In this NORRAG Highlights, the first in a new series on Early Childhood Education, Taeko Okitsu and D. Brent Edwards Jr. share some of the key insights from a recent study on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) provision in urban informal settlements of Lusaka, Zambia, related to household demand and preferences for Low-Fee Private Schools (LFPS), as well as the motivations of LFPS owners for establishing these schools.
The phenomenal growth of so-called Low-Fee Private Schools (LFPS) in the Global South has attracted great attention in the last two decades. Much of the existing studies on LFPS tend to focus on the relative quality of these institutions and the affordability of LFPS for the low-income households (e.g., Dixon et al., 2013; Alcott & Rose, 2016). The contrasting results (or the contrasting interpretation of the results) so far has led to a heated debate on the effectiveness of LFPS for ensuring quality education for all. Scholars and international actors－including edu-businesses, multilateral and bilateral donors, and philanthropical institutions – either support or reject the legitimacy of LFPS, often based on their respective ideological positioning over the contestation between state and market.
Regrettably, the current ideologically polarized debate on LFPS does not adequately reflect the perspectives and experiences of local people in specific contexts, despite wide variation in the nature of LFPS and the contexts in which they operate (Ohba et al., 2021). Moreover, most studies on LFPS have been conducted at the primary and secondary levels, leading to a scarcity of the research on LFPS at the level of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), in spite of growing emphasis on the sector.
In order to fill this research gap, a team of researchers from Japan, USA and Zambia jointly conducted a study to explore the local meanings attached to ECCE and different types of (pre)schooling, in one of the urban informal settlements of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia (Edwards et al., 2019, 2023; Okitsu et al., 2023). The expansion of urban informal settlements, often referred to as slums, have become major features of many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, who provides ECCE services in such a context and the local meanings attached to ECCE and different types of (pre)schooling have hardly been investigated, limiting the scope of current scholarship on ECCE and LFPS.
Strong households’ demand for ECCE in an urban informal settlement in Zambia
The study found growing household demand for institutionalized ECCE in the urban informal settlement in Lusaka. Households (i.e., parents and guardians) expected ECCE to offer their children the necessary academic preparedness in English before entering primary schools. Sending children to preschools is now seen as ‘indispensable’ to prevent children from performing poorly in primary school and eventually failing the ever more competitive national examinations taken at the end of primary (grade 7), which are required to proceed to secondary school. Secondary school graduation certificates and college degrees are expected to serve as the pathway to securing a formal sector job, allowing students to break away from their unstable and ‘stigmatized’ way of life in the urban informal settlement, thus achieving a ‘modern’ lifestyle and status.
In addition to academic preparedness in English, households also expect ECCE to equip their children with respectable behavior and language at an early age, as well as important life skills such as personal hygiene. Preschools are seen as effective in keeping children away from drug use, drinking, criminal activities and hazardous diseases such as cholera, which have been prevalent in the informal settlement, due to the long-term neglect of the settlement by the government.
Our study also found that the households actively seek institutionalized ECCE because mothers are progressively participating in informal sector jobs—and they view LFPS as a safer and cheaper option than hiring a nanny.
LFPS growth at the preschool level: Household preferences and owner motivations
Growing household demand for ECCE notwithstanding, there was only one public preschool in all of the study area, that is, the area of Lusaka known as Mtendere, which has a population of 109,000. This only public preschool was established in 1986 and run by Lusaka City Council (LCC). The Government of Zambia (Ministry of General Education) has announced a plan to increase public provision of ECCE by establishing in every public primary school a preschool targeting 3-6 years. However, this goal has not been met in any of the four public primary schools in the settlement at the time of our fieldwork.
In this situation, the market for private LFPS has grown exponentially since the mid-2000s (86% of the private preschools in this settlement were established after 2005). Of the total of 65 preschools identified in the settlement, an overwhelming majority of them (61 preschools) were private (LFPS), while 3 were community-based and one was publicly run by LCC as mentioned earlier.
Most of the LFPS preschools were small-scale local initiatives, established by local, individual entrepreneurs and religious leaders. According to our survey, the most frequently reported purpose of establishment was to provide preschool opportunities to poor urban children (69 %); only a small minority of them answered that they were primarily for generating profit (14%). Thus, both market logic and a sense of social purpose have contributed to the rapid growth of LFP preschools.
Parents’ preferences for academically-oriented curriculum taught in English in LFP preschools
Parents overwhelmingly chose LFPS options to satisfy their demands for ECCE, not only because of the absence of a public option in the vicinity but also because they believed LFPS preschools offer more serious academic learning opportunities than their government counterpart. Interestingly, parents’ perceptions about the low quality of government preschools were typically derived from their experiences with government primary schools, which they often described as over-crowded and low quality.
In order to connect with parental imaginaries and their aspirational objectives at relatively low costs, LFPS preschools typically offer an academically-oriented curriculum with English as the main medium of instruction. Mostly operating in a small-rented premises with no playground, these private preschools offer long hours with a structured schedule that mimics the instruction style of primary schools in Zambia, with frequent homework and tests. Neat uniforms, western school names, and pictures of Disney characters on the preschool walls were also typically observed in many LFP preschool. These strategies were forms of marketing intended to project quality and to attract parents.
The academically-oriented pedagogical approach adopted in many LFPS preschools appears to clash with the current intent of Zambia’s national ECCE curriculum, developed with the help of UNICEF, which promotes mother-tongue and play-based learning. These latter strategies are currently considered ‘best practices’ for ECCE.
Implications for equity and the cost of LFP preschools for the poor
Many poor households are able to enroll in LFPS preschools by taking advantage of the ‘fee waiving campaign’ often offered by many of these institutions for the first several months. Yet, the subsequent rise in fees frequently left many households with no other choice but to switch to another preschool, repeating the process. Moreover, given that the majority (60%) of the population in the study area is engaged in the informal sector, has little savings, and does not have access to many social services, the families in this area are susceptible to negative life shocks that can prevent them from continuing to send their children to preschool.
What adds to the precarity of the situation is the fact that roughly a third of household incomes are spent on nourishment, which makes these families vulnerable to food price volatility. Moreover, the LFP preschools were commonly reluctant to accept children with disabilities as a way of avoiding the additional costs associated with supporting these children.
How to deal with LFP preschools?
We argue that rather than dismissing LFP preschools, the government should recognize the role that these preschools play and then provide both support and a regulatory framework for them, while also making efforts to initiate a national dialogue about what should constitute quality ECCE in Zambia in its specific cultural, socio-economic and historical context. These suggestions are in addition to the need to increase funding for—and access to—public ECCE.
While the government’s plan to establish a preschool section in all public primary schools is desirable, its feasibility is rather questionable given the already scarce and over-crowded nature of the public primary school system. Moreover, beyond academic study, the role that LFPS preschools play should not be underestimated when it comes to providing an environment that stimulates literacy, social skills, and critical life skills.
It is essential that the debate around LFPS moves from a focus on their effects to a more nuanced discussion of the underlying causes of their proliferation and the changes that are needed at various levels of the education, political, and economic systems, such that the poorest citizens have access to a meaningful education, without bearing the burden of fees that force them to choose between education and basic needs.
We also wish to argue for the need to revisit the notion of ‘quality’ that is often (implicitly) used in the current debate on LFPS. As Tikly (2014, p. 3) argues, the notion of education quality is “far from being neutral” and needs to take into consideration that ECCE is embedded in deep and complex historical, cultural and social contexts (Serpel, 2019). Moreover, a simple dichotomy between play-based versus academically-oriented curriculum should be carefully avoided.
Thus, more work is needed to interrogate and apply local cultural scripts and “emic cultural meaning” (Tan, 2015, p. 206) in preschool classroom practices and child development in Zambia and elsewhere. This work is severely needed at a time when there is a growing trend to emphasize the measurement of learning outcomes and child development at the ECCE level based on ‘globally comparable’ data such as the Early Childhood Development Index (ECDI) 2030, developed as a tool to measure the progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator 4.2.1.
Taeko Okitsu is a Professor in international educational development at Otsuma Women’s University in Japan. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brent Edwards Jr., is Associate Professor and Graduate Chair of the Department of Educational Foundations at the University of Hawaii. He can be reached at email@example.com
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