The evidence for the sustainable scale-up of low-cost private schools in South West Asia

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What do we want to know?
This systematic review conducted on behalf of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) examines the evidence regarding the sustainable scaleup of low-cost private primary schools in South and West Asia, in particular Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Who wants to know and why?
Increasingly, ‘low-cost private schools’ are seen as a viable education option, especially in countries where government systems struggle to reach all of the school-age children, or provide quality education. DFID’s current development goals seek to provide support to nine million children of primary school age, concentrating on unstable and conflictaffected states, where over half of out-of-school primary-age children live. In fragile contexts, education plays an important part in the long-term process of reconstruction and stabilisation. DFID is committed to pursuing flexible and responsive approaches to education in these fragile and conflict-affected environments, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, including through partnerships with non-state providers, to help overcome the challenges of working in these environments. One of the possible means of ensuring the delivery of quality education for all is low-cost private schools. This review examines the current evidence base to inform policy on the sustainable scale-up of low-cost schools in the South and West Asia region.

What did we find?
The review found that there was no uniform definition of low-cost private schools and there has been little engagement with the concept of sustainable scale-up of such schools in the South and West Asia region. After four rounds of screening for inclusion/exclusion criteria based primarily on the relevance of the documents to the two key concepts of ‘low-cost private education’ and ‘sustainable scale-up’, and on the rigour of the study methodology, only 44 documents were found to be appropriate. Of these, 25 documents looked solely at low-cost private schools, the remainder engaging more with the concept of low-cost private schools and sustainable scale-up. Overall, the search found a weak evidence base to inform policy on the sustainable scale-up of low-cost private schools in the region, particularly in the area of the long-term, financial sustainability of such schools in conflict-affected states. There is also a paucity of research into the impact of low-cost private schools on family income.

What are the implications?
This report discusses the results of the synthesis process and provides implications for appropriate scale-up mechanisms and approaches, as well as a broader strategy for engagement with education in the context of fragile and conflict-affected environments, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the context of such states, the reported benefits of low-cost private schools in more stable contexts, in terms of filling gaps in provision at a lower unit cost, need to be considered alongside such issues as weak governance, corruption and lack of security found in many conflict-affected states. They can also reinforce inequitable access to quality education by excluding the poorest families who cannot afford the additional fees. Therefore, support given to the sustainable scaling up of low-cost private schools should involve careful consideration of all these factors and the wider political economy of fragile states.

How did we get these results?
The Review Team employed a mixed-methods approach that built upon a foundation of Critical Interpretive Synthesis, a method that is particularly useful when working with disparate forms of evidence. This approach was also warranted because a fully articulated response to the research question required theorisation and synthesis at the concept level of the review’s main hypotheses about sustainable scale-up and low-cost private schools. The review methodology consisted of electronic searches of bibliographic databases and hand searches of the websites of relevant organisations, using a combined search process involving the key concepts of low-cost private education and sustainable scale-up of education projects, all in fragile or conflict-affected contexts. Users from the education sector were also identified during this period and were able to provide invaluable background information, especially relating to Afghanistan, which was lacking in the returned literature. The information contained in the reports was included in the final data set and was guided by three questions: (1) the factors affecting the sustainability of low-cost private schools, (2) the ways in which education projects, particularly those that are private-led or public-private partnerships, are sustainably scaled up in fragile and conflict-affected countries, and (3) the challenges facing the education systems in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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