Dr Laura Day Ashley on the role and impact of private schools in developing countries

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has commissioned a series of rigorous literature reviews focused on different aspects of education. The reviews identify critical evidence gaps to guide future research programmes and present existing evidence for the development of effective interventions. Dr Laura Day Ashley and her colleagues worked on the review focused on the role and impact of private schools in developing countries. The key question driving the review was whether private schools could improve education for children in developing countries or not. The conceptual framework set out a number of hypotheses and assumptions that underpinned the polarised debate about the potential and real contribution of private schools. These are interrogated through a rigorous and objective review of the evidence and findings are mapped on to an evidenced theory of change.

In this video Dr Day Ashley gives a detailed summary of the review:

The full review can be downloaded here. It found there is a lack of data on the true extent and diversity of private schools in developing countries; most of what is known is based on limited knowledge of registered private schools. Most of the evidence reviewed was heavily concentrated on South Asia with a more limited African focus.

The review’s strongest findings show that teaching is better in private schools compared with government schools in terms of higher levels of teacher presence, teaching activity and teaching approaches more conducive to improved learning outcomes. These findings resonate with moderate strength findings that parents perceive private schools to be better quality than government schools in terms of teaching and teacher attendance. Moderate strength evidence also indicates that the cost of education delivery is lower in private schools than government schools; however, this raises concerns since these lower delivery costs are often due to lower teacher salaries in private schools.

Moderate strength evidence was also found that private school students achieve better learning outcomes than their counterparts in government schools. However since studies are typically faced with the problem of effectively accounting for social background differences, there is an ambiguity about the true size of the private school effect. It is also important to note that better teaching and learning outcomes may not mean adequate when considered in the context that many children in developing countries are not achieving basic competencies across both private schools and government schools.

There was moderate strength evidence that private schools are less affordable to users than government schools. Other findings relating to access and equity are weak and inconclusive, but they raise concerns about private school provision and equity. For example, there is some evidence that girls are less likely than boys to be enrolled in private schools, but this is context specific. A sizeable evidence base indicates that it is unlikely that the poorest are able to pay school fees due to financial constraints and where children from poorer households are enrolled in private school, other welfare sacrifices are made and continued attendance is difficult to sustain. It was also found that although private schools are increasingly prevalent in rural areas (and continue in urban areas), this does not necessarily mean that they are reaching the poor.

Moderate strength evidence showed that states are constrained by a lack of legitimacy, capacity and knowledge of the private sector to implement effective policy frameworks and concerns were raised in the literature that private school provision may be promoted by states without adequate regulation and controls. Finally, there was very little and therefore weak evidence to support the often claimed assertion that private schools are more accountable to users than government schools; and the evidence on whether private schools create market competition and drive up standards across the education system was sparse, contested and therefore weak.

General conclusions are difficult to arrive at from the literature reviewed given the significant gaps in the evidence, the diversity of private schools, and because the available research is rarely generalisable. However, some findings were rated as strong and medium and although they cannot be translated into policy regardless of context, they warrant policy-makers’ attention. However, it is clear that most assumptions at the heart of private schools policy debate are weakly evidenced which highlights a need for caution and for more targeted research to fill the gaps in understanding.


Dr Day Ashley became Lecturer at the School of Education, University of Birmingham in 2011 after completing a Birmingham Research Fellowship. Prior to that she worked as a member of a team on a large-scale research programme, the National Evaluation of the Children’s Fund (DfES) at the University of Birmingham. She joined the University of Birmingham from the University of Oxford where she held an ESRC research studentship and ESRC postdoctoral fellowship.

Other reviews in the series

This review is part of a series of DFID education rigorous literature reviews. Other reviews in this series include:


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