The approach of the Department for International Development towards education in developing countries has altered significantly in recent years

Although the importance of education has never been in doubt, aid was aimed largely at supporting government’s public provision. The logic was clear. Help build up the education infrastructure and more children will be educated, particularly at the primary level where the initial focus rests.  But harsh realities on the ground led to a change of direction. The reality is that the infrastructure is so poor in many countries and there are  so few quality teachers available that  most young people have no access to  any education and those who do are not the most disadvantaged. Pumping UK taxpayers money into this sink hole was unlikely to get many returns any time soon.

On the ground  into  this yawning gap entered the private sector. Large numbers of low cost private schools and chains of schools have sprung up in poor areas to cater for the education needs of the poor. And  poor parents value education for their children , and are prepared to pay for it. It provides a ladder of opportunity for their children of course but also for them. Professor James Tooley has for years highlighted the role of the private sector in education provision for the poor. Professor Michael Barber now with Pearson is also a supporter of low cost (high quality) schools. Barber recently pointed out that 70% of Delhi’s children are educated in low fee private schools.

Some critics don’t like these developments seeing the DFID as some kind of neo-conservative outfit supporting profit makers. But the DFID under considerable pressure to support aid projects that are seen to work and deliver good value for money for taxpayers  have adopted a ‘what works’ pragmatic approach .

A recent education position paper from DFID looked, interalia, at support for Low-fee private schools in the developing world. . The Position Paper states that ‘The UK strives to get the best possible outcomes for poor people and takes a pragmatic stance on how services should be delivered. In some circumstances (parts of India, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan, for example), this includes developing partnerships with low-fee private schools. DFID works with the private sector in situations where the public sector is not sufficiently present (the slums of Nairobi for example) or  where state provision is so weak that the private sector has stepped in to fill the gap. Recognising that fees are still a major barrier to access for the poor, DFID’s support includes voucher schemes that subsidise access to low-fee private schools for the poorest.’

Parents may choose to pay fees rather than opting for fee-free state alternatives for a number of possible reasons. These include language of instruction, a belief that private schools are better quality and lack of local provision. Emerging evidence suggests that learning outcomes in low-fee private schools, where they exist, are relatively better than in the state sector, even though they may still be unacceptably low. A range of studies have explored the relationship between low-fee private provision and learning outcomes, in diverse country contexts. The effects are not uniform across contexts and empirical findings remain inconclusive.


However, some recent quantitative studies have shown a significant achievement-advantage for students attending private, fee paying schools even after social background is taken into account. Much of this research comes from India  and Pakistan, including French and Kingdon (2010) and Desai et al (2008). Javaid et al’s (2012) study in Pakistan finds that although controlling for a range of covariates causes the private school premium to decline, even with the most  stringent analyses private schools are no worse than government schools, with much lower levels of inputs. It should  be noted that many studies are unable to account for unobserved selection, on attributes such as parental choice of  who within the family attends private school, and the effort they put into improving the home environment for these  children.


The reasons for this need to be better understood together with consideration of what, if any, lessons can be shared between the private and public sectors to improve both. Evaluation is therefore central to DFID’s current work with low-fee private schools.  Education innovations, often driven by the non-state sector, are emerging in low- and middle-income countries to meet the rising demand for education. However, there is little objective information on the scale, scope, and, most importantly, on the learning impact on the poor of these innovations. The Center for Education Innovations (CEI) is a DFID initiative to help policymakers, education providers, researchers, and investors replicate and develop successful education models and approaches for poor people.  Launched in June 2013, CEI is an online global, public database that identifies and evaluates the most promising education innovations from pre-school through to skills training. It also hosts research and evidence on education innovations and brings together education funders through a virtual platform. The virtual platform operates through four connected channels: a database profiling education innovations from preschool to skills; a document library containing research and evidence on education innovations; a virtual platform for education funders; and education communities of practice.




There are more than 12,000 private schools in Lagos (Nigeria), attended by more than 1.4 million children (61% of primary school enrolment in Lagos) and employing 118,000 teachers.47 In response to this large and rapidly expanding sector, DFID is planning a programme of support to develop a better and more inclusive private education system that improves learning outcomes for children, especially from low-income households. The programme will work with a range of different organisations, from government to banks and mass media. It will have an emphasis on supporting the regulatory environment and research to establish a  sound evidence base for any future support.


In some areas of Pakistan’s Sindh province, nearly half of school enrolments are in private schools. Supported by DFID, the Education Fund for Sindh is an innovative 3-year pilot programme working in partnership with leading members of Pakistan’s business community. The Fund will provide vouchers to parents of out of school children to attend low-fee private schools, facilitate private management of public  schools and support organisations able to supply quality, cost-effective education. Up to 200,000 poor out of  school children in urban and rural Sindh will be supported to achieve minimum standards in literacy and numeracy

See also-Desai, S., Dubey, A., Vanneman, R., & Banerji, R. (2008). Private Schooling in India: A New Educational Landscape. ; Maryland: University of Maryland.

French, R., & Kingdon, G. (2010). The relative effectiveness of private and government schools in Rural India:  Evidence from ASER data. London: Institute of Education.

Javaid, K., Musaddiq, T., & Sultan, A. (2012). Prying the Private School Effect: An Empirical Analysis of Learning  Outcomes of Public and Private Schools in Pakistan. Lahore: University of Management Sciences (LUMS) Department  of Economics.

Source:DFID-Education position paper- Improving learning, expanding opportunities-July 2013


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