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

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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. LCPSs include any market-oriented (nominally for-profit) school that is dependent on user fees for some or all of its costs. 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: 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 of provision and educational outcomes: Evidence on student outcomes is mixed, though there are more studies finding private school student achieving better results. Quality of teaching and learning is found to be better in LCPSs than in government schools in some countries.
  • Choice and affordability for the poor: The concept of ‘choice’ does not apply in all contexts, or to all groups in society, partly because of limited affordability 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.

While there are isolated cases of successful voucher and subsidy programmes, evaluations of international support to the sector are not widespread. Addressing regulatory ineffectiveness is a key challenge. Emerging approaches stress the importance of understanding the political economy of the market for LCPSs, specifically how relationships of power and accountability between users, government and private providers can produce better education outcomes for the poor.

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