Low Cost Private Schools – the Debate

28 Oct

ToI Low Cost Schools

“It’s not low cost, it’s low fees”

I was grateful to the co-panelist who made that distinction in the run up to the grand debate. (Debate still due, we are preparing for Doha’s WISE conference)

All of us acknowledged that gracefully – she was right.

But then, these are profit making schools too, are they not? Private schools – they must be exploiting somebody or something. Surely they are not as good as public education. If they are low fee, they must be low cost too, quality must suffer. Poor children, whose parents pay out of their hard earned wages to send them to these schools, when they can have free government school education.

No, none of this has been said in this conversation. But has been said a hundred times before, and I am sure it is being saved up for the fiery debate that is inevitable.

(A moment of silence for me, please. I am the moderator. I am comfortable with balance, I find the middle path in everything. And here I am running a session where people have both strong views and deep experience in low cost private schooling all over the world. They are good, and have good reason to hold their beliefs. Divergent, but valid. Deep breath, thank you)

The grand debate on whether education is a public good or private good frames the conversation on low cost private schools. Do they even have a right to exist? Some, indeed many don’t according to India’s Right to Education Act. Regardless of how committed their teachers are, or how good the learning outcomes, many schools are condemned to shut down as they cannot provide the right size of classrooms etc. in the dense, tightly packed communities they serve. Many have worked out a solution with the regulators and continue to operate. There are arguments on both sides – on equity being possible only through a public school system, on non performance of state schools, of innovation and corporate agendas in charter/private schools. On learning outcomes not improving – whatever we do – in both the state and the private sector. While the debate is interesting to ideologues, to me it is passé. Who funds the schools is less important than what actually happens in the classroom, and we need both public and private funding, ideas and toolkits to be able to make things better. (A different conversation about learning outside the classroom too, soon)

Do low cost private schools have a role to play in education? Is there value in what they do? Are they filling gaps in public provision of education? Or are they a grassroots movement, rising and responding to local needs. Is there place for context based education in a national schooling movement? As I frame the debate, I wonder if I should be asking these questions. Or should I be asking low cost private schools to stand in the dock and justify their existence. Where have they provided value? What have they done that the existing school system could not have done?  Prof. Karthik Muralidharan’s study is one I quote very often since it was both rigourous and to scale showed that low cost schools indeed could generate similar learning outcomes at a third of the cost – and they did that by managing both their teachers and lesson timetables differently. Is that the role that they play in the larger ecosystem? Or is there more that they uncover?

Should public schooling have a turn too in that same dock? Is there a way of supporting private schooling? I have long wondered if one could combine the infrastructure of public schools with the accountability of private schooling, then would we arrive at the perfect schooling system? I will save this debate for another day, because there is a lot more we have to unravel about low cost private schools all over the world.
James Tooley certainly deserves much of the credit for telling the stories of thousands of low cost schools that served their local communities in his book, “The Beautiful Tree”. After his research there has been much work done on low cost private schools including tracking outcomes, monitoring and evaluating outcomes of interventions and more. Much more needs to be done – in many geographies a simple mapping exercise would be useful value addition. For many, low cost private schools remain the unknown. With little regulatory control, the accountability pyramid feels inverted which makes many uncomfortable. Does the inverted accountability pyramid actually work? Is there evidence that parents and students are able to get a good education from these schools?

As part of my work for NISA, the National Independent Schools Alliance, India, it has been an uphill struggle to remind budget private schools that they are responsible for demonstrating quality and enhancements, not merely delivering to the best of their capability. Slowly, a transformation is taking place with investments of time and effort being made to become world class. School owners take the lead.  Amongst the thousands of such schools some shine with their clear goals, committed teachers and innovative pedagogies. Others try to be copies of the best private schools and are a work in progress. Or just don’t make it. Critics rightly ask the question – where is the evidence? Where is the evidence that these schools actually deliver. Countered often, not always, the debate rages on.

Low cost, Affordable or Budget private schools – and they are called by all these names and more, are even more interesting when one begins to parse the grassroots innovations they have fostered. Some are of value, many a validation of theories already in textbooks and others a revelation. Given the pressure on funds, the financing models themselves have lessons for the world of education – innovating in ways that are not needed by the traditional establishment. Is this a case for seeking synergies between the state funded and privately funded models? Or would that lead to muddying waters that need so much more transparency. As I said, the debate continues, and I for one feel privileged and honoured to join in the conversation at the global level.



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