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02 May 2024
Corina Gardner, Aashti Zaidi Hai and Inês Charro

Engineers of Bottom-up Change: How Resilient are the Non-State Schools Serving Low-Income Communities?

In this blogpost, Corina Gardner, Aashti Zaidi Hai and Inês Charro argue for more government recognition of the non-state education sector, given the important role it plays in serving low-income communities.

Education is key to breaking intergenerational poverty, yet global learning poverty is at a staggering 70% worldwide, with even higher rates (90%) in Sub-Saharan Africa according to the World Bank, meaning only 1 in 10 children have the necessary basic skills to progress into any workplace. Education is in need of additional financing from multiple sources, particularly in low and lower-middle income countries where governments struggle to meet funding requirements. Due to increased demand for education, publicly funded forms of provision are under intense pressure. In response, alternative forms of education have organically grown within communities to address underserved local needs for a wide range of socio-economic groups.

Community demand for non-state education is growing

The affordable non-state Sector (ANS) is one of these forms of provision which has burgeoned, complementing public education, and educating around 20-30% of children globally, including approximately 1.8 million low-income children in just five Sub-Saharan African cities, data from Global Schools Forum (GSF) has shown. The sector comprises faith-based schools, NGO schools, and community-based independent sole proprietor low-fee private schools (LFPS) – the latter of which are the largest subset, created out of necessity in underserved communities. As populations increase, so does the need for access to quality education, a burden that governments don’t have the economic robustness to carry completely.

According to a report by Opportunity EduFinance, “the increase in demand for ANS schools means that there will be an additional 56 million new seats for children required through 2025 in low and middle-income countries.” Given the growth in demand, we believe a mixed economy of provision plays a vital role in expanding access to quality education.

There should be a greater focus on integrating community-created LFPS into national systems. These schools are an organic solution to a systemic problem, run by local education entrepreneurs, yet they remain largely ignored, unsupported and disenfranchised.

IDP Foundation’s (IDPF) work has aimed at improving the quality and sustainability of LFPS and deploys a two-fold funding approach in the form of improvement loans complemented with financial literacy, school management and teacher training. IDPF has been operating in Ghana for the last 15 years through the Rising Schools Program, and last year launched the Ongoza Program in Kenya.

Where the state cannot provide access to education, affordability is crucial. For example, in Ghana, the upper affordability threshold for LFPS education spending in middle-income households is USD $244 p.a./child. Overall, 96% of the schools that IDPF works within Ghana charge fees below the middle-income threshold, and 55% below the lower-middle income threshold.

Education at risk

We know that LFPS are often left out of government investments in the education system. A 2018 study in Ghana revealed that 80% of public sector teachers received ongoing professional training but only 52% of LFPS teachers received the same.

When government’s cannot provide comprehensive access to education, value should be seen in working alongside organic, locally-driven education provisions, such as LFPS, to provide access to education for all. However, in terms of teacher training, infrastructure, and educational materials, these schools are not held to the same standards as state schools and require adequate funding to ensure effectiveness.

In a policy brief for the Ghanaian government, IDPF highlighted several areas for greater public-private partnership, including equal access to educational materials, safe infrastructure for children, and providing training for LFPS teachers to maintain motivation and standards.

As LFPS often lack government financial support and offer fee structures to ensure that low-income families are catered for, many teachers are on lower salaries than their state counterparts. To build resilient education systems, support should be extended to all teachers and not exclude those who are already working on lower salaries in LFPS.

In times of national and global emergency, this is particularly relevant. After government-mandated closures during the COVID-19 pandemic for 10 months with no financial assistance to rely on, it would have been reasonable to expect many LFPS to remain permanently closed. Based on primary research conducted six months after lockdown restrictions were lifted, IDPF found that an estimated 90% of LFPS from the Rising Schools Program were up and running.

In Ghana, the government demonstrated its recognition of how critical the ANS was to get the nation back on track post-lockdown by including all registered schools in their fumigation and PPE roll-outs. These schools showed resilience by effectively re-opening and re-establishing enrollment numbers. Since, there has been further recognition of the need to integrate LFPS into the national system through education and schooling bodies. The National Schools Inspectorate Authority (NaSIA) in Ghana, for example, has taken steps to make it easier and more cost-effective for schools to register with the government. Also, it is currently investigating a ‘sliding scale’ approach, to better recognize the different income levels LFPS are serving (Gardner, 2023).

Integrating LFPS into education delivery

ANS is a significant part of the education landscape, yet it isn’t formally included in national planning or evaluation to support long-term needs. As such, many governments include ANS enrollment figures in national reporting but do not track performance through inclusion in standardized testing.

In Ghana, NaSIA has worked collaboratively with the ANS sector and membership bodies, such as the Ghana National Association for Private Schools (GNAPS), to provide an independent external evaluation of the quality and standards of LFPS, helping integrate the schools into the country’s education delivery. Subsequently, standardized testing has recently been extended to LFPS. However, the ANS is not formally recognized by a large section of African governments across the sub-Saharan region.

An evidence brief by the Education Finance Network notes that while registration is the first step to including LFPS into an integrated single state education system, a large proportion of LFPS remain unregistered. In Lagos State, Nigeria, 75% of the nearly 20,000 LFPS remained unregistered as of 2021, while in Jharkhand State, India, more than 80% are unregistered according to a 2021 report. One of the most common reasons for this is that the cost of registration is often too high for sole proprietor schools. Moreover, the registration process itself can be lengthy, bureaucratic, and burdensome.

With the significant size of the ANS, the key questions are how the sector can be integrated in a way that ensures quality and equity, and what are the most efficient ways non-state actors can engage with governments.

GSF recently conducted research into the perspectives of non-state actors on their experience with government regulation in Colombia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Uganda. It found that there is a disconnect between the regulations and the reality of operating, meaning many schools continued operating without registration. Regardless of the challenges and inconsistencies, non-state providers have a desire to collaborate with governments. One school network in Uganda said, “Government should not see private schools as competitors but as partners who complement their efforts in the provision of quality education. Private providers have been able to pilot innovations that take too long for government to implement…”.

Better collaboration will improve outcomes

There is an opportunity to leverage the organic presence of the ANS as a contributor to improving access to and outcomes of quality education. This requires governments to create supportive regulatory frameworks built on greater simplicity and transparency with the goal of improving the operating environment and learning outcomes of these schools.

There are many benefits to public-private collaboration for both parties. LFPS could qualify for government subsidies which allow them to expand their capacity, hire more teachers and invest in better ICT, teacher training and materials. Additionally, the schools could be included in government-sponsored teacher and school leader training, as well as innovative learning interventions. Not only will this improve learning experiences and outcomes, but governments will have greater oversight.

Our foundation considers that these partnerships need to center on support and empowerment, rather than restrictive regulations. Research shows that LFPS see the most success when they can maintain a level of autonomy in which school leaders conduct management decision-making at a school-level and can invest in developing strong school cultures.

We need all-hands-on-deck

Fundamental to SDG 4 are more resilient national education systems, as governments recognise that the ANS is a crucial cog in resilience building. Positive steps towards building a collaborative education system that mobilize all hands on deck for the good of the entire population are a win-win. A focus on learners, powered by collaborative efforts, should be the ultimate driver for all stakeholders.


About the Authors:

Corina Gardner, CEO of IDP Foundation

Aashti Zaidi Hai, Founder & CEO of the Global Schools Forum (GSF)

Inês Charro, Program Manager of the Education Finance Network

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