My response? Umm... no!
Here are the facts about low-fee private schooling based on a global review of the literature. This post also appears on the comments section of the original article in The Guardian.
The debate suffers from a misrepresentation of the facts. Here they are, in a simplified way, within the limits that this medium affords.
The comments below are based on a comprehensive review of the literature on this sector since the earliest published studies in 1995, and cover countries such as Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi, Pakistan, Uganda, and others.
1. Affordability: Affordable for whom?
Evidence shows that most daily wage households cannot afford the 'low' fees charged at these schools. Tuition fees are just one part of costs. Costs include books, transportation, testing fees, uniforms, meals, etc., and can run anywhere from 3% (in the most affordable cases) to 30% per child.
Given the volatility of daily wage earners' household income, and since most households have more than one child to school, many bargain or negotiate lower fees. Schools acquiesce because they do not want to lose clients in the hopes that they will eventually pay. Having a full school also projects an image of popularity that, in turn, helps to attract more clients.
2. Equity: Who gets to go, and who gets left out?
Given low-fee private schooling costs, most disadvantaged households have to make difficult decisions about who to send to them. This choice most often favours boys and aggravates gender inequities. Children from ethnic minority, lower-caste groups, and the bottom 20% earning households are also under-represented.
3. Quality: Are low-fee private schools really better?
The full portfolio of evidence is inconclusive.
On achievement: These schools tend to do somewhat better in math, but not always in Engli lish or local language, or in final board exam results. In some instances, there is a negative effect of private schools attendance, in others, private school students do marginally better.
On inputs: Evidence is mixed regarding school infrastructure. But all studies show that the only way low-fee private schools keep costs low is to hire unqualified teachers and pay them extremely low wages. The strategy of 'success' is to recruit teachers who are young, local, women as 'the cheapest source of labour' (I am quoting from a published study on Pakistan here). There are broader issues here about the para-skilling of teachers and potential exploitation of the female labour market.
On recognition as a quality marker: In most countries, private schools are meant to go through a process of recognition once they meet basic standards or quality norms. This is supposed to be a mark of baseline quality. However, in many countries low-fee private schools gain recognition through corruption and bribery. Delayed inspections, lost forms, postponed committee meetings, cumbersome paperwork, and complex land registration requirements prompt many owners to pre-emptively open their schools without registration or operate underground. This undermines the education sector as a whole.
On household perceptions: In the absence of objective quality markers (e.g. recognition standards; effective, honest inspections) choosing low-fee private schools by households who can, may be a marker of perceived quality in certain instances, but it may not be in others. This is not to say that state sector dysfunctions do not exist and households do not judge on attributes they consider indicative of ‘good’ schooling. But, low-fee private school choice has also been shown as a way for households to project an image of increased social status, to bestow prestige, uphold gender norms, in line with parental aspirations, or for some parents to distance themselves from those they consider even more 'disadvantaged' than them.
I should think that since so much of the global evidence on low-fee private schooling raises serious concerns or is inconclusive, this would prompt aid agencies to rethink their strategies.
The fact remains that the majority of the poorest, most disadvantaged children in poor countries continue to access the state sector, which needs to be better. Wouldn't it make more sense to make sure that they get better?
For a full review of evidence on low-fee private schooling and seven new empirical studies, see new book: 'Low-fee private schooling: aggravating equity or mitigating disadvantage?'