Expert Comment

Expert Comment

Rising popularity of budget schools

James Tooley
A quiet revolution is taking place in education in many developing countries. It has been sparked off neither by governments nor by international agencies. Nor is it lauded in the media. But it is impacting the lives of millions worldwide. This revolution challenges the assumption that the public sector (government) should be responsible for all aspects of education, for three main reasons.

First, doubts are emerging about the effectiveness and efficiency of public education. Second, there are doubts about the equity, or fairness, of public education, and its accountability, especially to the poor. Third, there is an increasing awareness of initiatives by educational entrepreneurs, and evidence to suggest that competitive pressures can lead to significant educational improvements.

Numerous studies have been carried out across a wide range of developing countries, all of which have found that private schools are not only more effective educationally when controlled for socio-economic factors, but are also more efficient. The studies indicate the superiority of private education in terms of raising cognitive abilities. In Colombia, the results show that private schools are 1.13 times more effective than public schools averaging for verbal and mathematical achievements. In Thailand for mathematics, private schools are 2.63 times more effective than public schools.

One obvious objection was that private schools can succeed where public schools cannot because of larger resources. However, when the same researchers probed this issue, they found the opposite to be the case. Comparing the cost per student in a private and a public school gave results ranging from a low of 39 percent in Thailand to a high of 83 percent in the Philippines. Combining these two sources of information, researchers were able to gain an answer to the question: For the same per pupil cost, how much more achievement would we get in private than in public schools? The answer ranged from 1.2 times (Philippines) to a massive 6.74 times more achievement (Thailand) in private schools.

Doubts about state education that inform the debate about the role of government in education also focus on the fairness of public provision. In many countries, it has been observed that, despite public expansion of funding and provision, the expansion has not reached all members of society equally. Particularly acute is the wide gap in terms of educational provision offered to urban and rural populations.

Some of the most dramatic evidence of the inequity of public provision, which also raises the issue of accountability, comes from India. The Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE Team 1999), looked at primary education in four states, where it surveyed a random sample of villages, in which there were a total of 195 government and 41 private schools. The report outlines some of the "malfunctioning" which is taking place in government schools for the poor in these four states. The schools suffered from poor physical facilities and high pupil-teacher ratios, but what is most disturbing is the low level of teaching activity taking place in them.

When researchers called unannounced on their random sample, only in 53 percent of the schools was there any teaching activity going on. In fully 33 percent, the head teacher was absent. The PROBE survey reported many instances of "plain negligence", including "irresponsible teachers keeping a school closed or non-functional for months at a time" and a school where "only one-sixth of the children enrolled were present".

But can private schools really reach the poor? A common assumption about the private sector in education in developing countries is that is caters only to the elite, and that its promotion would only serve to exacerbate inequality. On the contrary, recent research points to the growing presence of private schools serving low income families, in India and elsewhere. Parents are sending their children to such schools in increasing numbers because government schools fail to offer them what is required.

Private schools serving low-income families is a growing phenomenon throughout the developing world, and relates to the third major reason for the growing questioning of the role of government in education: the emergence of viable private sector alternatives. In India, for instance, recent research has revealed a whole range of schools charging about $10 to $20 (Rs.455-910) per year per student, run on commercial principles and not dependent on any government subsidy or philanthropy. These fees are affordable by families headed by rickshaw pullers and market stall traders.

These case studies challenge many of the objections that have been raised against ‘budget’ private schools. A major set of objections concerned the issue of whether or not such schools would be concerned with education, rather than simply featuring businessmen exploiting the poor.

It was found first, that a significant proportion of teachers in each of the case study schools was trained — and in all but one school a majority of teachers was also of graduate level. In those schools where there were untrained teachers, there was often a great concern with teacher training — with two of the schools having formal teacher training programmes, and others having informal arrangements, including links with other schools in their private school management federation.

The emergence and strength of these private sector alternatives has impressed many governments looking to improve the quality and efficiency of public schooling. The British government is currently contracting out failing schools to the private sector, to find best-value service. This process is confined to developed countries. But throughout the world, there are opportunities for a greater role for the private sector.

(Dr. James Tooley is professor of education policy at University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK)