Affordable Private Schools: Bridging the gap in education?

6th Dec 2012
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Moving to Secunderabad – the lesser-known twin of Hyderabad – exposed me to a new, dynamic sector in education that has taken root in countries where governments are unable – or unwilling – to provide quality, free education.In the last decade entrepreneurs have been establishing Affordable Private Schools (APS) for low-income families with astonishing success. The sheer scale of this sector demonstrates the dramatic change it has affected on the climate of education – millions of parents across the globe have rejected government education, leading academics to suggest that APS offer an ‘alternative route to ensuring “education for all”’ (James Tooley, ‘Impact of Free Primary Education in Kenya’).

My placement in Secunderabad with Butterfly Fields – an organisation that promotes activity-based learning in schools – has allowed me to explore this significant development and to consider the growth of APS in relation to the pledges of governments worldwide to guarantee free primary education.

THE RIGHT TO EDUCATION

Education has long been recognised as a fundamental human right. Universal primary education is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals and the UN has achieved some success in the last twelve years, with countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia passing legislation to ensure free and compulsory schooling until secondary-level.

Yet despite the ambitious goals of governments across the globe, the practical implementation of the right to education has been beset with problems. In Kenya, the introduction of free primary education brought waves of new students into school (including Kimani Murage who enrolled in grade one at the age of 84!). This created substantial operational problems: overcrowding, shortage of equipment and supplies and a dearth of trained teachers. In India, government schools face similar difficulties, with an acute shortage of teachers due to low salaries and poor teaching facilities. In rural areas, schools are often run by untrained ‘para-teachers’, with qualifications as low as completion of primary school.

Therefore, whilst more children than ever before are sitting in classrooms, vast numbers are unable to read, write or complete basic arithmetic. In India, parental satisfaction with government schools is as little as 16%.

THE DEMAND FOR AFFORDABLE PRIVATE SCHOOLS

A growing awareness of both the importance of education and the deficiency of government schools has created a surge in demand for quality schooling among low-income communities. APS have proliferated worldwide and increasingly parents are choosing to pay for education: in Lagos, Nigeria, 70% of schoolchildren attend APS; and 65% of schoolchildren living in Hyderabad’s slums are enrolled in private institutions.


The shift away from the public sector can be approached in a number of ways. First, it is encouraging that parents of all socio-economic backgrounds value education. There is widespread faith among low-income families worldwide that the acquisition of key skills, such as English, numeracy and computer literacy, can provide a better future; the soaring demand for quality, low-cost education demonstrates this conviction.Secondly, in the absence of quality government schools, APS allow low-income families to choose a better education for their children. With the state failing to provide, the growth of low-cost alternatives has empowered the world’s poorest to make their own choice regarding education. In this way, APS are seen to be bridging the gap between the government and private sectors, enabling low-income families to access quality education.

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However, it should not be assumed that APS have created equal opportunity in education. In India there is a glaring disparity between APS charging an average of Rs. 490 each month and private schools that price education at Rs. 65,000 per annum. Globally, children that attend the best APS are still at an insurmountable disadvantage compared to contemporaries in elite private schools. In India, just over 1% of young people attend higher education institutions; you can bet that very few come from an APS.

Furthermore, it is a myth that all APS provide a quality service. Within the sector there is a wide range in fee structure that impacts everything from infrastructure and learning facilities to teacher salaries and pedagogy. At the halfway point of an impact assessment of the intervention of Butterfly Fields in fifteen APS, I found that only a quarter of primary school students meet the required national level in Maths.

Moreover, parents have to make a choice between quality and affordability – often a decision that, without having had any formal education, they are ill-equipped to make. Although low-income families are ‘empowered’ to choose APS over government schools, they will rarely be able to choose the best education for their children. As long as parents have to balance quality and affordability, educational equality will not be achieved.

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After pledging to provide quality and free education in the last decade, governments have faced significant difficulties in realising their promise. In many cases, government schools are understaffed, ill-equipped and offer inadequate education. Currently, most APS provide better education for the current generation.

However, Tooley’s assertion that universal education will be achieved ‘by embracing, rather than ignoring, the role currently played by the private sector’ misses the point. Aside from free education widely being recognised as a basic human right, surely the goal is not to ensure that all children are in a classroom, but rather to guarantee equal educational opportunity. By ‘embracing’ the private sector, governments will perpetuate educational inequality, reinforcing the barriers that are faced by children from low-income families and contributing to the widening socio-economic divide.

Today, APS meet a rising demand by providing a generation of schoolchildren with a better education than most government schools. But this should not be seen as the solution to universal primary education. If APS are bridging the gap, it is a bridge that only extends so far. Educational and social inequality will not disappear until governments make good on their promise to provide quality state-sponsored education for all their citizens – not at an affordable cost, but for free.

Written by Ben Thurman, currently an IDEX Fellow in Social Enterprise working with Butterfly Fields.

This piece was originally posted on The South Asianist Blog on 10/25/2012

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