On public v/s private schools for developing countries

column by Lee on the Guardian blog today raised a bit of heat – apparently in reaction to Lee’s support for private schools. He says:

Where private schools perform more strongly is partly due to the calibre of students enrolled, but there is also careful statistical work (pdf) andexperimental evidence that adjusts for the background of students to allow for a fair comparison, and the results stand up. These results are not just confined to test scores – a study in Pakistan shows that students in private schools have better “civic values”, meaning they know more about national history, are more pro-democratic, and less gender biased


Private schools may be cost effective, but by charging fees it is true that they do exclude the poorest. But this is exactly where public money can potentially come in: subsidising places for the poorest by providing vouchers.

and finally,

Should we not engage at all with private schools? Not share lessons on what works, even though they cater for many poor children? The debate about whether all or most of DfID funding should go to working with children in private schools is not on the table and neither should it be.

The question is whether any DfID money should be used in this way. To rule out any engagement with the private sector on principle is to ignore the voices of millions of parents, and is truly making decisions based on ideology rather than evidence

Here is what Heather and I have to say in response to Lee’s column:

In many countries around the world, the right to education – meaning the ability to access a school that has a teacher and working facilities that will prepare you to be a good citizen, fulfilled person (?), informed consumer (?) and productive worker in or out of the home is not being met. In many low- and middle-income countries (the focus of Lee’s article), and often for low-income households, these gaps are being filled by various forms of private education.

Lee shares recent evidence on the cost-effectiveness and effectiveness of private schools relative to public schools in low- and middle-income countries, a topic which is methodologically tricky as well as ideologically fraught. It is certainly not as simple as transporting debates and findings from high-income countries to those with lower incomes and much different realities of public education. Nor is not as simple as looking at money spent and test scores achieved in low-income countries because one also needs to account for the reality that the two types of schools may attract different types of students. In the recent and careful research Lee cites – particularly from Muralidharan and Sundararaman – two key points emerge.

  1. Relative cost-effectiveness: In some contexts, at least, private schooling appears to be more cost-effective than public education and possibly more effective in certain subject areas. In one southern Indian state (Andhra Pradesh, a state with a population of over 80 million), private schools deliver similar or better outcomes to public schools at a much lower cost. It is worth pointing out how it seems, in Andhra Pradesh, private schools are proving more cost-effective. Low cost is achieved by offering low salaries to young teachers without formal teaching qualifications. Effectiveness is maintained largely because, at least at low grade levels and at least temporarily, teacher effort can substitute for formal training. But the same paper also makes the nice point that education quality seems to be a combination of qualifications * effort and that private schools seem to make more effort but at some grade point where subject matter becomes more technical more effort alone isn’t going to overcome lack of qualification. So we need to think carefully about the grades at which we are comparing outcomes.
  2. Absolute effectiveness: Both public and private schools are performing very poorly. Because of the methodological battles fought to make the first point, as well as the interest in figuring out ‘what works,’ this point is being overlooked in many debates. Both public and private schools in many places are failing children. This second point is where the practical debate on fulfilling universal primary education needs to begin, with the goal being to develop solutions that governments and citizens in poor countries see as win-win.

How might policymakers in low- and middle-income countries make decisions moving forward, especially assuming a world where donors or private corporations cannot bull-doze developing country governments? Does the way forward need to be a choice between public and private (financing, provision and regulation of) education or is there scope for genuine partnerships between the public and private sector? Do partnerships only mean vouchers — public money to private providers? If we accept that the government is weak at delivering education outcomes, do we expect it to do well in delivering funding and regulation to a sensitive sector such as basic primary education? In reality, if a government embraces a system of school vouchers, we think the government assumes expanded oversight responsibilities. Neither is the government off the hook for improving quality of its own schools, nor can it ignore the operations of private schools that function under its watch.

We are aware that we have raised more questions than offered answers. But the bottom line is that neither government nor private schools in low- and middle-income countries consistently produce the results that the children in these countries deserve. We need to take well-researched ideas for improving education outcomes and life-chances from wherever we can get them. Here’s hoping that evidence wins, not ideology…


Meanwhile, one perspective with which NOT to approach this debate with a solely personal experience perspective. for instance, if I spoke purely on the basis of my personal opinion I would say that having grown up in a city in India in a middle-class family, the public school option was practically non-existent. Not because my parents (and later, I) had any inherent prejudices against public services – we used and continue to use public hospitals and transport plenty. But I would not go anywhere near a public school – and neither do I know any of my friends who would.

I also have a livemint column on the Muralidharan & Sundararaman paper coming out in a day or two – will link when out (column up now – here)


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