Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Private schools for the poor

At this year's excellent Libertarian Alliance conference, I attended a fascinating talk on 'The Global Rise of Private Education for the Poor,' by James Stanfield of the E.G. West Centre at Newcastle University, which challenged the central tenets of how Western donors and international aid-agencies ought to facilitate education in the developing world. The traditional model, much inspired by the 'end-state' public education systems of nearly every Western country, is dominant amongst international institutions - by their reckoning, there ought to be a single supplier of education, the state, deciding on the curriculum and teaching methods, ensuring universal access to schools and supplying funding to maintain delivery free at the point of use.

They're wrong on all three counts. Public schooling in the developing world, compared to the actually existing private-alternatives, employs poorly-motivated teachers without the incentive structures to innovate pedagogically. The qualitative result of this, which manifests itself in teacher absenteeism and the unshakeable dominance of rote-learning despite huge technological capital injection, is conclusively reflected in the results of research by Professor James Tooley, also of Newcastle University, to compare the private and public test scores of Maths and English:
"even after controlling for background variables, in Lagos State, [Nigeria] for instance, the mean math score advantage over government schools was about 14 and 19 percentage points respectively in private registered and unregistered schools, while in English it was 22 and 29 percentage points"
The popular retort might be, of course, that for those who can afford private schooling, higher results are unsurprising. To which it only needs to be observed that in Lagos State, over 75% of the school-age population attend unaided private schools, demolishing the idea that widespread access to schooling depends on state interference. The average fees per term are just US$12.41, affordable even to those in desperate poverty living on under a dollar per day, and, when parents actually spend their income on directly paying for education, they
"[use] a variety of informal methods, such as visiting several schools to see how committed teachers and the proprietor appear. Or they talk to friends, comparing notes about how frequently exercise books are marked and homework checked... if parents choose one private school, but subsequently discover that another seems better, they have little hesitation in moving their child to where they think they will get a better education."
Rather than assuming, as so many well-meaning paternalists do, that parents are ignorant and uninterested in their child's education (in contrast, of course, to their own disinterested capacity to discern the best interests of thousands of children), the willingness of parents to transfer children - and the multiplicity of competing institutions trying to attract them - has created competitive mechanisms which have propelled budget private schools far beyond their static state equivalents.

Even for those in complete destitution, Tooley found that private school owners were sympathetic and accomodating; in the slums of Hyderabad, India, 18% of places were reserved for children in particular financial hardship - such as orphans and children of widowers - with fees reduced or completely eliminating for these groups. The reason this is possible is that private schools are run at a fraction of the costs of public schools. Teacher pay generally falls around one-quarter in the private sector as in the state-sector, and, in Lagos State, per pupil teacher costs are more than two and a half times greater in the state system; in some cases, teachers in public schools are better remunerated than owners of private schools. That the latter network flourishes is testament to its roots in community-organisation and a fusion of entrepreneurialism with charity.

Nonetheless, it is little wonder that the work of Professor Tooley and his colleagues at the E.G. West Centre is under-reported, and that well-meaning people continue to advocate central planning in education. Before the conference speech, a short video from a 2002 appearance on Newsnight with Tooley was shown, in which, after presenting a brief report from Nigeria, he participated in a discussion with Keith Lewin, Professor of Education at the University of Sussex. "He's asking the right questions," responded Lewin to a question about the reality of effective, cheap private schooling, "but not giving the right answers." I don't think any joke by a speaker managed to rouse as much laughter from the audience.


Jock Coats said...

Thanks for that. I missed that session - didn't want to clatter in late, so I'll be waiting for the video, but got a good flavour of it from this piece.

Carlotta said...

Of course, any method of schooling, be it public or private, is prone to delivering high levels of coercion to children, many of whom would be better served by being helped to fashion their own education.

Libertarianism does work for children, as an increasing number of autonomy-respecting home educators are discovering.