Can private sector play supportive role in education?

01Aug 2016
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Can private sector play supportive role in education?

Access to education is considered a basic human right and the role of the state in delivering this right is legally codified in international rights treaties including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Yet, states throughout developing countries face persistent budgetary and institutional constraints that plague both the coverage and quality of education services limiting the fulfillment of this right.

Capacity constraints coupled with the increasing demand for education have resulted in an increase in the number of private actors (businesses, NGOs, faith-based organisations and civil society) engaged in service delivery. This has largely been in the form of privately-funded and privately-owned schools and the provision of ancillary services such as the provision of food and transport services. Recent years have seen the introduction of more sophisticated forms of private involvement in education.

There is an ongoing debate about private education, notably for-profit education, leading to the commercialisation of the education sector despite the fact that it is recognised as a public good. This article highlights contribution of private sector in education provision.

The growing private sector involvement in education systems during the last decade, has contributed to changing the way education is governed, funded and provided. Policies involving education privatisation, including public-private partnerships, vouchers, charters and low-fee private schools are increasingly being promoted to expand educational access and improve learning outcomes through increased choice and competition.

There is considerable evidence that education privatisation inhibits equity of access and participation, reduces education to a commodity versus a public good, and infringes on education as a human right.

Most parents believe education is the answer to their children leading a more prosperous life. But does it matter if education is provided by the government or the private sector? What is the role of the government in ensuring access to quality education?

According to the Guardian (UK), a good public education system means public spending, but not necessarily public provision. In OECD countries, more than 20percent of public education expenditure goes to private institutions:

communities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), faith-based organisations, trade unions, private companies, small informal providers and individual practitioners, and about 12 percent is spent on privately-managed institutions.
But does private participation mean higher quality education? Does it bring better exam results? Can it encourage greater equality?

Evidence shows that in the independent sector, where schools depend on fees, it is often the case that once you control for family background; the actual benefits of private schooling disappear. But in systems where access is not limited by selection or wealth, privately-managed schools can contribute to better outcomes.

In the Netherlands, 70 percent of enrolments are in ‘private’ schools that receive a fixed amount of government funding per student (with extra funding for disadvantaged students). On average, families tend to be from a lower social class than those of pupils attending ‘public’ schools, and yet test scores achieved are higher. The level of choice offered appears to provide incentives for Dutch schools to keep improving.

Japanese high schools use private tuition support, which has been shown to lower drop-out rates among students taking less academic study pathways.

According to the World Bank report issues in 2013, between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of students enrolled in private primary schools doubled from 11 percent to 22 percent in low-income countries globally. In some of the poorest countries the private sector is large and growing.

In Liberia, 60 percent of secondary school enrollments are private while in Sierra Leone the figure is 50 percent and in Burkina Faso 40 percent. Education in Somalia is being delivered by a number of non-state organisations. In many contexts, the size of the private sector is often unknown.

However, the fact that the private sector provides a greater share of education services does not eliminate the need for the government to play a stewardship role to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. The government’s role in setting up an effective regulatory environment is paramount.

The World Bank’s study on ‘Education Markets for the Poor’ reveals a number of lessons learned on role of private sector in education such as:

(a) There are differences between policy intent and implementation. Having well thought out and well-written policies does not mean there is effective government engagement with the private sector on the ground.

(b) Some policies can deter the private sector from registering schools and reduce the government’s ability to provide stewardship. In one state in sub-Saharan Africa private schools are not allowed to be situated on hilltops or undulating land or within 500 metres of a market or political party office. These strict guidelines have led to almost 90percent of private schools being unregistered in the state.

(c) Some parents are willing to pay substantial proportions of their income to give their children a better future. Despite innovations such as paying school fees daily, early indications from one country study show that private schools might not be affordable to the poorest of the poor. However, there are also hidden costs associated with attending public schools, including school feeding and learning materials.

(d) Information on school quality is often not easily accessible to parents. For example, this has been overcome in Pakistan where other World Bank research has shown that providing information to parents through school report cards is an effective way to raise attainment and access and reduce school fees.

The picture internationally is that involving the private sector can improve school performance, through competition, accountability and autonomy, as well as expand access. However, without strong systems of accountability, private schools with public funding aren't likely to produce large gains.

The best results come where competition is enhanced through choice, disadvantaged areas are targeted and there is plenty of autonomy at school level.

Parents will continue to seek opportunities for their children to improve their life chances. This may include public schools, private schools or government-supported private schools.

It is notable that non-state providers present a significant resource for improving access and quality in education, and they are likely to remain a major force in the overall market for education, with or without state support.

The State can foster a dynamic private sector and can harness its strengths by introducing well-designed policy frameworks and by promoting Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) that improve education provision for the poor. To be successful, PPPs must be effectively designed and implemented.

In short, no matter who the education provider is, there is a role for government to ensure that all schools provide a high-quality learning environment for every student.
The writer is a specialist in educational policy, planning, economics and finance. He is reached through: [email protected] or +255754304181.