An insight into low cost private schools

Over the past five years, there has been considerable focus on LCPSs in developing countries
An insight into low cost private schools
GK Photo

Over the last decade countries as diverse as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Mongolia, China and Vietnam have all seen a dramatic growth in private ‘low-fee’ or ‘low cost’ private schooling. Private entrepreneurs and not-for-profit organisations have launched low-cost private schools with a promise to offer high-quality education through accountable institutions to some of the poorest families.

There is no set definition of ‘low-fee’, but the commonly used one is that the fee per month is less than an unskilled labourer would earn in a day. LCPSs include any market-oriented-nominally for-profit-school that is dependent on user fees for some or all of its costs. All LCPSs are characterised by a degree of financial independence from the state, and therefore need to attract and retain pupils in order to operate a viable business model. In contrast to elite private schools, they charge fees that low-income families consider relatively affordable.

Over the past five years, there has been considerable focus on LCPSs in developing countries (Rose, 2002; Tooley et al., 2008). However, it is difficult to obtain reliable data on the scale and geographical coverage of these schools. A comprehensive census and geographic information system (GIS) mapping exercise in Patna, Bihar, revealed 1,574 private schools operating in the area, as against official government estimates of 350 (Rangaraju et al., 2012). A recent Annual Status of Education Reports (ASERs) from Pakistan and India indicate that private school enrolments are growing in rural areas. 59% of children in urban areas and 23% in rural areas were enrolled in private schools in Pakistan in 2012. 28.3% of children in rural areas were enrolled in private schools in India in 2012. Increases in private school enrolment were found in almost all Indian states, and in rural areas it has been rising by an annual rate of 10% since 2009. If this rate of growth continues, 50% of children in rural areas of India will be enrolled in private schools by 2018. Sources: ASER Pakistan (2013); Pratham (2013). In Africa, a recent census in Lagos state, Nigeria, found private schools accounted for 57% of all school enrolments (Härmä, 2011a). Another isolated survey, comparing two urban slums in Kenya, found that up to 44% of children were attending LCPSs (Oketch et al., 2010)

The mushrooming of LCPSs, besides playing an important part in achieving Education for All targets and the Millennium Development Goals, can be attributed to several factors:

Poor performance of state schools:

The fundamental reason for low-fee private schools is the perceived failure of the government sector. This failure can be simply that schools are not available for all children, or not within what the parents regard as a reasonable distance from their homes. It can also be that the schools available do not offer the type of schooling that parents want in terms of language, religion or the curriculum. But the most significant way in which government schools are thought to have failed is in terms of academic success. In one Indian study, when researchers called unannounced on a large random sample of government schools, only half of the teachers were engaged in any teaching activity. In a third of the schools, the Principal was absent. Examples were given of teachers being drunk, sleeping on the job, getting children to do their domestic chores for them, and teachers keeping schools closed for weeks at a time. The report concluded that, generally, teaching activity in these government schools had been reduced to a minimum, in terms of both time and effort. More importantly, they claimed that ‘this pattern is not confined to a minority of irresponsible teachers – it has become a way of life in the profession’. But there are also concerns about the quality of the schooling provided in the private sector. These are reasonable concerns given that the fees of such schools are low mainly because the teachers are not paid salaries anywhere near those of government school teachers. Moreover, many teachers in these low-fee schools are not trained or qualified teachers and the schools themselves often lack basic teaching and other facilities. Studies in India, Nigeria and Ghana showed that the children in low-fee private schools in general scored higher on standardised tests in key curriculum areas than children in government schools. They also showed that class sizes were smaller and teachers’ commitment was higher as indicated by more teaching taking place when the researchers called unannounced.

Teacher Attendance:

Private schools congregate in areas where rates of government schoolteachers’ absence are highest. Kremer and Muralidharan, 2008 (India); Tooley et al. (2008) (India)

Pupil-Teacher Ratio:

Probability of attending primary schools increases as pupil to teacher ratios (PTRs) increase in government schools. Nishimura and Yamano (2013) (Kenya)

High Population Density:

Villages with larger populations tend to have more private schools as private sector activities tend to occur where there is a sustainable market ( Andrabi et al. (2008) (Pakistan)

Relatively High Quality of Infrastructure (Roads, Water):

Private schools are mainly located in villages with better public infrastructure. Dixon (2013b) (India); Pal (2010) (India)

Over-Supply of Teachers:

The over-abundance of trained teachers and graduates but the lack of available jobs means that low cost private schools are able to employ teachers at a fraction of the salaries that teachers can obtain in the government schools. Teachers are ready to settle for these low salaries to add to their experience of teaching while they await better prospects. Research shows that teachers in rural low-fee private schools in India earn at most one-fifth of the salaries of government school teachers. They are on average 10 years younger and twice as likely to come from the same village where the school is situated. Private schools are three times more likely to emerge in villages where there are government girls’ secondary schools. Andrabi et al. (2013) (India) Therefore ensuring a ready supply of female graduates to recruit as teachers.

Language of Instruction:

There is a common demand among parents from developing countries for English as the language of instruction. Though certain factions wish their children to be taught in their mother tongue the general parental perception is that their child will have an advantage in life if English is learned from a young age.

Over the past five years opposing views have been presented on the contribution of LCPSs towards Education for All based on whether these schools are providing quality education, reaching disadvantaged groups, supporting or undermining equality (including between girls and boys), affordable for the poor and financially sustainable:

Do LCPSs provide a quality education?

Students achieve better educational outcomes in private schools.

LCPSs tend to have low PTRs.

Private school curricula may be unregulated and governments may not provide for transfer into public secondary schools.

Private school teachers may be inexperienced and unqualified.

Do they reach the disadvantaged?

Private schools are geographically accessible to the poorest, operating in both rural and urban areas and often ‘filling the gaps’ in state provision.

LCPSs are not serving the lowest economic quintiles; they stratify the poor into the better-off, who go private, and the worse-off, who go public.

Non-state schools cluster in urban areas and cities where the market is more viable than in rural areas, i.e. they ‘follow the money’.

Are they serving girls and boys?

Private schools are equally accessible by girls and boys.

Household decisions influence whether attendance is equal; where resources are limited, boys are often favoured over girls.

Are they affordable to users?

The poorest quintile is willing and able to pay for private schools.

Private schools are no more expensive than state schools, which often have implicit costs (e.g. uniforms, transport, food, textbooks).

The cost of fees reduces the money available for households for basic welfare.

Are they cost-effective and financially sustainable?

Private schools are more cost-effective than state schools partly because overheads are lower.

Teachers working for a fraction of state schoolteachers’ salary can still be effective.

LCPSs exploit local labour markets for unemployed, untrained and typically female secondary school leavers.

LCPSs serving the poor are unsustainable without significant subsidy

[Source: Author, based on Day-Ashley et al. (2013).]

A generalisation of the heterogeneous mix of LCPSs spread across developing countries would be inappropriate as good and bad schools can be found in any category (Chudgar and Quin, 2012). However, a rigorous review found that, on the whole, evidence broadly supports the view that students attending private, fee-paying schools are achieving better results, even after their social background is taken into account (Day-Ashley et al., 2013). Kingdon and Banerji’s (2009) study in Uttar Pradesh found regular government schoolteachers reported spending 75% of their school time teaching, compared with 90% reported by private school teachers. Singh (2012) found teachers in private schools in rural areas in India were more likely to have adopted pedagogies and teaching styles that lead to improved student outcomes. Tooley et al. (2011) found levels of teaching activity were significantly higher in private compared with government schools in Nigeria and India.

Support to low-cost private schools

Regulations aim to ensure accountability in education by setting and enforcing standards. However, evidence from various countries suggests regulatory structures for LCPSs have been difficult to enforce in practice (Day-Ashley et al., 2013). Provision for students to sit for state exams and the prospect of charging higher fees than unrecognised schools may provide an incentive for LCPSs to achieve recognition (Dixon, 2013b). Proponents of the public–private partnership claim that PPPs provide a competitive market for education, offering a cost-effective, performance-based approach to delivery that incorporates a degree of risk sharing between the public and private sectors (LaRocque., 2010). PPPs can provide support through the ‘Adopt a school programme’, by taking responsibility for improving a school, providing management, training and monitoring.

Government’s recognition of the role of the private sector in national education policy can help build a politically stable environment in which the private sector can operate with clear, objective, and streamlined registration criteria. The government agency responsible for regulating the private sector requires information and skills to design, develop, and manage registration /accreditation programs and monitoring functions. Concessions should be provided to the low cost schools including allocating free land, tax exemptions and charging domestic rather than commercial rates for utilities.

Research suggests that entrepreneurship and profit-making are the main reason for the growth of low-fee private schools. This has led to proposals that international funding should be made available to entrepreneurs to extend existing low-fee private schools and to enable them to build further schools and develop chains of brand-named schools.


Archer, David (2014-)The Impact of Low Cost Private Schools

Mcloughlin , Claire (2013)- Low-cost private schools: Evidence, approaches and emerging issues

Walford ,Geoffrey(2014) Low-Fee Private Schools and International Aid

Dr Farooq Wasil, a published author, and an educationist, is Consultant and Advisor, TSPL ( Thinksite Services Private Limited). He has over 3 decades of experience in the field of education – setting up, operating and managing schools.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Greater Kashmir