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NGOs and campaigners expressed outrage last month that UK aid is supporting education programmes provided by for-profit corporations. They argue that, even if fees are low, private schools enhance inequality by excluding the poorest children. Campaigning organisation Global Justice Now called the concept “misplaced and dangerous”.
This indignation around low-cost schooling appears to be based on kneejerk opposition to the private sector rather than a proper understanding of the facts. It also risks confusing
for-profit and not-for-profit private schools as one and the same. Plus, it fails to acknowledge the significant advantages that low-cost schooling — whoever is managing it — can offer girls.
In many poor countries, more boys than girls attend school, a trend that increases at the secondary level as teenage girls drop out. Reasons for this include cultural barriers, a lack of ‘girl friendly’ school facilities such as sanitation, and affordability: if money is short, families may choose to educate a boy over a girl.
Where government schools have failed to overcome these barriers, low-cost schools can step in. Many of these, including some funded by the UK Department for International Development, are run by not-for-profit organisations. Their existence in remote communities offers education to girls who cannot get to the nearest government school. They can provide separate latrines for girls, and segregated classrooms in conservative societies that prohibit coeducation — facilities that government schools can’t always afford.
The angry campaigners seem to assume that fee-paying schools exclude the poorest children. But that’s not necessarily the case. They can offer bursaries for girls which — when the bribes and other ‘hidden costs’ often associated with government schools are considered — makes them much more affordable.
The not-for-profit Langlands School and College, in an isolated mountainous valley in northern Pakistan, is one such example. Responding to the valley’s Islamic tradition of observing purdah, where women are secluded from public life, the school segregates older girls, who are taught by a cohort of motivated, well-trained female teachers. The fees are so low that farmers, farm labourers, shopkeepers and servants can afford to send their children to the school, while scholarships and bursaries exist for the very poor.
And it is not just a common trend in Asia. James Tooley, an ardent proponent of low-cost education, has pointed out in an article that many parents in the developing world choose low-cost schooling over free, state-provided schooling. Tooley cites a 2013 study in Lagos State in Nigeria that revealed that 73 per cent of primary school pupils were enrolled in private schools.
Anyone who theorises against this phenomenon should visit a low-cost school in a remote area where government schools have failed to extend, and see for themselves how many girls attend.
Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 20 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting economic opportunities for poor women.
Henrietta Miers lived in the valley near the Langlands school for three years. She was previously a trustee of the school and is now part of the ‘friends of Langlands school’ group.