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Education plays an indispensable role in promoting economic growth and social justice and is associated with a wide range of positive outcomes, including improved health and better livelihoods.
Each additional year of schooling results in a 10 percent average increase in an individual’s earnings, raises average annual GDP growth by 0.37 percent and ultimately contributes to a more inclusive, productive and engaged society. Access to education has increased considerably throughout Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) with the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on education, Education for All (EFA) and the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4).
Since 1999, the number of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 75 percent to 144 million in 2012. At the secondary and tertiary level, even larger percentage increases of 62 percent and 80 percent respectively were observed.
Despite the progress, SSA countries are confronted with routinely low levels of learning in the public schooling system. At the same time, SSA countries have experienced a significant growth in private schooling within the last decades.
Between 2005 and 2014, enrolment in private primary schools as a percentage of total primary enrolments increased from 9.78 percent to 11.57 percent in SSA countries (Figure 1). According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) database, in 2014 the primary level enrolment at private schools as a proportion of total enrolment was 23.2 percent in Ghana, 16 percent in Kenya, 19.5 percent in Uganda, 4.1 percent in South Africa and 14.9 percent in Nigeria.
However, a striking aspect of the growth in private schooling has been the proliferation of Low-Fee Private Schools (LFPS) serving relatively poor families. Low-Fee Private school or schools run by entrepreneurs in poor areas cater to those living on less than $2 a day. LFPS charge low-rate ($1 per week) which is far less than the $ 3.96 spent per pupil by the government per week in 2014 at the primary level of education in Ghana.
The growth of such schools has sparked significant debate over their role, with some criticizing the privatization of basic education, which is a basic human right, arguing that it is a service that left the government should provide for free. Others applaud the ability of the private sector to fill the gap created by the underperformance of the government schooling system.
Several reasons account for the increasing demand for Low-Fee Private Schools (LFPS): the inability of the public sector to meet demand, insufficient supply of public school spaces, low quality of public schooling and public education failing to meet the diverse, differentiated needs of families which include teaching international languages, emphasis on religion etc.
Reasons for the Growth in LFPS
Guardians choose to enrol their children in private schools based on the perceived higher quality education in these institutions compared to their public-school counterparts.
It is often thought that students enrolled in private schools obtain higher test scores. Studies by James Tooley (2007, 2009) have found that students enrolled in low-fee private schooling (LFPS) in India, Nigeria, and Ghana generally score higher on standardised tests in key curriculum subjects than students in public institutions. Classes in LFPS also have smaller class size than public schools, more teacher to pupil contact, and less teacher absenteeism as compared to the high rate teacher absenteeism rates of 15 percent-25 percent in public schools in Africa.
There is also a perception, especially in developing countries, that financially-able parents who send their children to public institutions care little for their education.
Adefeso-Olateju (2013), an education policy consultant, interviewed parents and teachers in educational institutions in Lagos. One comment from a parent, who was also the principal of a private school was “Only a parent that doesn’t love his child will send him to a public school”. Many of the parents interviewed also associated negative stereotypes with children enrolled in public institutions, such as ‘from bad homes’, ‘wretched’ and ‘don’t value education’, whilst associating positive words with children enrolled in private schools, such as ‘from a good home’, ‘respectful’ and ‘of high intelligence’.
This perception, regardless of the other factors, such as the quality of education and the quality of teachers, is an important driving force behind parents’ demand for their children to be enrolled in private institutions.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Other than these perceptions, private schools and LFPS are characterised by certain advantages and disadvantages.
Due to the nature of Low Fee Private schools, they are afforded with unique benefits. One of these advantages is that the funding structure of these schools can enable them to be more equipped than public schools. The different funding structure of private schools means that they can be more technologically advanced, which affects not only the learning element of education but accountability.
For example, eSchools in Zambia use tablets and projectors in classrooms and are currently exploring the use of fingerprint technology to track the attendance of teachers and pupils. In Ghana, a study by IDP Foundation and Results for Development Institution (2016), observing 150 LFPS in 5 regions found that income streams in LFPS in Ghana are not diversified, with 84 percent of annual revenue coming from tuition fees and canteen fees. This leads to just one-third of LFPS being profitable and just 13 percent having adequate resources to pay for quality improvement projects. With more revenue choices, such as access to loans, LFPS in Ghana could take better advantage of their funding being independent of the government.
Another benefit is that LFPS can take advantage of the autonomy from government intervention. This can, for example, lead to private institutions monitoring teachers more frequently than is required in public institutions.
More frequent monitoring could lead to teachers being trained more effectively when the need arises. A recent needs and impact assessment of the IDP Rising Schools Program by Results for Development (2016) researching 150 schools in Ghana found that over 80 percent of LFPS invest in training teachers, as they see quality assurance as an important objective. However, the same study recommended that LFPS in Ghana could benefit from an increase in the frequency and quality of the existing teacher training.
A major challenge that LPFS is criticised for is the possible re-enforcement of inequality in the education system. Although Low Fee Private Schools were initially introduced to provide a low-cost, high-quality alternative to education for those with low incomes regardless of geographical location, filling a gap left by state provision of education. Low-Fee Privates school are schools run by entrepreneurs in poor areas, that cater to those living on less than $2 a day. However, it is argued that by charging for education, LFPS further stratify the education system, separating the poorest of the poor, who can’t afford LFPS, from those who are slightly less poor and can afford to pay for private education. This further reinforces income inequality in the education system. Various studies in the last decade (Tooley et al. (2008); Woodhead et al. (2013))  have found weak and inconclusive evidence to prove that private schools actually reach the poor.
Heyneman and Stern (2013) found that only 10-11 percent of students enrolled in private schools in Jamaica and Pakistan were from the lowest two income quantiles.
As well as this, there may also be rural-urban inequality as more LFPS are established in urban areas, where there are more parents who are able to pay the fees charged and where there is better infrastructure. Some studies in India have found that pupils in urban areas have more access to private education than those in rural areas. However, in some cases, such as in South Africa, this type of geographical inequality has been found not to exist when it comes to LFPS. Schirmer et al. (2010) found that there were an equal number of state and private institutions in relatively remote areas in South Africa, meaning LPFS supply as much education as the state does.
However, the distance of LFPS and the government intervention and monitoring could also be a disadvantage to the education system.
These private institutions do not have to adhere to the same standards and regulations as those in the public domain. Because of this, private schools are heterogeneous, meaning that an assurance of quality of teaching and education cannot be assured for all institutions.
Another disadvantage associated with LFPS is that many use low-qualified or untrained teaching staff, encouraging rote learning, or ‘chew and pour’ as it is known locally. Although test scores are said to be higher in these institutions than in public institutions, it is thought that students aren’t encouraged to think critically.
Access to quality education and higher learning achievement are vital to preparing learners adequately for life and the world of work. Given the level of Ghana’s and SSA countries’ education predicament, the private schools and LFPS sector have an important role to play. The most important issue which to be considered by the policymakers regarding the LFPS is the Regulatory environment, the financial sustainability of the LFPS and the quality of output.
The financial sustainability of the LFPS is very important. Despite financial challenges, the average life span of LFPS in Ghana is 14 years.
Low fee private schools obtain their income from the tuition fees collected, savings of the owner and their family, an institutional sponsor, an endowment or from the government. However, most LFPS in Ghana depends on tuition fees as their main source, drawing on personal contributions when necessary. The inconsistent income and the dependence on tuition fees place pressure on the LFPS, putting them at constant risk of bankruptcy. Only a third of LFPS sampled in Ghana made a profit while the two-thirds made losses or breakeven. When surveyed, school proprietors identified improving infrastructure as a top priority, however, they lack the funds to do so.
Interested stakeholders should continue facilitating LFPS access to micro loans for infrastructure development projects.
It is important to seek the protection of the children attending LFPS. To do this, the regulatory environment of LFPS is crucial and should be bolstered by curriculum objectives, admission tests for further education and the health and safety of the school infrastructure. There should be flexibility with some requirements, such as the number and specification of the classroom and the number of licensed teachers. These usually restrict the creativity of the LFPS and should be reduced or eliminated to promote freedom to experiment and innovation.
Ghana and SSA countries need to find the right combination of public and private schooling to ensure that the growing number of children receive a good education as quickly as possible. The contribution of the private schools and LFPS to SSA education should not be undervalued.
Private schools have advanced the right to basic education among other fundamental democratic rights, eased the pressure of access faced by the public school, have saved the government money, have offered parents’ choice, and have provided an environment for innovation that can inform all schools.
IMANI Education Series is a monthly publication focused on new ideas and pathways to providing education. For interviews, email firstname.lastname@example.org