Let Pakistan's private schools fix the public ones

Published August 5, 2015
The government can help create privately operated cooperatives to operate ghost schools. —AFP
The government can help create privately operated cooperatives to operate ghost schools. —AFP

Trusting for-profit schools with improving literacy seems like a risky enterprise. Yet many, including The Economist magazine, argue for the same. The recent experience in Pakistan, however, suggests that for-profit private schools are more about profit and less about schooling.

The partially, and at times, unregulated private school industry in Pakistan, as in many other developing countries, is forging a multi-tier education system, where the well-off parents send their children to private schools, which charge exorbitant fees, while the rest send their children to heavily subsidised public schools, whose standards have been falling consistently over the past few decades.

Given the influence The Economist carries in the corridors of power, some policymakers may jump to the conclusion that a dollar-a-week model for private education is perhaps the preferred model for developing countries. However, I submit that such education models may not deliver if they try to eliminate the State from the education equation. If left unregulated, private schools may do more harm than good by widening the gulf between haves and have-nots.

Also read: Private schooling and inequality

In a recent cover story, The Economist magazine concluded that private schools emerged because of parents’ desire to impart the best education possible to their children, and hence the governments “that are too disorganised or corrupt to foster this trend should get out of the way.”

Source: The Economist, August 1, 2015
Source: The Economist, August 1, 2015

Imagine if the governments in Pakistan headed the magazine’s advice and handed over the poor-performing, existing public sector schools to the private sector?

Overnight, tuition fees would increase astronomically. Leading for-profit school franchises in Pakistan are already charging 15,000 rupees ($150) or more per month for students under grade 8. Senior students pay even higher tuitions. And, that is not all.

Parents of the same students are spending even higher sums for additional private tutoring to give their children an edge over the rest. The tuition and other ancillary fees for a household with two children attending a franchised private school exceeds 50,000 rupees per month ($500), which is too high a sum to pay for the majority in Pakistan with a per capita GDP of $1,275.

An even bigger question emerges about measuring the quality of privately operated schools. Pakistan, like many other developing countries, accounts for brick and mortar, and not the quality of education being imparted.

What parents and policymakers need to know is whether the children attending expensive private schools receive better quality education than the rest. Already, many parents are wary of the yearly drastic increase in tuition fees of private schools.

Does expensive equal quality in Pakistan's private schools?


One way of evaluating the efficacy of for-profit private schools is to determine if the children attending private schools still require supplementary training in other privately-run tuition centres. If they do, then the schools they attend may not be worth the fees they charge.

However, a better way of determining quality is to implement system-wide standardised learning tests. Such tests will reveal if the privately run expensive schools are delivering better training than the publically run affordable schools.

Read on: From kindergarten to CSS: The 'cram to pass' model abounds

Professor Tahir Andrabi, an American economist of Pakistani origin, studies the economics of education in Pakistan. He and his co-authors in a paper noted the exponential increase in the number of private schools since the early 90s.

They further noticed that whereas almost 40 per cent of the privately run schools were run by the not-for-profit establishments before 1974, their share reduced to almost 10 per cent by the late 90s.

Several indicators reveal that private schools are focused more on the for-profit part of the equation than on delivering quality education. Since these schools charge exorbitant fees, they should also be able to pay better than market salaries to attract quality teachers.

In the absence of data on teacher quality, we have to rely on anecdotal evidence, which reveals that teachers-turnover in private schools is much higher than in public schools because of lower pay and a lack of job security.

By paying less than adequate wages to teachers, and reducing their spending on physical infrastructure, these schools have been able to keep their operating costs low and operating profits high. In fact, Professor Andrabi and others also concluded that private schools rely on “less educated and low-paid young women to serve as primary teachers,” who are paid less than their counterparts in the public sector, where unions are able to extract better contracts and working conditions.

Reforming the education sector


The emergence of for-profit schools is in direct response to the State’s failure to provide quality education at the primary and secondary levels. The for-profit private schools, though, operate largely in urban centres, where they can charge tuition fees needed to generate corporate profits. The State, therefore remains responsible for providing subsidised education in areas where the residents cannot afford to pay profit-sustaining tuition fees.

Explore: Mapping education in Pakistan 2015

Unlike The Economist, I believe the governments in developing countries will and should continue to be responsible for providing and regulating primary and secondary education.

I see value in two hybrid models that will allow the governments to fulfill their mandates related to basic education, and at the same time, benefit from having the private sector step in to expand the network.

Standardised tests:

In the first model, the government needs to ensure private schools are indeed delivering quality education by institutionalising system-wide learning tests.

For example, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) in Ontario, Canada, conducts tests to gauge student achievement in reading, writing and mathematics as per the provincial government's expectations for learning. “The resulting data provide accountability and a gauge of quality in Ontario’s publicly funded education system.” By having similar tests instituted for public and private schools, one can determine the extent of difference in learning accomplishments, if any, between and within the two systems.

Part of improving regulation of for-profit schools may involve treating these schools no different from any other industry. Instead of offering tax rebates and other subsidies, the government should impose commercial tariffs on franchise schools that are generating huge profits for investors. Revenue raised through such taxation should be earmarked for improving the pedagogy at public schools.

Public-private partnershps:

The second hybrid model may involve having some public schools being operated by the private sector. It has been reported that in Sindh alone, 40,000 ghost teachers are drawing salaries at 5,000 nonexistent schools. The government can help create privately operated cooperatives to run these ghost schools. Given that ghost schools already cost the exchequer hundreds of millions of Rupees, the same funds could be redirected to the purpose-driven cooperatives to operate schools. These cooperatives could be constituted at the Tehsil or Qasba level to improve transparency and generate a greater buy-in from the local populations.

In 2014, Unesco reported that 5.5 million school-aged children were not enrolled in Pakistan. In Baluchistan alone, one in three school-aged children do not attend schools.

The scale and scope of educating Pakistan’s future generations demand innovative solutions that rely on the capacities in, and opportunities afforded by, public and private sectors. The private sector has an important role to play in basic education. It must not to replace the public sector, but augment it.

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