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Low-fee Private Schools in Peru By María Balarin

By María Balarin, Group for the Analysis of Development (GRADE), Lima, Peru.

peruLow fee private schools are a growing phenomenon in many low and middle-income countries. Their emergence usually takes place in the context of a default privatization processes which, though often aided by generous legislation, are not the product of government design but a more bottom-up response to the unavailability or perceived inadequacy of public education services, especially in such countries’ poorest areas.

Hailed by some as an area of hope and greater opportunities for the poor (Tooley and Dixon 2005a, b), questions have been raised about the regulatory environments in which low-fee private schools operate, and about the extent to which such schools might be trading on the dreams and hopes of the poor without really offering much in exchange (Robertson and Dale 2013).

A case study of de facto privatization and the rise of low-fee private schools in Peru provides insights into the complexities of this sub-sector of private education (Balarin 2015). Peruvian low-fee private schools have emerged, en masse, in the past decade against the backdrop of a legal decree passed in 1998, which sought to promote private investment in education by reducing legislative constraints for opening private schools, allowing private schools to operate for-profit and offering generous tax credits to investors. This led to a surge in the supply of private schools, which since 2004, when the country entered a decade of strong and steady economic growth, has been met with an equally important growth in demand for private schooling. Private school enrollments have gone from 13 percent in 1998 to 26 percent in 2014. In the city of Lima, which holds almost one third of the country’s population and approximately half of all enrolments in basic education, private school enrollments are now at 50 percent, up from 29 percent in 2004 (Cuenca 2013). Evidence shows that the trend is well established in most major cities in the country.

In Peru, the growth of private education has taken place in the context of a process of decentralization, through which executive capacities have been devolved to newly created regional administrations whose administrative capacities are still weak. In this process, regulatory functions with regard to private schools have almost disappeared. Licenses for new schools are granted by local authorities which do not perform any regular supervisory role with regard to private schools, nor collect any regular data that could facilitate their regulation or the development of knowledge about this growing school sector.

Evidence from other studies shows that Peru is one of the Latin American countries with the greatest degree of school segregation and where, consequently, students socio-economic characteristics are most strongly correlated with their educational achievement (Benavides, León, and Etesse 2014). Research also shows that the school system is deeply stratified, with schools catering for very distinct populations on the basis of their residential location and purchasing capacity. These trends are marked in both the public and private sectors, but the range of stratification is greater in the latter, where supply is often beyond the reach of the state’s regulatory control.

Poor families who choose to send their children to low-fee private schools navigate the school market with no public funding and very little information to enable and support their choices. Driven less by an ideological preference for the private, or by the status concerns that often drive the choices of middle and upper class families, poor families’ choice of private schools derives from very practical concerns about service availability in their areas, student-teacher ratios and the lower risk of sending their children to a small school near their home where they can keep an eye on them. Families are also concerned about the quality of teaching and learning, but their parameters for judging quality are often weak or even misguided. It is when faced with problems such as their inability to pay or the lack of responsiveness from schools that are often run as family businesses – employing unqualified staff or incurring in inadequate practices – that families realize the potential (or real) implications of sending their children to a low-fee school: the likelihood of their children having to interrupt their schooling trajectories and the lack of protection from inadequate or abusive practices.

That their choice of school will provide their children with the opportunities these families hope for seems unlikely in a context where low fee private schools operate under such loose regulation and standards. Such a claim has further support from the Peruvian national assessments, which have shown that children in private schools operating in areas with high concentrations of poverty tend to have similar, and in many cases worse, results than those in public schools operating in those same areas.

Beyond this, however, lie the implications for citizenship and social justice of an unregulated school market that separates children from different socio-economic groups in entirely different schools, with the negative consequences this tends to have for the children from the poorest backgrounds.


Balarin, M. 2015. “The default privatization of Peruvian education and the rise of low-fee private schools: better or worse opportunities for the poor? .” CIES, Washington D.C.
Benavides, Martín, Juan León, and Manuel Etesse. 2014. Desigualdades educativas y segregación en el sistema educativo peruano. Una mirada comparativa de las pruebas PISA 2000 y 2009. In Avances de Investigación. Lima: GRADE.
Cuenca, Ricardo. 2013. “La escuela pública en Lima Metropolitana.¿ Una institución en extinción?” Revista Peruana de Investigación Educativa (5):73-98.
Robertson, S, and R Dale. 2013. “The social justice implications of privatisation in education governance frameworks: a relational account.” Oxford Review of Education 39 (4):426-445.
Tooley, James, and Pauline Dixon. 2005a. “Is private education good for the poor.” Cato Institute. Washington DC.
Tooley, James, and Pauline Dixon. 2005b. Private education is good for the poor: A study of private schools serving the poor in low-income countries: Cato Institute Washington, DC.

María Balarin, PhD, is an Associate Researcher at the Group for the Analysis of Development (GRADE), Lima, Perú. Email:

This blog is based on an article in the forthcoming issue of NORRAG NEWS on ‘Financing Education & Skills’, due out in May 2015 at

>>Read other NORRAG Blogs on Private Schools

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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1 Response

  1. The blog of Maria Balarin is quite interesting but leaves aside the jey question of how to make low-cost private schools of better quality and submitted to at least quality and school-mapping régulations by the Government. Being now in haiti where the low-cost low-quality private schooling is quite an issue (in a country where 85% of basic school (primary and 1st college cycle) are private, I am working on possible regulatory mechanisms in particular in terms of school-mapping, inspection and teacher continous training; all measures that only central or departmental decentralized governments cand take care of (with support of technical and financing partners). I am interested in exchanging on the subect with Maria and others.

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