Are private schools good for the poor?

Professor James Tooley writes:

One of the internation­ally agreed-on development goals the heads of state reviewed was the achieve­ment of universal primary education by 2015. The UN was not happy with progress. There are still officially more than 115 million children out of school, it reported, of which 80 percent are in sub‑Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. But even for those lucky enough to be in school, things are not good: “Most poor children who attend primary school in the developing world learn shockingly little,” the UN reported.

Something had to be done. Fortunately, the UN could call on Jeffrey D. Sachs, special adviser on the Mil­lennium Development Goals to Secretary-General Kofi Annan and author of The End of Poverty. He’s also director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He proposed as the way forward “Quick Wins,” which have “very high potential short-term impact” and that “can be immediately implemented.” Top of his list is “Eliminating school fees,” to be achieved “no later than the end of 2006,” funded through increased international donor aid. To the UN it’s as obvious as motherhood and apple pie.

But the UN’s “Quick Wins” are backing the wrong horse. For the past two and a half years I’ve been directing and conduct­ing research in sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana) and Asia (India and China). And what I’ve found is a remarkable and apparently hitherto unnoticed revolution in education, led by the poor themselves. Across the developing world the poor are eschewing free, disturbed by its low quality and lack of accountability. Meanwhile, educational entrepre­neurs from the poor communities themselves set up affordable private schools to cater to the unfulfilled demand.

When you receive a “free” service, you are less concerned about its quality, than when you pay for it. This is basic logic.

Take Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya, reportedly the largest slum in Africa, where half a million people live in mud-walled, corrugated iron-roofed huts that huddle along the old Uganda Railway. Kenya is one of the UN’s showcase examples of the virtues of introducing free basic education. Free Primary Education (FPE) was introduced in Kenya in January 2003, with a $55 million donation from the World Bank—apparently the largest straight grant that it has given to any area of social serv­ices. The world has been impressed by the outcomes: Former President Bill Clinton told an American prime-time television audience that the person he most want­ed to meet was President Kibaki of Kenya, “because he has abolished school fees,” which “would affect more lives than any president had done or would ever do.” The British chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, visiting Olympic Primary School, one of the five gov­ernment schools located on the out­skirts of Kibera, told the gathered crowds that British parents gave their full sup­port to their tax money being used to support FPE. Everyone—including Sir Bob Geldof and Bono—raves on about how an additional 1.3 million children are now enrolled in primary school in Kenya. All these children, the accepted wisdom goes, have been saved from ignorance by the benevolence of the international community—which must give $7 billion to $8 billion per year more so that other countries can emulate Kenya’s success.

The accepted wisdom, however, is entirely wrong. It ignores the remarkable reality that the poor in Africa have not been waiting helplessly for the munificence of pop stars and Western politicians to ensure that their children get a decent education. The reality is that private schools for the poor have emerged in huge numbers in some of the most impoverished slums in Africa and southern Asia. They are catering to a majority of poor children, and outperforming their government counter­parts, for a fraction of the cost.

Really? Can this be true?

 Inspired by what I had found, I recruited a local research team, led by James Shikwati of the Inter-Region Economic Network (IREN), and searched every muddy street and alleyway looking for schools. In total we found 76 private schools, enrolling over 12,000 students. In the five government schools serving Kibera, there were a total of about 8,000 children—but half were from the middle-class suburbs. The private schools, it turned out, even after free public education, were still serving a large majority of the poor slum children.

It seems it is.

Calculating the net decline in private-school enrollment, it turned out that there were many, many more children who had left the private schools than the 3,300 reported to have entered the government schools on Kibera’s periphery and who were part of the much celebrated one million-plus supposedly newly enrolled in education.

In other words, the headlined increase in numbers of enrolled children was fictitious: the net impact of FPE was at best precisely the same number of children enrolled in primary school—only that some had trans­ferred from private to government schools.

Well intentioned policies often end up not working.

Parents compared notes when their children came home from school and saw that in the state schools pupil notebooks remained unmarked for weeks; they contrasted this with the detailed atten­tion given to all children’s work in the private schools. They heard tales from their children of how teachers came to the state school and did their knitting or fell asleep. One summed up the situation succinctly: “If you go to a market and are offered free fruit and vegetables, they will be rotten. If you want fresh fruit and veg, you have to pay for them.”


Perhaps these poor parents are misguided. Certainly that’s what officials believe. But are they right? We test­ed 3,000 children, roughly half from the Nairobi slums and half from the government schools on the periphery, using standardized tests in math, English, and Kiswahili. We tested the chil­dren’s and their teachers’ IQs and gave questionnaires to pupils, their parents, teachers, and school managers so that we could control for all relevant back­ground variables. Although the gov­ernment schools served the privileged middle classes as well as the slum chil­dren, the private schools—serving only slum children—outperformed the government schools in mathemat­ics and Kiswahili, although the latter had a slight advantage in English. But English would be picked up by privi­leged children through television and interaction with parents. When we statistically controlled for all relevant background variables, the private schools outperformed the government schoolchildren in all three subjects.

And it gets better:

But there was a further twist. The private schools outperformed the government schools for considerably lower cost. Even if we ignore the massive costs of the government bureaucracy and focus just on the classroom level, we find the private schools are doing better for about a third of teacher-salary costs: the average month­ly teacher salary in government schools was Ksh. 11,080 ($155) compared to Ksh. 3,735 ($52) in the private schools.

Free primary education in Kenya, a showcase exam­ple of the UN’s “Quick Wins” strategy, has simply transferred children from private schools, where they got a good deal, closely supervised by parents, with teachers who turn up and teach, to state schools, where they are being dramatically let down. One parent was clear what the solution was: “We do not want our children to go to a state school. The government offered free education. Why didn’t it give us the money instead and let us choose where to send our children?” For this parent, a voucher system was the obvious way forward, putting her right back in control.

Now what works in the slums of Kenya is not applicable to all situations. But this is a good lesson about how slogans and good intentions and even money do not necessarily improve things.

I recommend people read the entire article. James Tooley has won several prizes and awards for his work on education.

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