In the world of international development, Liberia has recently attention for contracting out management of some public schools to the private sector. The Financial Times and The Economist have covered this story. That is partly due to the fact that the large American company involved, Bridge International Academies, is funded by, among others, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. Predictably, Liberia’s policy has aroused the ire of international teacher unions and NGOs.
This focus on Bridge is a shame. Something else is happening in Liberia – and other war-affected countries – which is much more noteworthy. I have been to Liberia and Sierra Leone, countries recently torn by civil war, as well as South Sudan, still in the throes of bloody conflict. Journeying into the slums, I quickly found what I’ve found in every other developing country: a low-cost private school, after low-cost private school. Experts I’d spoken to before my visit told me I might find a small number of church or NGO schools, but nothing else. In fact, I found huge numbers of schools run by proprietors – “for-profit” low-cost schools.
In Liberia I researched seven major slums, some with expressive names: you can guess why the slum “Chicken Soup Factory” is so called, although you’d be wrong about “Red Light”, which is named after Monrovia’s functioning traffic light. In these slums, I found 430 private schools, serving 100,000 children. Sixty-one percent of the schools were “for profit”, run by men and women entrepreneurs as small businesses, to provide better education than was available elsewhere. Going door to door for a household survey in the largest slum revealed 71 per cent of children in private schools, and only 8 per cent in government schools (the remaining 21 per cent were out of school).
Children in the low-cost private schools outperformed those in government schools, and private schools provide better quality for a fraction of the cost. The cost to parents of sending a child to private school turned out to be not much more than sending to a supposedly “free” government school, as any school – public or private – requires extra costs such as shoes, uniform, books and transport, and these tended to dwarf the cost of school fees.
What’s not to like? Development experts concede that such schools might be tolerated as a “necessary evil”. But only temporarily. They argue that every effort should be made to “normalise” education, to ensure government education ministries fulfil their proper roles of regulating, funding and providing state education for all. The only twist in that story is Liberia’s bold attempt to bring in international operators to manage some state schools. Given that there are so many existing low-cost private schools in Liberia, run by local entrepreneurs, maybe it would have been better to have harnessed their energies, perhaps by providing parents with vouchers to use in private schools of their choice, than to bring in controversial outsiders?
In any case, there’s a huge elephant in the room. It is well documented that one of the primary causes of civil war in each of these countries was government control of education. In Liberia, witness after witness to the Truth & Reconciliation Committee, established to soothe the tribulations of war, spoke of government using education as a tool of oppression. In Sierra Leone, those in power favoured their own peoples educationally at the expense of others. One of the major reasons for the breakaway of South Sudan was enforced Islamisation of schooling, as well as severe educational inequalities perpetuated against the people of the south.
Surprisingly, this is accepted by development experts. They don’t see any contradiction between acknowledging this and promoting as the only way forward a return to full government control of education. There will be the “right kind” of government education this time, they claim.
But my research suggests an alternative approach that goes with the grain of what poor parents are choosing. In conflict-affected countries, low-cost private schools should be celebrated as major contributors to providing high quality educational opportunities for all. Let education in conflict-affected states be as far as possible left to the private sector. This will reduce the temptation for governments to use education for political purposes, reduce corruption, and lead to higher standards and better value-for-money to boot.
Once one is going down this road, it may have implications for ideas on the role of government in education elsewhere. Why not extend the same argument to Nigeria or India, where there’s also a burgeoning low-cost private sector, which outperforms government education at a fraction of the cost? And even – now here’s a thought – to the UK too.
In developing countries, one reason parents prefer low-cost private education is because of the parlous state of government education; state schools in England & Wales or Scotland aren’t as bad as all that. But my current research suggests that it may be better for a nation, for its democracy and its people, if education is outside of the state altogether.
I’m not convinced that this principle of independence applies only to war-torn nations, so I’m exploring the possibility of creating a chain of low-cost private schools here too. My inspiration is the extraordinary endeavours of educational entrepreneurs, battling against odds that others would find daunting, who have succeeded in providing quality education in the most difficult places on earth.