The article published on 1st August by The Economist provoked an immediate response from highly recognised and respected international agencies and leading academics who wrote letters to the editor denouncing a biased and unsubstantiated journalism.
“Your article on education in developing countries (The $1 a week school) argues that private schools are the best option for children from low-income families. In fact, even school fees considered ‘low’ have been shown to be a common deterrent to school attendance, as poor families simply cannot afford to pay them,” Mark Goldring, CEO Oxfam GB, wrote to the Economist. Girls suffer most when fees are required, as parents having to prioritise usually send their sons and not their daughters, he added.
He also found “unacceptable” that many governments are falling behind on their responsibilities to provide decent public education. For Goldring, instead of out-sourcing education to private schools of uncertain quality, governments that are serious about tackling poverty and inequality to grow their economies need to make sustained investments to build quality public education systems so all children can reap the life-changing benefits.
Unless basic services like education and healthcare are free, millions of ordinary people lose out, compounding the worsening economic inequality that is preventing our poorest communities from lifting themselves out of poverty, he wrote.
David Archer, Head of Programme Development at ActionAid, wrote that he was “disappointed” by The Economist’s articles and said that the magazine’s banner headline of $1 a week school was “misleading” as these schools invariably charge double or triple that much in practice.
These schools do not help to extend access to the 58 million children still out of school, he stressed, noting that rather they attract children (especially boys) with supportive parents who can afford to pay, taking them out of government schools (where they would have done just as well).
There are major challenges in improving the quality of government schools around the world, but there are no great mysteries about how to do it, he stated: “We need well-trained teachers working with manageable class sizes in accountable schools.”
Hugh McLean, director of the Open Society Foundations Education Support Program wrote: “Your briefing on for-profit education in poor countries presents a rather rose-tinted view of the benefits of private schooling. There are both good state schools and bad private schools in these countries.”
Any approach that claims to put children first has to take a hard look at how the entire system meets the challenge of ensuring equal access to an inclusive quality education for all, he insisted, pointing out the impact of privatising schools on girls. Already more boys than girls are enrolled in schools globally, McLean noted, and adding even the lowest fees to the costs of sending a girl to school means more girls will be kept at home, and the family’s meager income spent on the education of sons, he wrote.
Private sector participants have the same obligation as the state to uphold the right to education, particularly when they receive public money, he highlighted. He added that the same studies The Economist cherry-picks its facts from will show that even where low-fee private schools out perform a local state school, the quality of education they provide is only marginally better. This is no policy solution for poor children, McLean concluded.
Sylvain Aubry, Research and advocacy advisor at the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, admitted that the question of the role to give to private schools within education systems, in particular in developing countries, is “a complex debate that necessarily requires a nuanced reflection”.
He however wrote that the published articles on low-cost private schools and for-profit education are full of self-contradictions and exactly lack the nuance that would make them useful and credible.
Aubry in particular debunked the claim made in the articles that those who disagree are “ideological”. Together with dozens of international, national, and community-based civil society partners around the world – including teachers’ unions – we have been working hard in the last 12 months gathering evidence on the ground, engaging in dialogues with all parties, and researching what the basic legal human rights requirements within which private schools can and should be allowed to operate are, he wrote.
“As someone interviewed for nearly two hours for the articles on low-fee private schooling, I am dismayed and surprised by the lack of nuance,” also wrote Dr. Prachi Srivastava, Associate Professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa, Canada.
On affordability, she explained that the evidence in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa is clear: where households in the bottom quintiles have to pay direct out-of-pocket costs, sustained access suffers, particularly for girls and disadvantaged children.
On achievement, she went on writing that the evidence is mixed, adding that no study consistently shows private school advantages for all groups of private school students, in every context, in every subject.
On cost-effectiveness, Srivastava noted that evidence is weak, as government subsidies to private schools for taxes, land grants, or scholarship or textbook support (where these exist) are not accounted for, and the cost of public sector infrastructure (like access to roads, electricity, water) is not added in.
She finally wrote that all studies show that low-fee schools keep their costs low by hiring less qualified, lesser-paid teachers, and younger women “as they are the cheapest source of labour”.
“As an economist working in education,” wrote Steven Klees, Professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Maryland, USA, “I was dismayed by your two articles on for-profit schools for the poor in developing countries”.
These schools are not cheap for poor people who often confront a choice between private education and necessary expenses for food and health, especially when they have several children, he mentioned, adding that research has shown most of these private schools to be of very low quality.
Klees insisted that the answer is not to privatise a public good, further stratify education and increase inequalities, but to fully fund public schools and these private schools will go out of business like they should.