Embrace private sector education in post-conflict states to improve standards

Summary: 

  • Low-cost private schools are ubiquitous across the developing world. This book explores their nature and extent in some of the world’s most difficult places, three conflictaffected states in sub-Saharan Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.

  • The accepted wisdom of international agencies on education in conflict-affected states acknowledges that some kinds of low-cost private schools do emerge during conflict. However, it also holds that private schools can only be tolerated as a temporary expedient, to be replaced as soon as is feasible by universal government education.

  • Our research supports the accepted wisdom in terms of the existence of low-cost private schools. They are, as in other developing countries, everywhere. For instance, 71 per cent of children in one of the poorest slums in Monrovia, Liberia, use private schools, and 61 per cent of the private schools were provided by private proprietors (i.e. for profit), not NGOs or religious groups. In each country, there was an educational ‘peace dividend’, with sometimes exponential growth of for-profit schools soaking up educational demand once the conflict was over.

  • Many low-cost private schools were off the government’s radar, meaning that official data greatly overestimated the proportion of children who were out-of-school. In South Sudan, nearly half of all schools we found, serving 28 per cent of the pupils, were not known to government.

  • Children in private schools typically do better academically than those in government schools, and the private schools offer much better value for money. In Sierra Leone, private schools were typically around twice as cost-effective as government schools.

  • Low-cost private schools are affordable to families living on the poverty line. In Liberia, the total cost of sending a child to a government school was found to be 75 per cent of the total cost of sending a child to a low cost private school, once the additional costs of schooling (such as uniform, books, shoes, transport) were included.

  • While this evidence clearly supports the accepted wisdom about the emergence of low-cost private schooling, it challenges the assumption that such private education should only be a temporary expedient. Instead, we suggest a new approach. In conflict-affected countries, low-cost private schools should be celebrated, and seen as major contributors to providing quality educational opportunities for all. Let education in conflict-affected states be as far as possible left to the private sector.

  • Reducing the role of government in education has many potential advantages. The recent history of Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Sudan shows how government education policies were major factors in provoking the conflicts. Reducing the temptation for governments to use education for their own ends would be very positive. Moving education as far as possible outside of government control could also help reduce corruption. And private education, by delivering higher education standards, can help bring about a better educated populace, which would act as a bulwark against states oppressing their people.

  • Currently, international agencies tend to focus on creating, improving and expanding the remit of ministries of education as their way of improving education. Our research suggests an alternative approach. A major underlying aim of any involvement should be to increasingly move educational provision away from government. Every effort should be taken to ensure that any initiative takes the potential for private delivery into account.

  • Governments are typically involved in the regulation, funding and provision of education. Regulations can be adapted to allow for the flourishing of low-cost private education. Private-sector curriculum initiatives should be encouraged, to avoid government monopoly in an area that can kindle conflict. Funding might only be required as targeted assistance for the most vulnerable groups who are not currently served well by private schools (for example, in remote rural areas). Any such funding should go only to the families, to help supplement their income, not to schools. Provision of schooling by government is not required given the appetite and enthusiasm of educational entrepreneurs to provide schools where they are needed.


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