Want to improve education for the world’s poorest? Here's how

Private schools in developing countries achieve better learning outcomes than their government counterparts, a new government study has found.

The Department for International Development’s report looks at schooling in 27 countries from Afghanistan to Nepal, Sierra Leone to Yemen, taking evidence from numerous smaller studies.

It found that teaching is considerably better in private schools, and that learning and delivery are improved by the private sector.

In certain contexts, private schools are reducing the gender gap and growing parent decision-making, which is fuelled by local networks and driving changes in where children go to school and what those schools are like.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, evidence on state regulation, if found, is mostly negative, with focuses heavy on inputs rather than educational outputs.

Other less clear-cut concerns - and this is to pick out but a few - include the fact that teachers’ pay can be lower in private schools. This is, of course, something to be acknowledged, but isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Embarking on the slippery slope of expecting a certain or fixed pay for staff can throw up serious problems (look no further than the UK).

The problem with so much debate around education - and it’s never been truer than in the British education system - is invoking normative “things ought to be like this” sentiment instead of descriptive “this is how things are”. Focusing on the latter can, as with anything, give a better picture of how things are emerging. In this case, how people are choosing to teach and have their children taught.

Then comes geographical reach (i.e. supply). The report shows how some of the world’s poorest are losing out to more affluent areas when it comes to private education. This isn’t something that has to be altered by state intervention, though. It’s a case of spreading knowledge on allocation and cooperating to spread school models and capitalise on economies of scale to serve poorer areas.

Finally, the report highlights that the evidence on whether competition drives up the quality of public schools, or depletes it by encouraging better-off students to exit the state sector, is “sparse and contested”. Quality is, at the end of the day, measured in a variety of ways, and is not solely - or even partially - determined by the wealth of pupils.

The issue the report authors have had in putting it together is a paucity of examples. They’re still working anecdotally, and although individuals like James Tooley and Sugata Mitra are spearheading the collation of data, these are still relatively early days.

James Tooley, author of The Beautiful Tree and personal investor in private schools in developing countries, has argued tirelessly for low-cost private schools, with bigger classes, cheaper buildings, less experienced teachers and more technology. And they wouldn’t just succeed in developing countries, they’d work in the UK too, charging each pupil less than £2,000 a year and, in theory, able make a profit. 

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