Education wonkwar: the final salvo. Kevin Watkins responds to Justin Sandefur on public v private (and the reader poll is still open)

The posts are getting longer, so it’s probably a good time to call a halt, but at least you have the weekend to read Kevin Watkins‘ response to Justin Sandefur on private v public education provision (and to vote – see below). If you have even more time, it’s worth reading (and relishing) the whole exchange: Justin post 1; Kevin post 1; Justin post 2 and now this.

Dear Justin

Thank you for the response. I’d also like to thank Duncan for setting up the discussion, along with the many people, on both sides of the debate, who have contributed their ideas and experiences. Whatever our differences, I think all of us share a conviction that decent quality education has the power to transform lives, expand opportunities, and break the cycle of poverty. There is no greater cause, or more important international development challenge, than delivering on the promise of decent quality education for all children.

Before I forget, let me add one personal note. Just between you and me, I never really suspected you of being a fifth-columnist for the Pearson Corporation, though you were a little over-exuberant in your treatment of their private school program. I also never had you down as chapter head of your local Milton Friedman revival society. My criticisms were directed at your advocacy for an education reform model based on vouchers, the transfer of public funding to for-profit private providers, and charter school-type arrangements for poor countries.

Unfortunately, your response reinforces many of my initial concerns.

Same goals – different roadmaps

You start by setting out three areas of agreement on goals and values. I’m happy to sign-up on all counts. Like you, I believe that governments have a responsibility to ensure that every child has an entitlement to free basic education and a chance to learn.  I also believe that equality of opportunity matters as an end in itself. What children are able to achieve in school should depend on their efforts and talents, not on the wealth of their parents, their gender, where they live, what language they speak or the color of their skin. In the 2010 UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report we made the case for introducing equity based-targets into the Millennium Development Goal framework  – and I’m glad to say that this idea is gaining some traction.

Where we differ is on the means to our shared ends. Like our blog contributor Ruth Nyambura from Kenya,  my starting point is that we should be focusing on how to improve the quality of provision in the public education system. Your starting point is that for-profit, low-fee private providers are a cost-effective alternative. While I recognize the critical role that these schools play in delivering education for millions of poor people, I see them as a symptom of state failure – not as a foundation for the reform of national education systems. We may agree on the destination, but we have different road maps for getting there.

Before turning to what I see as your misreading of the evidence, it strikes me that there is a wider question that we both need to reflect on. Much of our debate focuses on school management. Of course, the issues are important. But I can’t help wondering whether the endless dialogue on ‘public-versus-private’ provision is diverting attention from far more important themes that affect education and learning outcomes – and from the policies that can make a difference.

Let me give a few examples. We know that one-in-every-three children in low income countries reach school age having experienced extreme malnutrition, most of them before the age of two. This has devastating and largely irreversible consequences for cognitive development of learning achievement in school. This largely ignored crisis can be tackled through early childhood interventions – a point underlined by a recent randomized trial survey from a Save the Children program in Mozambique.

If we want to get all children into a learning environment we need to reform public spending programs that skew resources towards schools in wealthier regions; and we need demand-side financing interventions – incentives for keeping girls in school and getting kids out of child labor – that break down the disadvantages associated with poverty, gender and other markers for disadvantage.

If we want to raise learning standards, surely the discussion should focus on how to recruit, train, remunerate and support teachers. One of the reasons that so many of the children in school are failing to learn is that teachers are ill-equipped to develop basic literacy and numeracy skills in the early years, setting the scene for failure.

Without wanting to develop a shopping list, I would add the accountability dimension. From central ministries down to classrooms, public sector education providers in poor countries are for the most part notoriously unaccountable to parents. So are their low-fee private sector counterparts: the idea that a shift from public to private provision brings greater accountability is naïve. Civil society coalitions and non-government organizations have played a positive role in challenging the culture of impunity among education providers. In some cases – like UWEZO in east Africa and Pratham in India – they have done this by making available information on learning. In others they have supported the development of parent-teacher associations and used social accountability tools to hold providers to account. And it strikes me that this empowerment aspect of reform merits greater attention.

The narrow focus of the private-public debate in low income countries has a parallel in the United States. Here the ‘school reform’ movement appears to attribute 90 per cent of the crisis in public education to teachers, the absence of school choice, and school management issues, with 10 per cent attributed to poverty, social breakdown, and social disadvantage. As Dianne Ravitch has powerfully argued, they have the numbers back to front.

Evidence and ideology

Let’s get back to the evidence.

You spend a fair bit of time defending your claim that charter schools, free schools and vouchers are delivering impressive results and contesting my counter-claim.

Justin, let’s face it, you are scraping the barrel. A few weeks back The Economist ran a major piece claiming that charter schools in the US were dramatically out-performing public schools. They also have over-exuberance issues. Like you, they challenged the methodology of the Stanford University CREDO survey – the one that found charter schools were twice as likely to under-perform as out-perform a matched neighborhood. And like you they allowed ideological preference to override the evidence. An independent review of the methodology found the CREDO study sound – and other robust research exercises for the United States broadly reflect the findings.

What about the wider evidence from developed countries on private schools? One survey from the OECD shows that some three-quarters of the learning achievement associated with private provisions disappears once schools are controlled for the socio-economic intake of pupils. The rest of the disadvantage disappears when public schools are allowed space for innovation, including some autonomy over the curriculum.

Rather than go around the houses swapping evaluation references, I invite readers to look at the sources we have provided on charter schools, private providers, Swedish free schools, and vouchers and make up their own minds.

Whatever their take, I would make one cautionary observation. This is an area in which context and capacity matters. It is one thing to expand school choice within a high performing public system and a highly egalitarian society like Sweden, but the same policies are likely to produce very different outcomes in Nigeria or Ethiopia (or, for that matter, the United kingdom). Bear in mind also that no major developed country has resorted to voucher programs on any scale.

Back to Kenya

Having initially told us that poor people are readily able to afford low-fee schools, I’m glad that you now recognize this is not the case. I notice also that you do not contest the very low levels of learning achievement registered by for-profit, low-fee providers.

As you know, several studies have looked at the underlying sources of the lower per pupil cost of running low fee schools, and at the underlying sources of their relative performance. Almost the entire gain can be traced to two sources: lower teacher salaries and lower rates of absenteeism. Apart from the work of Jishnu Das and others in Pakistan and India, there is a dearth of research comparing low fee private school results with matched public schools (controlling for socio-economic background).

From a public finance perspective there are two relevant questions that have to be addressed. The first, as you say, is whether low-fee private schools deliver equivalent or better results at a lower cost. The second concerns the capacity of low-fee schools to scale-up provision.

You cite your co-authored paper on Kenya to answer both questions in the affirmative, claiming that presents decisive evidence of a low-fee school advantage.  I doubt it.

Your data are from 2005. Most low-fee private schools operating in Kenya’s informal centers at this time were unregistered. Their pupils took exams in public schools – and they were reported as public school scores (I stand to be corrected on this). Moreover, your median student was paying US$40 a year at a time when, according to the same Kenya Household Budget Survey that you use, half of Kenya’s population was living on less than US$38 a month. At this income level, sending two kids to a low-fee school would have cost 20 per cent of an adult income, before counting the costs of uniforms and books. How many people living below that threshold were paying US$40 a year for private education?

Bear in mind also, that most of the 2 million new entrants into Kenya’s education system since 2003 have been absorbed into the public school system. Given that these children come from the most disadvantaged homes in the country, there are inevitable consequences for learning achievement levels.

In the UK, DfID is considering supporting low-fee private schools in urban slums. My hope is that they will review carefully the underlying evidence on cost and performance. I hope that they will look also at evidence on the condition of low-fee private schools in informal settlements. Some of the schools I have visited in Kibera and Mukuru lacked toilets and clean water, along with textbooks. Moses Oketch and his colleagues have provided a detailed – and disturbing – assessment of learning conditions in low-fee schools in informal settlements.

As I understand it, the DfID view is that the Kenyan government is unable to scale up provision of public education in informal slum areas – hence the decision to support low-fee providers. Sorry, but I just don’t buy it. Kenya’s failure to deliver decent quality education to slum dwellers and poor rural areas in the north-east has nothing to do with capacity or financing, and everything to do with political leadership.

While we are on the subject of Kenya I was struck by your comment about the government’s decision, in your words, to ‘penalize private school graduates in secondary school admission’. I assume that you are referring here to the law requiring that a majority of the places in Kenya’s elite national secondary schools must go to students from public primary schools. As you know, entry to National schools, which are public, has traditionally been dominated by pupils from high-cost private schools. Private schools accounted for 120 of the top 130 schools in the last Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) results, and for over half of National School entrants.

This is an arrangement that has served Kenya’s elite very nicely thank you. The ability of rich households to pay for good quality private primary education has provided their children with access to high-quality, public-financed secondary education. Incidentally, per pupil expenditure in Kenya’s secondary schools is seven times higher than in primary education. While I also have some reservations about the design of the quota policy, surely some affirmative action is consistent with a commitment to equal opportunity.

The road ahead

As I said earlier, this is really a debate about pathways to the shared goals that you outline. You start from the premise that private sector provision can provide a powerful impetus for reform, while recognizing the need for caution and making it clear that you do not favour ‘mass privatization’. I accept that the private sector and non-state actors have a critical role to play in education – but question the degree to which low-fee private schools can deliver the results we both want to see.

Some of the comments on our posts were a bit over-polemical for my taste. In your sign-off you pick up on a somewhat eccentric offering from James Stansfield, a member of the Adam Smith Institute and lecturer in education at Newcastle University (as you probably know, he and his colleague James Tooley do not share your reservations about mass privatization).  Mr Stanfield appears to believe that private education is a fundamental human right – and that states have a commensurate responsibility to protect that right. Rising to his theme,  you cite the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (no less) to imply that I am bent on ‘taking away kids’ human rights /to education/ based on an ideological opposition to the private sector’.

Call me defensive, but I think this is getting a bit desperate. I hope that we can agree that, whatever our differences over approaches to reform, we are both committed to the right to education.  For the record, I have no reservations about supporting the right of parents to send children to whatever school they choose. The real debate here is about whether transferring public money to for-profit private providers will help or hinder the development of education systems that offer all parents the freedom to choose schools to deliver decent learning. When public provision fails, middle-class households can opt-out and exit to the high-quality private sector. That option is not available to the vast majority of poor households – and vouchers will not change this picture.

Does this rule out partnerships between state and non-state providers? Of course not. In some contexts – South Sudan and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are cases in point – non-government, not-for-profit providers provide the backbone of education provision. Donors should be supporting them far more actively. In Pakistan, state failure in education is so pervasive and low-fee private schools are so prevalent, that there are obvious efficiency and equity gains from ‘buying-in’ delivery while fixing the underlying failure.  Every situation is different. And governments and donors need to consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of the non-state delivery options available.

Optimists and pessimists

You suggest that I am overly-optimistic about the scope for reform of under-performing education systems. Maybe you’re right. Then again, maybe you’re too pessimistic.

You are certainly too selective in your reading of the evidence. I cited the McKinsey Report because it provides examples of countries which, from a very low base, have simultaneously improved access, raised learning achievement and enhanced equity. For some obscure reason, you decided to focus on the parts of the report covering Lithuania, England and Singapore, which are all irrelevant in the context of our debate. The case studies on Ghana, Madhya Pradesh and Western Cape illustrate the types of reform that have delivered results.

The real starting point for a debate on the learning crisis in low-income countries should be teachers and teaching. Few of the teachers that I have met in developing countries choose to be ineffective. They are products of the education systems in which they operate. Many have the weak subject knowledge and learning skills that come with a poor quality education. They are poorly trained. They frequently have limited access to information to assess what their children are learning against benchmark standards; and they seldom receive in-service support to help them improve their teaching methods. In many cases, they are also poorly paid and living in challenging environments. And all too often teachers are unaccountable to parents.

The institutional failures behind these and other problems can be addressed – but not through the type of model favoured by some advocates for low-fee schools. Much of the per-pupil cost advantage in these schools comes from the far lower levels of teacher remuneration they provide. Scaling up this model implies cutting average teacher salaries. Adopting this approach at a time when governments need to increase teacher recruitment, raise the quality of new entrants to the profession, and improve learning standards is surely self-defeating.

I suspect that everyone who has participated in this debate shares a sense of outrage and frustration at the state of basic education in developing countries. Every time I visit a slum or a poor rural village in Africa or Asia I’m struck by the level of ambition, resolve and commitment demonstrated by desperately poor people trying to get their kids a decent education.  And I leave wondering what we have to do to get their political leaders to demonstrate similar qualities.

If our shared goal is to deliver quality and equitable basic education for all, transferring responsibility and public finance to low-fee and, for the most part, low quality private providers is not the answer.

And that, for the moment, is it, with huge thanks to Justin and Kevin for a really top quality debate (even if they can’t write to anything approaching blog length). Keep voting, and if the authors want to slug it out for the last word, they will have to join the rest of you in the comments section. [poll id=”14″]]]>

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11 Responses to “Education wonkwar: the final salvo. Kevin Watkins responds to Justin Sandefur on public v private (and the reader poll is still open)”
  1. Dear,
    Watkins. First of all I just want to say thank you for this brilliant piece that didn’t just address the issues and present facts, but that also was very personal, at least for me. I couldn’t agree more with you even if I wanted to.
    I just want to address the quota issue that both you and Justin have brought up. I’m glad this issue has been addressed because I am of the opinion that if there is a anything that exemplifies the failure of the govt. to ensure that the public education system is working then it is this.
    “As you know, entry to National schools, which are public, has traditionally been dominated by pupils from high-cost private schools.”
    True, but to say traditionally is not really accurate. In my response to Justin’s first blog post, I mentioned that up until my time, the generation of my siblings who are older all went to public primary schools and then proceeded on to public secondary schools. During their time it was next to impossible for students in private primary schools to dominate public secondary schools.
    The reasons being that for one, who needed private schools, apart from the ultra-rich who mostly took their children to schools teaching the GCSE system and those private schools that were relatively priced, were not big enough and so even when the students from the schools proceeded on to public secondary schools, with their small numbers, it was hardly considered a threat to the thousands of students from public schools.
    I don’t want to repeat it but we have seen that most parents who take their children to private schools are trying to get the kind of quality that has been missing in the public system for the last 10yrs.
    To get to my point, I have a lot of reservations about the controversial quota system that was introduced 2 years ago. While I understand clearly the intentions behind it, the truth is that I can bet my very broke bank account on it that it will NOT remedy the situation but rather become a huge polarizing point in Kenya’s education system and also give this pathetically lazy and corrupt government more excuses not to get its act together with regards to fixing the rot in the public education system.
    Affirmative action is a brilliant tool to ensure equity in needed situations but it is dangerous to use it in isolation. Affirmative action should never be used alone and I speak with a lot of boldness having been active in the discussions of the same with regards to Kenya’s constitution and affirmative action for women in the political space.
    Unfortunately there is just one little thing missing, the fact that affirmative action is a treatment for the symptoms and not the cause and should be used even as urgent measures are taken to rectify the root of the problem.
    So yes, students from private schools who in as much as have been privileged to get better quality, have undoubtedly worked hard all the same to get good marks in their exams. But does killing their dream to join the best public schools in the country improve the quality of education in the public system? Does this boost the morale of the teachers in the public system, does it build much needed infrastructure in the same schools, does it put books and pens on the desks of the students and that is if the desks even exist in the first place and finally does it make the government more transparent and accountable with regards to funds meant for the public schools? NO NO NO NO!!
    Since the quota system was introduced, nothing has changed with regards to improving quality. Teachers in the public system went on strike for 2 weeks last year in September. They almost went on strike in May of this year because the Treasury had not disbursed funds needed to keep the schools running and headteachers and teachers were being forced to use their own money to keep the schools running. You should also know that the teachers have promised to go on strike in September and it looks like this will be a serious show-down.
    A quota system in not a magic wand.It shouldn’t be in a country like mine where students in private schools have a 4a.m-11p.m school working day. Parents in this country are desperate to get their children some sort of quality and many have sacrificed a lot to take them to private schools and it is heart-breaking for them when their children cannot attend good secondary schools.
    I want reforms and reform does not mean ‘punishing’ one group that was forced by the inadequacies of the government to seek an alternative so that the group that was unable to get the alternative (mostly because of financial constraints) can benefit. When you honestly look at both sides of the coin, children in both systems and their parents have gotten an absolute raw deal from the government.
    How to get the balance is the problem. The leadership in Kenya is not visionary enough to use the quota system wisely so that children that attend both private and public schools benefit and so I would be very skeptical at calling it a success.
    The truth is that a quota system is on place simply because the government has failed miserably in providing quality and ensuring that students can compete fairly for the positions available. I am desperate for reforms in the public sector, honestly I am and I just hope that they come sooner than later.
    P/S: Thanks Duncan for giving us all this opportunity and especially to Watkins and Justin

  2. Dear both,
    Many thanks for your fascinating debate. Just a few personal thoughts, from the Right to Education Project’s perspective: you mention human rights a few times, but have you looked into the potential for human rights law to give a basis for reflecting about the issue of privatisation in education?
    Human rights standards have been almost universally signed up to and therefore legally binding in most countries around the world. Though human rights may, in some respect, be “ideological” – i.e., they defend a particular point of view – the level of international support and consensus they enjoy allows to think that they can constitute a good basis to make a judgement.
    And human rights are quite clear about the role States should play in education: while he liberty of parents and guardians to choose
    other than public schools for their children and the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions is clearly guaranteed, States that have ratified international conventions also agree that it is their principal responsibility to ensure the direct provision of the right to education in most circumstances (
    And a more practical argument: whenever private schools exist, they must conform to minimum educational standard, not be discriminatory, as well as respect a few other standards the state must closely monitor. A key question there is to know whether it is cost-effective for a state to spend resources into closely monitoring a vast network of private schools, rather than doing it itself.
    A last comment, about public education failing: there is no discussion that public schools are not working well in many parts of the world. But when that happens, this not only a regrettable fact,it is also in most cases a violation of international human rights law, a violation of the rights of the children that ought to benefit from free quality education. How does this help? Well, it reinforces the claim that was made: when public education is failing, it needs to be fixed. This is not only a moral obligation, this is also a legal duty to which most states have signed up. And when resources are missing to pay for more teachers or trainings, one should remember that all states (including developing countries) have a legal obligation to spend the maximum of their available resources towards the fulfilment of economic, social and cultural rights (including education), and developed states have a duty to provide assistance to developing countries in good faith.
    Besides the endless discussion on the empirical evidence as to whether public or private schools are more efficient, it might be that very simply, States have to promote public education because it is a legal duty they consensually signed up to. Up to them to give themselves the means to achieve their commitments; it’s possible.

  3. David

    Thanks for putting in place this fascinating debate. Aside from being quite interesting to some of us who don’t focus one education, it’s also a prime example of your blog’s general contention that lots of development needs reflect a simple failure of the state to be accountable to its broad public, and the real pathway to change must involve empowering people to own their futures.
    A couple of points that do come out clearly:
    * Kevin is focused on broad, long-term change, emphasizing this more than short- to medium-term fixes. It is not clear how the model of private school performance fits into this perspective; there are references to being a laboratory but the types of innovations found or the pathways to scale those up are uncertain.
    * Kevin also seems concerned that Justin’s means to greater achievement, because it leverages private schools that reduce teacher salaries, will undercut broader incentives for further generations of teachers and so will be an impediment to longer-term solutions.
    * Justin values use of private schools because they outperform public schools at cost. While the evidence seems sketchy, it is not clear from his presentation, even if this is true, why it would be expected to remain true if use of private schools was broadened nationally.
    At the end of the day, what I find missing from the debate is not evidence, but is the “theory of change” from each side. The crux question seems to be whether private schools can sustainably continue to outperform public schools, in developing countries. Why should we expect this, or not, and what would we measure to check?
    With more clarity on this TOC, it would be much easier to sift the evidence. It’s not just how private schools have performed, but which aspects of that performance seem to represent a real difference from how the state mis-provides public education now, and would persist if the state shifted to supporting private schools for public purposes on a wide scale. And frankly, I don’t know which parts of the evidence really bear on that question yet.
    Anyway, great to see these discussions in the development sphere, it’s very valuable!

  4. kevin

    Many thanks for these three thoughtful comments
    Ruth – I feel torn on the quota system, and may have over-stated my case. My concern is that high fee private schools are giving chidlren from the wealthiest households priviliged access to high quality state-funded secondary education. As you know, the national schools heavily out-perform provincial and district schools. However, I agree that affirmative action does not work as a stand-alone strategy. It strikes me that in both Kenya and India, the other country that Justin mentions, governments have introduced affirmative action as a populist measures, rather than as part of an integrated strategy aimed at equalizing opportunity.
    Sylvain: I think we all share a right-based framework. The debate is ultimately about how the enact the progressive realization of the right to education. You highlight the financing issue – and money clearly matters. However, one of the the things eroding the right to eduaction is the failure of governments to provide responsive and accountable school systems.
    David: The theory of change issue is critical. Duncan has written about this in some detail. The shocking state of public education in many countries reflects the weaknes of political coalitions for achieving change. In most of the countries that we are considering, the middle class has basically exited public education, weakening the political impetus for reform. At risk of alienating friends in the NGO community, I also believe that development campaigners have done a pretty bad job as advocates for education for all – and UN leadership has been poor

  5. Kevin,
    Thanks for a fun debate — and thanks, as you said, to Duncan for setting this up. The exchange has surpassed my expectations for evidence-based policy discussion in the blogosphere.
    I would obviously quibble with your reading of my work on Kenyan private schools, but as Duncan notes, I’ve written too much already. Will leave anyone who’s still curious to read the paper.
    Since I kicked this off with a reference to Pakistan, I appreciated your summary on that front.
    “In Pakistan, state failure in education is so pervasive and low-fee private schools are so prevalent, that there are obvious efficiency and equity gains from ‘buying-in’ delivery while fixing the underlying failure.  Every situation is different. And governments and donors need to consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of the non-state delivery options available.”
    Agreed. And I look forward to continuing to debate those relative strengths and weaknesses as more evidence comes in.

  6. Halima Begum

    Thanks for inviting comment on a topic that matters to all of us. A quick point on Pakistan – seeing that we kicked off with Pakistan. I worked for DFID for many years, including briefly with the illustrious team that produced the groundbreaking innovation in Pakistan. At the time, it wasn’t considered as groundbreaking, though was risky. Most people involved in the design would argue that the impetus for this intervention came from Pakistani social entrepreneurs –with support from the British government and Sir Michael Barber’s creative mind. That aside, the issue(s) at hand…
    The trouble with one of the arguments in this thread – that donors are pushing hard and creating markets where no markets exist – is that it assumes we are working from a blank slate of nature. But these low-cost private schools do exist in places like Nigeria, Pakistan, and India etc. While not advocating for a one-size-fits-all approach to education governance, a little bit of competition doesn’t do any harm, and the state system will have every incentive to reform. This applies vice versa to the low-cost private market, which is also shambolic in many places.
    You could argue, of coarse, from a theoretical point of view, if the markets exists, leave them alone, they’ll grow into beautiful trees, to borrow James Tooley’s phrase, without any help. That is, after all, how perfect markets operate….
    The trouble with places like Pakistan, Nigeria, and Indonesia, where I now work, is that these are high-population countries where the education deficit is a national emergency, and these days, national emergencies impact across borders, so for the sake of all of us, kids need to be educated and educated well, to give them a stake in the future. I strongly, and firmly believe in a good, effective public system, but I also believe in giving parents choice, but the choice has to be an honest one. We cannot say there is a choice if we undermine the state system, and create new markets. No, this is a false choice. Real choice exists when the public system is funded, but more importantly, governed well, so that parents make a choice between equal providers, not unequal ones.
    Finally, I’d put the vote to the British taxpayers (or similar taxpayers elsewhere). If we cannot agree whether this is all about ideology, not evidence, just ask the taxpayer what they want to see done with their money. Is this too populist to handle?
    If this were Twitter there’d be a disclaimer, saying most of these views are my Mum’s.

  7. Pauline Rose

    Thanks, Justin, for the reminder about your paper which I have already read with interest.
    I’m not surprised that you find better performance for private schools, even more so because the dataset you have cannot distinguish between more elite high-fee private schools and low-fee ones that have been primarily the subject of this debate (as you indicate in our twitter debate, we don’t know if the latter are subsumed in amongst the results for public schools or private ones – but either way, we can’t identify them).
    The problem with this is further exemplified by your analysis of private school fees in the second part of the paper from a different dataset which shows per primary school pupil fees were a median of $40.87 and a mean of $110.00 per year. Ie there is a wide variation in private schools but you are unable to disentangle this through the KCPE dataset (and really need to be careful about juxtaposing the 2 datasets, as you do in figure 1). There are a few other things too, but I won’t go on further for now.
    This is not to say that the paper doesn’t have merits, but need to be careful about drawing policy conclusions from it for low-fee private schools.
    Many thanks to both you and Kevin for a stimulating debate, and to Duncan for hosting it. It has certainly given food for thought on an important issue.

  8. kevin

    Halima: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. In the end we are facing some tough dilemmas with no easy answers. For those of us who want to see a good quality public system offer the choice of education for all, how do we respond when states fail to deliver? For those who see low-fee private providers as a credible alternative, is it realistic to claim that a state incapable of delivering what is a fairly basic service can regulate, manage and part-finance private provision. Having thought a lot over the past few days on these issues, it strikes me as important that we drop the ‘binary language’ – states are failing or working; the non-state sector is delivering or not delivering; low fees schools are the answer or the problem etc. We all have to recognize I think that most decision-making happens in a fairly amorphous gray area where there are risks, uncertainties and outright unknowns at play

  9. Dear Kevin,
    I am sure you are all committed to a human rights-based approach, and you even write it. I was suggesting however that, before even discussing the empirical evidence about the respective merits in practice of private and public schools, human rights gives a number of parameters that could narrow down the number of “acceptable” options that can be taken to address the education crisis. Some of these parameters include (but are not limited to):
    – First, human rights law requires that States play a central role in providing education at all levels. Doing so, it, at least, clearly rules out the extreme possibility to have a fully private education system (though I understand none of you is suggesting this, it may be useful to remind it), and it requires that when private education exists, it is strictly regulated. So, in any case, there NEEDS to be a functioning state in order to fulfil human rights standards: whether it is to directly provide education or regulate private schools, there is no way to not have the State playing a key role. Even in cases where private education is developed, a State is needed – and so the argument according to which private education is a solution to the failure of the State is just wrong: we’ll need a functioning State anyway. Some may argue that it may even be more burdensome/difficult to regulate private schools than to create or manage an accountable public schooling system. In my view, when the State is failing (i.e. public schools are failing), going around the issue by privatising what is not working is not an option that is in line with human rights.
    – Second, human rights law shifts the thinking about responsibility. It clearly indicates that when the state – and so, public schools – is failing, a) people who are responsible for this failing should be held accountable and b) this should be fixed, and the State has to take all the necessary measures – including through taxation, request for development aid, criminal and other measures against corruption, etc – to fix it. So there is no fatality in a State failing, and no excuse to accept it.
    – Third, human rights law requires that quality primary education be made free and compulsory to all, and secondary education be progressively made free (with no step back allowed, except in exceptional circumstances). Generally, education should also be non-discriminatory on various grounds, including income and social origin. I am still unclear whether private education models can this criterion, even using vouchers.
    One must be clear: human rights is not a magic bullet and does not provide answers to many of the questions raised, such as HOW TO address the failure of governments to provide responsive and accountable school systems. However, it does give guidance as to what options should be taken to address education issues, and, as a minimum, it rule out some options (and it still needs to be discussed whether some options are even prescribed in certain cases). And I think that some of the options that are ruled out, on the basis of the human rights treaties States consensually signed up to, include some (or perhaps most) of the options suggested by Justin.
    Said differently, I think that human rights back up many of your points Kevin, from a different perspective: the points of view of what it binding on States and of the universal agreement that those States made about what education should be like.
    Best regards,

  10. Joanna Härmä

    I would just like to add one aspect for people to consider. Generally speaking rural areas are drastically under-served by private schools. Where I have studied low-cost private schooling in 13 villages in Uttar Pradesh, India, there are relatively many private schools, while the situation in rural parts of Nigeria is very different. In the southern half of Nigeria, the anecdotal evidence indicates that urban areas are filled with private schools, as I’ve found (and documented) in 2 state capitals in the country (Ilorin and Lagos). However when I set out to find how far private education stretched out into the Kwara State countryside around Ilorin, very quickly the incidence of private schools dropped off. I drove for hours and hours over many days in different parts of the state trying to find private schools and came up with few. On the other hand, the coverage of government schools was remarkable. You can read the full report here:
    The point I would like to make is this: private schools are businesses and so will not locate in areas where there is no market. (Milton Friedman’s ‘solution’ to this issue (which he admitted was a problem) was the prediction that soon everyone will live in cities so it doesn’t matter that there’s no market for private schools in villages and small towns! He was writing about mid-20thC USA and his prediction isn’t even true of that context now.) Therefore government systems that already cover (to varying extents in different countries) rural areas are the only option for most rural people. There is no disputing that there is a crisis of teaching-learning quality in many of these rural government schools, and so all the same efforts that people are already making to improve government schools will need to continue in the interest of fairness to the world’s rural inhabitants. I think most people who have worked in this line will agree that it’s probably the hardest context – the remote rural village – in which to try to improve government schools, so if we manage eventually to do that then there’s probably not that much difficulty in doing the same for urban government schools. So therefore I would suggest that private schools are an entirely understandable stop-gap solution for those who live in areas served by them, and I have full sympathy for parents who want to use them, and (usually) for those who own and run them. Private schools are therefore no solution, or ‘cost-effective alternative’ because we can’t use them to fix the education problem for the majority of the 70% of the world’s population that lives in rural areas.
    Lastly on the issue of support to private schools by governments and donors (be it through vouchers or any other means) – the most affordable are those that exist in often shocking buildings with teachers that are sometimes equally shocking. These schools will never be eligible for government or donor support due to the political impossibility of it. So, it is really not even a straight-forward argument that these schools for the poorest should be supported in order to aid the urban poor.

  11. Jay Oldsmith B. Ed Hons MA

    I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.
    Mark Twain
    Why saddle the poor kids of Africa with the same fate as Western Kids? Down the education pipe to slavery for corporations and the debt slave economy?
    Come on you so called educated chaps – think outside the box if you are not so brainwashed by your own ‘education’ that you cannot.
    Love and peace