Should we ban low-cost private schools in the developing world?

18 Mar 2017 |

According to UNESCO, there are currently 263 million children not in education. 61 million of these are of primary school age.

While unacceptably high, the number of children not in school has been falling over the past decade.

Part of the reason for this has been the growth in low cost private schooling. It’s estimated that there are now one million private schools in developing nations, typically charging just a few dollars per month.

However, these schools have also been accused of operating in unsuitable facilities, employing unskilled teachers and reinforcing social divides.

So, should low-cost private schools be banned?

These were the arguments made during this Debate Chamber at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017:

For: Low-cost private schools in the developing world should be banned

  1. Only governments can provide the scale needed to meet the challenge

Opening the debate, Vandana Goyal, CEO of The Akanksha Foundation, argued that the sheer numbers of children currently out of school meant that a large scale solution was needed, and that this could only be provided at a government level.

She added that “99.5% of low cost schools are single operations”.

“The remaining 0.5%, one would argue that scale is not something they can deliver,” said Goyal.

Also speaking for the motion, Education International Project Director Angelo Gavrielatos argued that governments had a responsibility to meet the challenge of providing free education for all, rather than allowing unregulated private outfits to fill the gap.

He cited the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to ensure “inclusive and quality education for all”, and in particular the target to ensure all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education.

“We want governments to fulfil their obligations to the SDGs, and that includes the goal that all children receive free primary and secondary education,” he said.

Goyal added that poor families should not be forced into a choice between buying food and paying school fees.

2. Low cost private schools are unregulated and dangerous

Gavrielatos also argued that in many cases private schools should be banned because the learning environments were unsuitable and in some cases even dangerous for pupils.

“If your business plan is predicated on employment of unskilled teachers… teaching in facilities that ministerial officials have described as being like chicken coups, with hygiene standards that put the safety of children at risk, then clearly your registration as a school should be revoked,” he said.

He added it was the responsibility of governments to ensure that legal and educational standards are being met by both private and public schools, and “where operators show neglect and disregard for those standards, those operators should be shut down”.

Against: Low-cost private schools in the developing world should not be banned

  1. Provision and quality of public schools in developing nations is inadequate

While Gavrielatos attacked the quality of facilities provided by low-cost private schools, those against the motion to ban such schools argued against the teaching – or lack thereof – found in many public schools in developing nations.

BRAC senior director Asif Saleh highlighted the high levels of teacher absenteeism and corruption that is rife in many areas. A study by the World Bank found that teachers in state-run primary schools in some African countries were absent 15-25% of the time. Since 2009 Sierra Leone has struck 6,000 fake teachers off its payroll by checking identities before paying salaries, and a national survey in Pakistan recently found that over 8,000 state schools did not actually exist.

“By training people available in the local community, private schools have helped combat teacher absenteeism,” said Saleh.

Hindustan Times Editor-In-Chief Bobby Ghosh shared his own experience of visiting a state-run primary school in Yemen, and walking into a fifth grade classroom with no teacher present.

“The students said ‘the teacher hasn’t been here all month’,” said Ghosh.

Related to this, Saleh also highlighted the far greater cost-effectiveness of private schools:

2. The scale of the challenge means all possible solutions are needed

Given the huge numbers of children still not in any kind of education, Saleh argued that it made no sense to talk about banning low-cost private schools.

“We are in crisis,” said Saleh. “It boggles my mind that we are talking about banning private education [in this debate]. Until governments can ensure appropriate levels of education, there is a need for private and non-profit groups in education.”

Ghosh agreed, saying that “the scale of the problem we face with providing education to all children, we are going to need both public and low cost education”.

He added that there was only one type of education that ought to be banned – bad education:

Which side won?

The audience was polled at the beginning and end of the Debate Chamber on its attitude towards low-cost private schooling.

In the initial poll, 17% of the audience were for the motion to ban low-cost private schooling in developing nations, 54% were against, and 29% were undecided.

After the debate, attitudes in the room had changed: 18% were for the motion, 69% against, and 12% undecided.

Debate chamber chairman John McDermott, Public Policy Editor of The Economist, declared those Against the motion as the winners, with Saleh and Ghosh successfully winning over more of the undecided voters.

If you missed out on the chance to cast your vote, just go to the GESF app and choose “Voting”.

You can watch this Debate Chamber in full here:

Debate Chamber – This House Would Ban Low-Cost Private Schools in the Developing World | GESF 2017 from Global Education & Skills Forum on Vimeo.

The Global Education and Skills Forum is taking place on 18th and 19th March 2017 in Dubai, UAE, with the theme of “How do we make ‘real’ global citizens?”


GESF Debate Chamber Session Graphic