Lessons from Nigeria’s private school revolution

New research findings provide yet more evidence in favour of the low-cost private school revolution currently sweeping the developing world. The implications for international aid, however, may be less positive.

A survey from Lagos State, Nigeria, funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), set out to compare government schools with low-cost private schools, including those managed by Bridge International Academies, an American company running hundreds of schools in Kenya and Uganda. Back in 2015, DFID gave a £3.45 million grant to Bridge International and wanted to see whether their gift from the British taxpayer offered value for money.

For context, in Lagos State, Nigeria, research has shown that 70% of children aged 5 to 14 are in private schools. A census from 2010 physically counted 12,098 private schools, with 1.4 million children enrolled. Given the population growth in Lagos, there are now estimated to be over 16,000 private schools, the majority of which are likely to be low-cost.

DFID were aware that low-cost private schools in Lagos, as in other major urban areas of Africa and Asia, make up a hugely significant part of educational provision, including for poor communities. So, they set up a five-year project in 2013, DEEPEN – Developing Effective Private Education in Nigeria, to improve the private education market, particularly in engaging with government to create a conducive regulatory regime.

The total project budget was £16 million. Of this, over 20% (£3.45 million) was channeled to Bridge International Academies, which duly set up Nigerian operations, opening 37 schools by the time of the research.

Some thought it odd that such a large proportion of the aid budget went to one American company to set up new low-cost private schools. There is a huge number of existing low-cost private schools already in the state, thousands of which are organised into federations. These federations[1] try to improve educational quality in their schools through teacher training and assessment. Couldn’t these have been the beneficiaries if there was money to be spent?

Against that, it could be argued that Bridge was developing a model that could be used much more widely across Nigeria. But perhaps existing low-cost private schools and their federations could also have done the same? In a sense, DFID was engaged in that eternal government pastime – picking winners.

So how did their winner fare?

The 37 Bridge schools were matched with existing low-cost private and government schools. Children were tested in literacy and numeracy and given questionnaires to understand their family background better.

On literacy, Bridge came out on top. Government schools performed worst of all, with the existing low-cost private schools in second place. In Bridge schools, 80% of students performed above the sample average, compared to 62% in existing low-cost private schools. The figure was only 18% for government schools.

These are impressive results for Bridge – but also for the existing private schools.

Without any outside assistance from international agencies, it’s clear that low-cost private schools are performing much better than the government schools – which have been the beneficiaries of international aid for decades, on top of existing state funding.

On numeracy, however, something interesting happens. Government schools come out worst. No surprises there. But there is no difference between Bridge and the existing low-cost private schools. In Bridge schools, 62% of children performed above the sample average, compared to 64% of those in low-cost private schools. The figure for government schools is just 24%.[2]

This means that looking at value for money to parents, after controlling for family background, the research found that sending a child to a Bridge school was better value for money for literacy, but not for numeracy.

Bridge can take solace in another finding of the report. Their approach has confounded something that researchers take for granted: academic scores vary according to family wealth. The poorer a family, the lower their children’s scores. In literacy, Bridge has broken this link; the new research shows no significant difference in test scores between children from families in different wealth quintiles. Bridge has overcome this problem, one would guess, through its consistent teaching methods, scripted lesson plans, standardised assessment and so on.

In its conclusions, the report tries to be sanguine:

‘There are some positive indications for DFID’s investment in Bridge: a Bridge education is correlated with better literacy achievement compared to other private school alternatives … However, … a Bridge education is as good as that received in other low-fee private schools for numeracy.’

In political newspeak, grants or gifts are often described as ‘investments’, as though there were some possibility of return on the funding. Language aside, we might wonder whether it was sensible for the British government to back one external firm, when there was huge untapped potential in existing low-cost private schools.

As is obvious, I’m a great fan of Bridge. But I’m less of a fan of government aid agencies trying to pick winners.

[1] Full disclosure: I am international patron of one of these federations, AFED (the Association of Formidable Educational Development).

[2] The difference between Bridge and private was not statistically significant, but it was comparing Bridge and private with government schools. Each of the general results holds once background variables are controlled for.

Member of the Advisory Council

James Tooley is Professor of Educational Entrepreneurship and Policy at the University of Buckingham, with previous academic appointments at the Universities of Oxford, Manchester and Newcastle. His ground-breaking research on low-cost private education in developing countries has won numerous awards, including a gold prize in the first International Finance Corporation/Financial Times Private Sector Development Competition, the Templeton Prize for Free Market Solutions to Poverty, and the IEA’s National Free Enterprise Award.

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