Debating private vs public education in Africa

Does the future of African education lie in the private sector's hands?

Observers on both sides of the private/public divide continue to throw their opinions into the ring. Some say it is the future; others say it could lead to a regression. 

Where does the truth lie?

Private vs public education in Africa

The state of play

By 2021, as many as 66m African students could be enrolled in private institutions.

A 2017 report from Washington, US-based consultancy Caerus Capital, forecasts public, government-led education will give way to privately-run enterprises into the next decade.

Even so, Governments across Africa have been steadily improving learning conditions for school-age children since the turn of the millennium. 

As of 2014, 158m primary school-age places existed across the continent. That’s an increase of 91m compared with 2000’s stats.

It’s also true that the average educational spend from African governments is 18.4% of annual budgets. That’s higher than any other region on Earth.

Even so, enrolment lags behind the world’s average of 91%. African net school enrolment is 78%.

What’s more, enrolment at private institutions is growing faster than at public schools.

Looking at growth rates from 2005-2013, nearly all sectors saw higher enrolment privately:

Private enrolment growth
  • Pre-primary – 7%
  • Primary – 5.8%
  • Secondary – 7%
  • Tertiary – 14.6%

Public enrolment growth
  • Pre-primary – 13.6%
  • Primary – 2.5%
  • Secondary – 6.4%
  • Tertiary – 7.7%

Before going any further, private schools must be contextualised. Such entities vary greatly in their operational and curricular makeup. Under the private umbrella are for-profit schools, charitable institutes, non-governmental bodies, faith-based schools, and community-managed projects.

It is also worth pointing out that, while private education is expanding quickly, the vast majority of young African students, 158m people, go to public schools.

The pros & cons of African private education

First off, there is access to education. 

Traditionally, in the West, we think of private schools as institutions hundreds of years old; breeding grounds of privilege and personal success at a massive cost.

Fees often reach five figures per year for European private education. Buildings are grand, almost archaic, with a clear class divide evident.

But in a continent where 30m children do not go to school, such a model does not work. Per capita incomes in Africa are amongst the world’s lowest. There is a willingness to send children to learn, but the majority of parents could not afford a Western-modelled option.

Taking a stroll through the shacks, and tiny houses, in Makoko, Lagos’ best-known slum, might reveal an African solution to this problem.

Ken Ade Private school doesn’t match the grandeur of Eton in England. It’s a collection tin-covered rooms, each housing two grades at a time, with relatively primitive chalk boards and classroom tools.

Crucially, its fees are low, and its classrooms are full. In Nigeria’s slums, entrepreneurs charge between $2 and $35 per term – a pittance compared with Western private school fees.

The upshot is many children in these underprivileged areas are getting access to an education the government can’t otherwise provide. 

Ken Ade sits within sight of a two-storey government funded school. But while teachers are frequently on strike at Nigerian public institutes, private schools are rarely closed.

Private education’s cost

Ultra low-cost schools are proving a big boon for some communities, but some commentators are less convinced.

Katie Bous — policy advisor at Oxfam International, who worked on the 2016 report Private Profit, Public Loss — said that private schools are “regressive” and promote inequality in developing country contexts.

“School fees are a regressive tax on the poor,” according to Bous, who added, “in highly privatized education systems, we see more social segregation and stratification, whereas public education, when it’s working well, is meant to equalize the playing field and level out those differences.”

However, even with apportioning nearly 20% of annual budgets to education, African governments are some of the most cash-strapped in the world. Thus, contracting out education can save governments big sums, and end up with an educated population capable of thriving in 21st Century economies.

For example, in South Africa, every new private school sector means the government can between $7-$12m on infrastructure costs, and a further $2.5m every year in upkeep and maintenance.

So, not only can private schools provide better access to education, they can allow governments to spend money in other educational areas.

There is still caution. Professor Prachi Srivastava of South Africa’s Western University points out that many low-cost schools still represent a considerable chunk of low-earners’ income.

Charges can account for up to 62% of the lowest wage earner’s income in South Africa; 48% in Ghana; and 28% in Nigeria.

Education technology has more of a place in Africa’s private educational institutes

Private establishments usually have higher budgets than their public contemporaries. 

As a result, they can afford to experiment and implement up-to-date education technologies.

At Parklands College, a Cape Town college, students are being taught coding via cutting edge ICT solutions, including hardware and software. Likewise, they are using smart apps and computer-led programmes to create art, including 3D printing, make films, and write music. Students are even developing their own apps.

Impact Network is a company that manages privately run community schools in Zambia. Its eSchool 360 model, funded by US donors, allows them to offer technologies not commonly found in rival schools. 

For just $3 a month per student, the school provides tablets and projects in classrooms. Impact has also started to add more technologies to help with the admin side at its Zambian schools. For instance, thumbprint scanners are now in use to track both pupil and teacher attendance. 

“It’s a food idea issue and all schools might benefit from this type of technology,” says Impact’s Reshma Patel,” but we’ve found that managing and piloting them in our private schools is easier.”

This is fairly obvious, but it stands to reason that schools that take on a privately-operated model, and charge fees, can reinvest that back into their own infrastructure and technology offering.

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