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The role and impact of private schools in developing countries

What do we want to know?

The research question guiding the review was:

Can private schools improve education for children in developing countries?

A conceptual framework was devised setting out a number of key hypotheses and assumptions at the heart of the private schools policy debate; these were grouped under three thematic fields of analysis:

  1. Supply: The quality of, equity and access to, and cost-effectiveness of private school provision.
  2. Demand: The affordability, choice and accountability of private school providers to users.
  3. Enabling environment: State interventions in private schooling and market conditions.

Testable assumptions were explored, interrogated and elaborated through the rigorous review and bodies of evidence that supported, refuted and were ambiguous in relation to these testable assumptions were rated strong, medium and weak.

Who wants to know and why?

This Department for International Development (DFID), UK funded rigorous literature review aims to provide a systematic stock take of recent evidence on the role and impact of private schools in developing countries. It reviews and assesses recent evidence and identifies critical research gaps to inform future research programme development. Findings are also noteworthy in the development of evidence-based policy and programming. The review would be of interest in particular to the international education community, DFID and other agencies, policymakers and researchers.  

What did we find?

There is a lack of data on the true extent and diversity of private schools in developing countries; most of what we know is based on limited knowledge of registered private schools. Most of the evidence reviewed was heavily concentrated on South Asia with a more limited African focus.

The review’s strongest findings show that teaching is better in private schools compared with government schools in terms of higher levels of teacher presence, teaching activity and teaching approaches more conducive to improved learning outcomes. These findings resonate with moderate strength findings that parents perceive private schools to be better quality than government schools in terms of teaching and teacher attendance. Moderate strength evidence also indicates that the cost of education delivery is lower in private schools than government schools; however, this raises concerns since these lower delivery costs are often due to lower teacher salaries in private schools.

Moderate strength evidence was also found that private school students achieve better learning outcomes than their counterparts in government schools. However since studies are typically faced with the problem of effectively accounting for social background differences, there is an ambiguity about the true size of the private school effect. It is also important to note that better teaching and learning outcomes may not mean adequate when considered in the context that many children in developing countries are not achieving basic competencies across both private schools and government schools.

There was moderate strength evidence that private schools are less affordable to users than government schools. Other findings relating to access and equity are weak and inconclusive, but they raise concerns about private school provision and equity. For example, there is some evidence that girls are less likely than boys to be enrolled in private schools, but this is context specific. A sizeable evidence base indicates that it is unlikely that the poorest are able to pay school fees due to financial constraints and where children from poorer households are enrolled in private school, other welfare sacrifices are made and continued attendance is difficult to sustain. It was also found that although private schools are increasingly prevalent in rural areas (and continue in urban areas), this does not necessarily mean that they are reaching the poor. 

Moderate strength evidence showed that states are constrained by a lack of legitimacy, capacity and knowledge of the private sector to implement effective policy frameworks and concerns were raised in the literature that private school provision may be promoted by states without adequate regulation and controls. Finally, there was very little and therefore weak evidence to support the often claimed assertion that private schools are more accountable to users than government schools; and the evidence on whether private schools create market competition and drive up standards across the education system was sparse, contested and therefore weak.       

What are the conclusions?

General conclusions are difficult to arrive at from the literature reviewed given the significant gaps in the evidence, the diversity of private schools, and because the available research is rarely generalisable. However, some findings were rated as strong and medium and although they cannot be translated into policy regardless of context, they warrant policy-makers’ attention. However, it is clear that most assumptions at the heart of private schools policy debate are weakly evidenced which highlights a need for caution and for more targeted research to fill the gaps in our understanding.

How did we get the results?

Key texts were identified from recent policy oriented reviews and a wide range of citation and journal indexes were searched using key search terms. An initial master bibliography was compiled and subsequently verified by a selection of experts. A set of inclusion criteria were applied to the bibliography which resulted in 59 studies included in the rigorous review. All included studies were assessed as high or medium quality, were published in the past five years and focused on DFID priority countries. Rigorous measures were implemented to ensure a transparent and balanced approach to assessing and synthesising the body of evidence, and this was regularly reviewed by an advisory panel.

The EPPI Centre reference number for this report is 2206.

Day Ashley L, Mcloughlin C, Aslam M, Engel J, Wales J, Rawal S, Batley R, Kingdon G, Nicolai S, Rose P (2014) The role and impact of private schools in developing countries: a rigorous review of the evidence. Education Rigorous Literature Review. London: Department for International Development.

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