-government schools.

It would be useful, too, for governments and development agencies to expand the level of innovation with respect to non-government schools. Because of their extraordinary potential for mass innovation, governments should expand the opportunities for systems of for-profit primary schools (‘schools in a box’) as they would for tax-free zones and industrial parks deserving of public support on grounds of their high public good potential.

Low-fee non-government schools are a permanent part of achieving education for all. They should be treated as such.

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