Private Schooling for the Poor

July 15, 2010

I recently attended a talk by James Tooley on the subject of providing private school education in the poorest parts of the world.  My initial inclination, along with most other education policymakers, is to consider that private sector education is for the middle class and elites who can afford it, leaving those with lower incomes to the free education of the public system.  What James Tooley discovered was something completely different; that private schools operate and operate well in the poorest regions of the world.  His work over the past 10 years has been likened to a global detective story as he searches for these hitherto hidden schools.

James Tooley has found low-fee private schools in slum communities in India (Hyderabad), Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and China.  In most cases, a significant proportion of the student population was enrolled in these schools, many of which were not recognized by their education departments.  In many cases, private school enrolments were increasing due to parent dissatisfaction with the public system.

James has performed tests on the school children and found that the students in the private  schools were performing better, even though teachers in the public systems could be getting paid double or up to 5 times more than those in the private schools.  The main reasons for the differences were the lack of accountability in public schools, absenteeism of teachers and poor teaching standards.  Teachers in private schools often came from the local community whereas public school teachers may feel aggrieved at being moved to a school in a poor area.

This work is incredibly important for meeting Millennium Development goals which may be under-reported if many students are actually attending schools that are off the radar for statisticians.  It’s also important for encouraging improvements in the public system by providing good competition for student places.  The key point he found is that the poorest of the poor are willing to fork out a small amount of money each day for their children’s education if they see it as having benefit beyond that of a free public education.