Fortunate and her friend Melody huddle together at the back of the classroom, practising and perfecting their speech-writing assignment. The task—writing a eulogy to deliver at the funeral of a classmate—seems an unusual choice to us but is a scenario all too familiar to these young girls. Shy to start with, they soon warm up. Their speech is an engaging blend of emotion and testimony to the life of their friend, and they perform to their classmates with confidence and energy.
The two girls study at Onwards and Upwards, a privately run secondary school on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, that is part of the PEAS school network. Fortunate lives up to her name compared with many girls her age in Uganda. Just 28 percent of children transition from primary to secondary school, and many of those who do transition receive a very poor standard of education, often leaving school without mastering basic numeracy and literacy. But Onwards and Upwards also embodies its name—it has energy, a collegiate spirit, and a student body with an eagerness to succeed. Simply put, Fortunate and her friends are learning. In East Africa’s growing private school sector, this makes them somewhat of an exception.
A previous Stanford Social Innovation Review post described the rise of so-called “affordable private schooling” in developing countries. The poor quality of public schools has led parents to vote with their feet; believing that the state has failed, they are turning in their millions to private education. But their faith in the private sector to deliver is not played out in the results: there is no conclusive evidence to demonstrate the superior quality of private schools—particularly when socio-economic variables are controlled.
Education policy makers in developing countries are starting to recognise the significant role of the private sector. Fledgling charter school-style legislation is emerging, enabling the state to regulate, quality assure, and finance privately managed schools. It is the framework under which ARK operates its 18—soon to be 27—primary and secondary schools in the UK and KIPP its 125 schools in the US. Managed well, this kind of arrangement unites the best of public and private education in a diverse ecosystem and can be transformational—particularly for children from deprived backgrounds. But the devil is in the detail—this is a tricky policy to get right. It needs to account for the motives and needs of the government, the school (and the network in the case of academy chains), the teachers, and ultimately the child. And it must include an appropriate balance of operational and financial risk sharing. A good policy should provide the conditions and resources to help great school operators thrive, while holding accountable and ultimately weeding out the poor performers. A badly designed framework can do just the opposite.
In the developing world, Uganda has been a first mover. Its pioneering public-private partnership for education—launched in 2007—intended to bring in new school operators to help fill the access challenge for secondary education. And in that respect, it has achieved moderate success: more than 250,000 students —including 7,500 in PEAS schools—are now in private secondary schools financed by a per-pupil subsidy from the government. But what is missing is the quality assurance mechanism that identifies and ultimately holds accountable poor-performing schools, while encouraging high-quality operators—like PEAS—to grow. Without this—and while for-profit schools are permitted under the framework—there are fears that profit incentives will override focus on education quality. And the size of subsidy—just $52 per pupil per year—covers less than a third of the real costs of delivering a high-quality, meaningful education (and indeed less than a quarter of the per-pupil cost invested by government in their own schools).
But things in Uganda may be changing. PEAS—together with ARK’s academy experts—is working with the government in Kampala to design a new framework that aims to take the best from similar policies elsewhere in the world. ARK and PEAS hope to broker an agreement that supports the development of a well-regulated education ecosystem—one that encourages privately managed schools to focus relentlessly on student outcomes. ARK’s experience working with the UK academy framework provides important insight into the implications of various policy decisions from the perspective of a provider. And together, ARK and PEAS can draw on relationships with the Department of Education and OFSTED—the UK’s school-inspection body—to bring the perspectives of other stakeholders to the table.
Momentum for charter school-style policies is accelerating across the globe. From Karachi to KwaZuluNatal, education policy makers are increasingly interested in this form of innovative financing as a vehicle to improve education quality for some of the world’s poorest children. This merits some urgent action, given the risks inherent in a poorly designed and executed framework. We need to codify the experience of effective school operators and legislators, learning from operational experience of how best to improve learning outcomes for children from deprived backgrounds. Once we lay those foundations, we can work together to address issues such as governance, teacher employment, profit, and curriculum, and create and execute the right conditions for well-managed regulation and financing of the private sector for public good.
One size will certainly not fit all. What works in California or Colombia is unlikely to be just right for Kenya, but it can certainly support thinking and help leapfrog hurdles. The global education reform community needs to leverage its collective assets and collaborate more effectively. If we do that, we could accelerate important policy change that helps other children like Fortunate and Melody receive the education that they deserve.