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Much Ado about Low-Fee Private Schools

By Modupe Adefeso-Olateju, Education Partnership Center, Nigeria. 


I recently visited an educational establishment in Lagos to conduct some research.  For ease of comprehension, I shall refer to this establishment as a school. I wanted to understand why parents were choosing to send their children to private schools of questionable quality when tuition-free public schools were available.


There was no outward sign to identify this establishment as a school save that uniformed children trooped in steadily from 7.30am till 8am and filed out at 2.30pm.  Aside from that, it could have been any other physical structure on the densely populated streets of Bariga (a district of Lagos).  As I entered through the gates at 8am, a few pupils and I had to rapidly sidestep a small but fast flowing stream of blood.  Obviously I was perplexed.  Could it be that I had stumbled upon an abattoir?  My curiosity got the better of me as I traced the source of the unsightly flow.  It’s source? …a freshly slaughtered goat upon which loud prayers were being said. I was later to learn that the ‘school’ (which by the way was a medium-sized room partitioned with plywood into 4 ‘classrooms’) actually shared an internal wall with a religious institution and that I had happened to visit on the weekly sacrifice day.  The school and the holy place were not the only occupants of the small storey building; individual tenants also resided in what had become in my mind a little incongruous community.  As the day progressed, I found it incredibly difficult to conduct my interview with the head teacher.  This was because on the other side of the thin wall, a loud deliverance session – complete with ringing bells – was ongoing.  We had to pause the discussion several times to enable the rather stubborn demons be exorcised.  It was obvious that the pupils were likewise unable to concentrate on their lessons. 


Establishments like this abound across the country, most serving the urban poor.  A quick scan of recent dailies reveals that state governments across the country have launched a massive crackdown on such schools. According to media reports, the Commissioner for Education in Delta State earlier this month ordered the closure of 600 illegal schools spanning nursery, primary and secondary levels. Earlier In the year, 160 private schools were reportedly shut in Ogun State and in Kano State, preparations are apparently in place to seal the premises of over 2,000 unapproved private schools and colleges. Ekiti, Enugu, Sokoto, Abia and several other states have also taken similar action in the recent and not-so-recent past. The key reasons for the drastic cleansing?  Well, we are told that these schools are dangerous because they operate under the radar of the State, making it very difficult to quality assure them.  We are also told that they are exploitative of poorer ignorant families.


As a concerned citizen, I can fully appreciate the position of the state ministries of education and if I was a government official, would probably want to shut them down immediately too… save for one niggly reality: Parents continue to opt for these schools despite their knowledge that public schools (which in a state like Lagos are tuition-free) are available!  It is not that the parents who patronise these schools hate their children.  On the contrary, they love their children and value education, wanting their offspring to have better life chances than they had. In fact, as my data later revealed, these parents carefully consider schooling options and make rational decisions when they choose these low fee schools! It is therefore worth taking a closer look at these schools and the characteristics of their operation. 


First some clarification: it must be understood that not all unapproved schools are wholly illegal entities.  Some are simply embroiled in the lengthy process of applying for state approval.  Most however, are simply unable to meet up with governmental regulation for private school establishment.  To offer some context, there is massive demand for low fee schools especially amongst socioeconomically disadvantaged urban families. Lagos is a case in point – the state is home to over 12,000 private schools, 63% of which exist in makeshift structures such as residential homes and religious institutions.  The vast majority of these institutions are neighbourhood ‘nursery-primary’ schools operated illegally by sole proprietors.  These schools are unlikely to receive approval in their current state. However, when the demand for school places is juxtaposed with the risk of operating an illegal school, many sole proprietors take their chances.


One might reasonably conclude that given the circumstances under which these schools operate, their pupils are at serious disadvantage academically and otherwise.  The data however, presents some interesting and counter-intuitive evidence.


Let’s start with the general perceptions of public and private schools. ‘Only a parent that doesn’t love his child will send him to a public school’.  This comment made by a highly educated principal of a private school shocked me greatly.  This was before I interviewed public school teachers.  Their responses perplexed me even more. ‘Corrupted’, ‘miscreants’, ‘thugs’, ‘wretched’, ‘from bad homes’, ‘don’t value education’ …were some of the common terms with which public school teachers described their pupils. On the other hand when asked to describe private school learners, the terms ‘serious’, ‘respectful’, ‘children from good homes’, ‘children that value education’, and ‘of high intelligence’ were uttered in abundance.  Not a single one of the 17 public school teachers and headteachers whom I spoke with had enrolled their children in a state school!  It was therefore no surprise that even uneducated parents cited the negative stereotype of public school pupils as one of their main reasons for dissociating from publicly provided education.  The State represents the provider of last resort, catering to some of the poorest demographics – which in Nigeria include domestic helpers who live with wealthy relatives or employers, street children (also known as area boys), and offspring of low waged artisans – but to hear teachers almost unanimously equate poverty with vice was very disturbing for me.

Another reason for choosing low-fee private schools (LFPS), which is closely related to sector stereotyping, is the perception of care in LFPS.  Several of the parents I chatted with said they felt teachers in LFPS were more caring of pupils than their public school counterparts.  For these parents, care is when the teacher calls to find out why a child arrived late to school, and makes a home visit when the child is absent for one day. These parents also valued home-school proximity so that younger children especially, could be visited during the school day.  This demonstrated ‘care’ is associated with the fact that these schools are very often owned and run by sole proprietors who are extremely involved in the day-to-day running of the schools.  The prevalent hire-and-fire policy means that teachers can lose their jobs at the drop of a hat, and within the context of unemployment rates higher than 20%, every effort is made by easily dispensable teachers, to please the proprietor. Parents value these high levels of teacher accountability and the easy access to head teachers and school owners who are usually only a phone call away. 


There was also the general sentiment amongst LFPS parents – several of whom were petty traders and waged artisans – that public school teachers were far above them on the socioeconomic scale, and that they induced feelings of inferiority in their pupils’ families.  The fact is, the average teacher in Lagos State is armed with a post-secondary education degree and/or professional certificate. Several of these teachers actually hold Masters’ degrees.  Today it is virtually impossible for a non-certified teacher to be employed on full time basis in a state school – which sounds great, save that skills to meaningfully engage a socioeconomically deprived clientele are generally lacking. The massive socioeconomic gap between these state-employed teachers and the families they serve is such that parents do not feel like valued stakeholders in the education process. They consider themselves inadequate even to converse with teachers, and often time shrink away from visiting their children’s schools.  


Finally, regarding learning outcomes, parents who had switched their wards from public to private schools swore that their children’s achievement had improved.  Whilst it is difficult to verify this because of the lack of state-wide standardized assessments at primary level, limited statistical evidence from research carried out in Lagos by James Tooley and more recently by myself, show that these parents may actually be right.  All other things being equal, there does seem to be a small but significant learning benefit to attending private schools – even of the low fee genre. This is very telling indeed.


So in the face of the evidence, do we go right ahead and begin to advocate for all low fee private schools (LFPS) to be licensed? I think not.  Whilst they contribute significantly to the achievement of the Education for All goals, the sector is blighted by myriad problems ranging from health and safety risks, to overworked and underpaid teachers. Still, parents weigh their options, and spurred on by incentives such as flexible tuition payment plans, opt for LFPS.


It is no news that the Lagos State government has all guns blazing in its efforts to lure parents back to public schools. Beautiful red brick structures are springing up across the state so that characteristically large primary class sizes can be reduced.  A ninety million dollar loan from the World Bank is providing substantial school development grants (of between two and four million naira) to each of the 647 secondary schools in the state. These funds are administrated directly by the school principals, empowering them, and providing teachers with access to high quality professional development. Given however, that the characteristics of LFPS that parents most value are very difficult to replicate in the public sector, I perhaps for the first time feel some sympathy for the State.  As public schools improve, there will undoubtedly be a measure of school shifting. As the Kenyan case shows however, this is not the end game. The real test is retaining these children in public schools, raising and maintaining the quality of these schools, and ensuring that the pupils actually learn.


LFPS are without doubt serving the poor in Nigeria. The future of these schools however, is anyone’s guess.  Nevertheless, it is useful to remember that education provision in several countries is bifurcated and regardless of the quality of state schools, some will always opt for the private path to education.  I wouldn’t worry too much about this demographic. The focus in Nigeria should be on ensuring that no child is precluded from receiving a meaningful education simply on socioeconomic grounds. Whether this is operationalised through expanding public provision, funding private schools that cater to the poor or establishing public-private partnerships should be a secondary issue – as long as the implications of each model are well thought through.  As one parent mused aloud during our interview, ‘If I am to be honest, I don’t really care where my child goes, as long he will be well taken care of and learns enough to make him a productive member of society’.


Modupe Adefeso-Olateju is Managing Director of The Education Partnership Centre (TEP Centre) Lagos, Nigeria. Email:

Follow on Twitter: @tepcentre

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1 Response

  1. Concerned Nigerian

    Very interesting insight on Primary education in Nigeria’s largest city. The author did a good job of going beneath the surface to highlight the issues and complexities that make substandard private schools appealing to a section of the urban poor.

    It brings up the question of what value is, and it can be made to benefit most people in society. In this case, increasing the salaries of public school teachers, which should normally increase the standards in public schools, has turned away the urban poor who do not derive value from teachers they find unapproachable.

    Interesting conundrum for policymakers. Could education vouchers be the way forward?

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