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2020 hindsight? Low-cost private schools: what have we learned in the five years since the DFID rigorous review?

| March 23, 2020 | 0 Comments


In 2014, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) released a ‘rigorous review’1 of the literature on private schools in developing countries.

The review concluded that there is moderate evidence that children attending private schools achieve better learning outcomes, but since many studies do not fully account for the social and economic background of children, there are ambiguities about the true effect of private schools. A lengthy public back and forth ensued between the DFID report authors and prominent advocates for private schools, James Tooley and David Longfield [including inThe Spectator2 and the United Kingdom Forum for International Education and Training (UKFIET) website3]. Five years on, there has been a slew of new studies. Do the conclusions still stand? We [researchers at the Centre for Global Development (CGD)] carried out a quick scan of the research published since 2014. The recent evidence broadly reinforces the earlier findings. In some places, students in private schools do achieve better learning outcomes, but much of this advantage is due to selection of wealthier or better motivated students.

Whether positive or not, the size of the difference between private and public schools is small

The 2014 review found ‘moderate evidence’ that children in private schools learn more than their peers in government schools. Things haven’t changed much since then. Seven studies show some positive effects, and five show no difference. In addition, unpublished CGD analysis (Figure 1 below) shows a comparison of observational estimates across a wide range of countries. The effect of private schools drops sharply after controlling for family background, and equivalently important unobservable factors. But what really matters is the real-world size of these impacts, which are small.

Source: Analysis of ASER, LLECE, PASEC and SACMEQ data by Khanna, Patel and Sandefur (forthcoming). Note: The light gray diamonds represent the coefficient on private schooling with no controls, the dark gray diamonds represent the private school effect controlling for family background, and the coloured diamonds represent the private school effect controlling for family background and unobservable characteristics. Figure 1: The private school effect drops after controlling for observable and unobservable child characteristics

Eight studies we researched show a positive private school effect on learning outcomes. Rolleston and Moore (2018)4 return to the site of an earlier study by Singh (2015)5 in Andhra Pradesh, India, and find positive estimates on student value added or progress. Similarly, estimates from Uganda suggest that private secondary schools have higher value added than government schools (Crawfurd, 2017).6 Four other papers control for student background characteristics. Alcott and Rose (2017)7 show that in Kenya and Uganda, private schooling improves learning relative to peers in government schools. Amjad and MacLeod (2014)8 find that low-fee private school students in Pakistan outperform their public school counterparts. Dahal and Nguyen (2014)9 show that private schools perform at least as well as government schools, at significantly lower costs in India, Nepal and Pakistan. In South Africa, Van der Berg et al. (2017)10 find that independent primary schools produce better performance through using resources more efficiently than public schools. Baum and Riley (2019)11 estimate a positive effect in Kenya. Five studies show no or very little difference between learning in private and public schools. Two papers report on a randomised controlled trial in Delhi: Dixon et al. (2019)12 find positive impacts on English but negative impacts on Hindi after four years of private schooling, and a follow-up by Crawfurd, Patel and Sandefur (2019)13 after six years finds that the positive impact on English is no longer statistically significant and the negative effects on Hindi have strengthened. This may be explained by differing effects for different students, with some positive private school effect remaining for those mostly likely to have otherwise attended a government school. Two papers use value-added models to show that students make no more progress in private schools than public schools: Piper, Ong’ele and Zuilkowski (2020)14 in Kenya, and God’stime Eigbiremolen et al. (2019)15 in Peru. Using Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, Sakellariou (2016)16 finds public and private schools achieve equivalent mathematics results in most of the 40 countries analysed (including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Indonesia and Jordan).

What’s the take-away?

But how are big are all of these effects? Overall, children who attended private school were six–eight percentage points more likely to have learnt ‘the basics’ – defined as being able to read a paragraph and do basic multiplication – by the end of primary school. This still leaves a large share of students, particularly poorer ones, unable to complete the basics. Ultimately, then, what matters is not whether the balance of studies falls one way or the other, but that even where results are positive, the absolute level of learning is still woefully low. And it is the responsibility of governments to ensure that all children learn something, whether they attend a public or private school.

Low-cost private schools may not be a viable route to reach the poorest children

Perhaps the most serious concerns about private schooling in the developing world are unrelated to any learning differentials between public and private schools, but about whether private schools exacerbate gaps between rich and poor and increase socio-economic segregation One study (Siddiqi, 2016)17 from Pakistan shows that segregation by poverty is higher in the private sector compared to government schools. In rural Nigeria, Joanna Härmä finds18 that fewer than five per cent of children in the poorest 40% of the population attend private school. Finally, unpublished CGD analysis examines which kids are attending private schools using Programme d’Analyse des Systèmes Educatifs de la Confemen (PASEC),19 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER),20 The Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ)21 and the Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education (LLECE)22 data. While the definition of a private school is sometimes context specific (in other words, it might mean something different in Cameroon versus Paraguay), Figure 2 shows that, with a few exceptions, very few children in the poorest economic quintile are enrolled in private schools. Source: Analysis of ASER, LLECE, PASEC and SACMEQ data by Khanna, Patel and Sandefur (forthcoming). Note: The top and the bottom of each vertical bar represent the share of children from the richest and poorest quintile who go to private primary schools respectively, with the diamond representing the overall share of students in private primary schools. Figure 2: Private school share, richest and poorest quintile Apart from geographical and financial accessibility concerns related to private schools, there are also concerns about whether private schools are equally accessible for both boys and girls. A study by Datta and Kingdon (2019)23 shows that households practice gender bias by exercising pro-male private school enrolment decisions.

Does any of this settle the debate one way or another?

Private schools work better in some places for some children. They do not work better everywhere and for everyone. From our scan, we suggest the more recent evidence reinforces that conclusion. More importantly, any difference between public and private schools is marginal at best and learning outcomes across both sectors are woefully low. We found that the recent evidence on equity is relatively small and largely draws from descriptive studies. As things stand, there is not sufficient evidence to suggest that the private sector is a viable route to reach the poorest children. In short, we’re not going to say we think private schools are worse or better than public schools, but we see the evidence base as broadly similar to what it was back in 2014. While an updated, rigorous review might be valuable for donors and policymakers, it is not clear that there is ever going to be (or indeed ever should be) a winner. Millions of kids – including some very poor kids – are enrolled in low-cost private schools, and so it makes sense to investigate how to make those schools better. But the greatest efforts surely must be invested in improving public schools, where the vast majority of kids are enrolled, to support them to deliver on education’s promise to build a more equal and more prosperous society.

Lee Crawfurd is a senior research associate, Maryam Akmal a senior policy analyst and Susannah Hares co-director of education policy and senior policy fellow at the CGD. This article was first published by the CGD on 28 October 2019. The centre is based in Washington DC in the US and London in the UK. We thank the centre for allowing us to reprint this article here. Please find a full list of references on our website at:

Category: Autumn 2020

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