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Low-cost private schools: evidence, approaches and emerging issues

Over the past five years, a polarised debate about the potential contribution of low-cost private schools (LCPSs) to achieving Education for All (EFA) objectives has received growing coverage in international policy circles. At the heart of this debate are disputed questions about whether these schools are providing quality education, reaching disadvantaged groups, supporting or undermining equality (including between girls and boys), affordable for the poor and financially sustainable.

This topic guide synthesises the best available evidence on these questions, navigating readers through often inconclusive and sometimes contradictory research findings. It examines the main challenges development agencies seeking to understand and support LCPSs have encountered to date, documenting emerging approaches and lessons learnt.

Though their scale and coverage is not reliably documented, and many go unrecognised by government, isolated surveys suggest these schools are expanding across Asia and Africa. This growth is variably attributed to excess and/or differentiated demand. However, there are ongoing questions about what this growth implies for:

  • equity: concerns that the growth in low-cost private schooling is exacerbating or perpetuating existing inequalities in developing countries – specifically between urban and rural populations, lower- and (relatively) higher-income families and girls and boys – are widely found in the literature. Findings are that LCPSs are reaching at least some low-income families, although often in relatively small numbers compared with higher-income families. There is evidence girls are underrepresented
  • quality: it is misleading to generalise about the quality of private schools. While some rigorous evidence finds students attending them are achieving better results than their government counterparts, even after their social background is taken into account, other (albeit fewer) studies find the opposite. Quality of teaching and learning, as signalled by levels of teacher absence, pupil to teacher ratios and teaching activity, is found to be better in LCPSs than in government schools in some countries
  • choice and affordability for the poor: irrespective of incentives to get children into government schools, parents sometimes choose private schools because of perceptions of better-quality teaching and facilities, and a preference for English language instruction. Nevertheless, the concept of ‘choice’ does not apply in all contexts, or to all groups in society, partly because of limited affordability (which excludes most of the poorest) and other forms of exclusion, related to caste or social status.
  • cost-effectiveness and financial sustainability: evidence is that private schools operate at low cost by keeping teacher salaries low, but their financial situation may be precarious where they are reliant on fees from low-income households