OPINION: Low-fee private schooling: what do we really know?
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
I have been researching low-fee private schooling for nearly a decade and a half. In fact, the term did not exist until I coined it.
The first time I dared to speak about low-fee private schooling at an international academic conference in 2004 I was told, not-so politely and somewhat patronisingly, to hush-up. We had more pressing Education for All goals to worry about.
‘But, what about the parents making sacrifices to send their kids to these schools?’, I asked. What about states that secretly support them to show increased universal primary education numbers? (Support is less secret now in countries like India, Pakistan, and Uganda). And shouldn’t we be researching this so that we know more about issues like relative achievement, equity implications, and wider impacts on education systems?
‘There, there, dear. They’re only a fraction of total provision. It’ll work itself out.’
If at that time, I had suggested that a donor agency like DFID (and perhaps others toying with the idea) would use public monies to fund corporate-backed private school chains, I probably would have been led out in a straitjacket.
But, nearly 15 years later, here we are, and I’m more worried now than I was when I started this work. Why? Because even though we have more evidence than before (albeit concentrated in a handful of countries, i.e., mainly India and Pakistan in South Asia and Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda in sub-Saharan Africa), broader discussions and policy action do not reflect the literature.
Or worse yet, certain evidence gets filtered out. I recently experienced this first-hand when I was interviewed for a cover story and briefing on low-fee private schooling by The Economist (which, as the briefing notes, is 50% owned by Pearson, which in turn has stakes in Omega Schools and Bridge International Academies school chains). After nearly a two-hour interview, in which I took great pains to describe the nuances of the evidence on affordability, achievement, and the development of the sector, I was dismayed by the certainty of claims on the superiority of private provision.
Maybe this was because the lovely journalist who interviewed me and others, did not ultimately write the piece? Notes got garbled or mixed? Maybe not? Others, like Diane Ravitch, believe it’s because of the publication’s ideological stance.
Who knows? But, the fact is, in an age of quick fixes and silver bullets we are uncomfortable with long gestation periods for evidence to mature. We are uncomfortable with shades of grey. But like it or not, it’s complicated.