Could the Department for International Development still learn a thing or two about global education reform?

Since 2010, the Department for International Development (DfID) has taken a controversial decision to pump foreign aid into low-cost private schools in developing countries (Nigeria, Ghana and Pakistan, to name a few) due to a need for investment in public education systems that, if anything, are growing exponentially.

This move sparks a change in mentality for the DfID, following the line of the World Bank. The DfID recently released guidelines on low-cost private education and argued that this education investment is desperately needed. However, they were willing to admit that there is a “lack of data and comparative analysis on education outcomes to assess value for money”.

But a question remains on most UK taxpayers’ lips: is it worth investing in ‘for-profit’ private schools in poor countries whilst only speculating the possible benefits?

It is understandable to contend that such low-cost private schools are of a massive benefit – but only in particular contexts. In some developing countries, they can thrive in unlawful slums located in marginalised urban areas where governments are too corrupt, incompetent and short-sighted to provide public schools because they refuse to recognise the settlements of the disadvantaged. On the other hand, most of the inhabitants of slums would rather have their governments open schools; and it is this proactive attitude that the Western world should support first and foremost.

These situations appear in other circumstances where government services are largely absent, like the rural subcontinent, and in particular, Pakistan. Research suggests that this stems from a chronic lack of investment in education; Pakistan spends just under 2.5% of its GDP on education against the universally accepted norm of 6%. It is in these countries and these political situations where the DfID should encourage further investment on a national basis as the only sustainable solution to solving the education crisis.

The agreed aim for UK foreign aid is to end extreme poverty. By the same token, perhaps low-cost private schools contradict this objective and might even exacerbate inequality. For example, the DfID concedes that, in India, no schools charging below $8 (£5) per month are able to perform well. For parents with four children living on $1 a day (and there are still an overwhelming number of people in India in such a financial situation or worse) a fee of $8 a month or more per child remains totally unattainable.

To solve this problem, the parents may opt to send only one child to a low-cost school – by and large (sadly) healthy sons rather than daughters and children with disabilities. The DfID states that “evidence does suggest there are serious equity and choice barriers associated with the growth of low-cost private schools.” And yet the DfID seems to not truly get the message themselves. The plot thickens…

In recent times, scrapping school fees reaped the most benefits through delivering access to education. As a result, many millions of kids from low-income families around the world can finally enrol for the first time. Continuing to fund these low-cost private school, however, will thwart this progress.

Ghana recently made mention of a study where 450 children attending a new low-cost private school used to attend government-funded schools – this could cause exponential underinvestment in these private schools. No private school can possibly sustain itself when such a massive influx if pupils stampedes through the front doors.

Advocates of low-cost private schools argue they offer a prospect of better-quality education, but their evidence is arguable and not conclusive. Alongside their selectivity of evidence, they provide poor, superficial research.

What is most unfortunate is that most studies disregard the socio-economic status of children or the motives of their parents. Knowledge of the parents’ wishes is vital , as parents who opt to pay for their kid’s education prioritise education and are therefore more likely provide an environment at home conducive to learning progress, which is a (if not the) main factor of educational success.

There’s no denying that private schools can make a difference by ensuring that good teachers are in abundance and that schools are accountable to parents, or so proponents claim. As a result, investing in expanding and improving teacher training, inspections and school-board committees is crucial. These investments might prove beneficial and effective use of public money. Fortunately, most DfID expenditure for education is spent on such efforts.

For some time now, the DfID has been a leader in supporting global public education reform. It is, therefore, of paramount importance that ideological differences do not pose a threat and undermine access to education for those who need it most.

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Categories: International politics, Opinion

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