Private Schools in Poor Countries

  • Overseas
  • 2003

Officially, education in most poor countries is provided by the government at no charge to parents. But in practice, these state-run schools are often terrible—with teachers appointed by nepotism rather than skill, who don’t show up, or require bribes—yielding miserable student results. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, 5 million elementary-age children don’t even have a school available to them at all.

In every land, though, parents are ambitious for their offspring, and seek out workarounds when offered lousy education. James Tooley, who was a teacher in Africa before he became a professor of education at Britain’s Newcastle University, began to hear about extremely low-cost private schools springing up in slums across the developing world. Though government officials denied that such schools existed, or that they were anything but exploitative if they did, Tooley decided to investigate for himself. In 2003, the John Templeton Foundation awarded him nearly $800,000 for in-depth research, and he set off to Old City Hyderabad in India, Makoko, Nigeria, and many other such shantytowns.

Tooley discovered a vast ecosystem of bare-bones private schools that charge parents $2 to $6 per month (about 5-10 percent of the salary of the poorest workers). These administer a heavily scripted curriculum, using energetic instructors hired from the same slum where the school is located, and generally produce test results so much better than the available government school that parents line up to enroll their children. “The fees make school and parent accountable to each other. The state schools lack that accountability,” reports U.S. philanthropist Steve Beck, who has been funding the expansion of such academies in Nairobi, Kenya.

Fully half of all schoolchildren in impoverished districts of south India turned out to be enrolled in low-cost private schools. In Hyderabad it was 65 percent. In the slums of Accra, Ghana it was 64 percent. In Lagos, Nigeria, 75 percent were in private schools. Across low-income districts of China, India, and Africa the results were the same.

In every single region Tooley studied, students from the super-cheap private schools significantly outscored their counterparts in government schools (after careful adjustment for demographic differences, IQ, and so forth) on both math and language skills. The private-school teachers were much more likely to actually be teaching when unannounced school visits were made, and the private schools were better equipped with toilets and drinking water. After accumulating test results from 24,000 children, Tooley concluded that academic results were dramatically better for the children attending private schools. To top it all off, all of this was achieved at just a fraction of the cost of the ineffective government schools.

When this research won a development prize in 2006, philanthropists realized they could accelerate and extend the successes of these low-cost private schools by offering loans or grants for expansion. The Orient Global Education Fund put up $100 million in 2007. Other philanthropies (Opportunity International, the IDP Foundation, Edify, etc.) began to provide microloans of $500 to $2,000 so educational entrepreneurs could open branches or install latrines or buy land for building.

Donors like Steve Beck, David Weekley, and many others have put $100 million of launch money into for-profit schools like Bridge International Academies. After starting in a Nairobi slum in 2009, Bridge now educates about 100,000 African children. It has been opening as many as 150 schools in a year, and is now popping up two private “schools in a box” every week across Africa and Asia.

When 25,000 high-schoolers in the African nation of Liberia took the annual exam for admission to the University of Liberia and not a single one passed, Liberian president Ellen Sirleaf pronounced her government’s education bureaucracy “a mess” and demanded a new approach. So in 2016, Bridge International Academies was brought in to provide the public education in schools educating more than 9,000 Liberian children. If this test succeeds, management of more schools will be transferred to Bridge and other philanthropically backed groups.