Low-fee private schools: Past assumptions, current needs and planning for the future

Students prepare for class at Peaceland Preparatory School in Ghana. ©IDP Foundation
 

As critical steps towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are taken, millions of children and families are responding to current failings in education by pursuing alternative approaches and seeking new providers. As a result, education sectors around the world are diversifying, and with these changes come new needs and new opportunities for research.

Currently, there are 84 million low- and middle-income students enrolled in private primary schools alone, and our research reveals that these parents yearn for the same quality education that all families want for their children.

“I want my child to be a critical thinker,” explained one mother asked about sending her son to a low-fee private school. “[I want him] to live an independent life.”

While these parents seek alternatives for their children, the time is now for researchers, educators, and policymakers to step up and recognize the importance of this growing sector.

Last year, Results for Development (R4D) explored what households spend on education at private and public schools in Kasoa, Ghana. Our latest report, Understanding Household and School Proprietor Needs in Low-Fee Private Schools in Ghana, produced in partnership with the IDP Foundation, Inc. and CIC Africa, features data from one of the largest reviews of its kind, focusing on the IDP Rising Schools Program’s impact, and adds empirical data to the discourse of the low-fee private school (LFPS) sector’s effectiveness. Additionally, the report reveals how low-fee private schools across Ghana operate, how parents are experiencing this approach to education, and what is needed to improve processes at every level.

Our findings indicate a need to adjust prior assumptions about low-fee private schools. What many call for-profit schools, for example, turn out to not be making much profit at all. Most low-fee private school proprietors in our sample are either breaking even or suffering a small loss in their operations. In fact, not only did we find that only about one-third of the schools surveyed were turning a profit, but many of these schools were actively pursuing flexible payment schemes to help parents continue enrolling their children despite errant income flows or financial hardships. For those that are making profits, these gains are often quite modest.

With a refined understanding of their finances, new insights about low-fee private school decision-making are also shown. This study reveals that despite financial constraints, low-fee private school proprietors are investing in teacher training to ensure high teaching quality. In fact, despite the government salary of teachers outpacing those in our survey by about 10 to 1, parents reported high levels of satisfaction with teaching staff, as well as the overall academic performance of the school.

These results indicate an emphasis on teacher-quality greater than what may be expected. Nearly 91 percent of schools report having teacher guidelines, 82 percent provide in-service training, and 67 percent provide pre-service training programs. In what is even more impressive, our findings reveal that even with difficulties in generating adequate revenue and contrary to common perception, nearly 72 percent of LFPS who provide teacher training do so internally.

At the same time, a common assumption from proponents of non-state education is that such schools are reaching the poorest of the poor. In light of this research, however, this notion may also need to be critically reexamined.
 

Despite efforts to provide scholarships and flexible payments to parents, the report notes that low-fee private schools are often unaffordable to the poorest of the poor. While the average household in the study’s sample spends 8.2 percent of its income on education expenses, the financial burden of school fees is much higher among the lowest-income households, who were found to spend more than 18 percent of their income on school fees. These findings support previous R4D research in Kasoa, Ghana, which found that significant costs exist for both public and private institutions alike, adding further complexity to the issue of affordability.
 

Where is our evidence leading?


While applying real data to current assumptions about LFPS is important, our work also sought to illuminate practical recommendations to improve education for the growing number of non-state educated children—for funders, LFPS administrators and government policymakers alike.

Our assessment examined the IDP Rising Schools Program (IDPRSP). The program works with low-fee private schools to offer extensive training in school management and financial literacy, coupled with access to microfinance loans that are offered at below market rates to stabilize school infrastructure. The IDP Rising Schools Program training also emphasizes the importance of registering with the Ghana Education Service (GES) and actively engaging with the district offices and circuit supervisors, alongside other topics such as community relations, savings and reinvestment, human resources management, and more. The program teaches school owners how to work with the government so they might be able to secure textbooks and teacher training support, which the government is mandated to provide to all registered schools (public or private) but doesn’t because of budget and management constraints.

Since a three-year pilot in 2009, the program has grown nearly five-fold, working now with about 550 primary schools and reaching about 130,000 students. Their work represents a significant opportunity for evidence-collection, and our report uses LFPS and parent survey-responses to shed light on what aspects of the IDP Rising Schools Program have made the biggest impact:

 

  • Financial Training

    Schools that received support from the IDP Rising Schools Program showed better finances and operations. In fact, total revenues for schools in this program were 73 percent higher than those who had not. Also, 45 percent of all IDPRSP proprietors listed the financial training as the most useful component. These trainings were comprehensive and responsive to the individual proprietor’s capacity. Training topics included bookkeeping, revenue diversification, flexible payment strategies, and more.

  • Access to Credit

    In addition to developing capacity, strengthening proprietors’ access to credit—especially with microloan institutions—the IDP Rising Schools Program demonstrated positive impacts across the sample. About 55 percent of all IDPRSP schools took out a loan with program-partner Sinapi Aba, the largest microfinance institution in Ghana. Schools used these loans to improve infrastructure, including building new classrooms and bathrooms, purchasing additional transportation for students, installing internet access, buying furniture and more.

  • Low-cost opportunities for government collaboration

    There are financial and philosophical constraints to the government’s role in non-state education. Luckily, our evidence shows that collaborations can be effective, cost-efficient, and even cost-saving. Reciprocal teacher training opportunities, for example, or the sharing of infrastructure and sanitation blueprints could go a long way for little cost.

For greater details about this report’s new evidence, we hope you will join a discussion among experts and implementers about the needs and the future of low-fee private schools.

Each day, more and more children are stepping into classrooms that are not government owned and operated. Bringing these often neglected and marginalized children through the door has been a real accomplishment, but we must act just as decisively now in improving learning for all. It is our firm belief that we can work collaboratively with governments so that this sector will not continue to go unnoticed.

Those committed to this goal cannot afford to ignore any group, let alone one as fast-growing as those in low-fee private schools. Millions of families are adapting to a learning landscape that is evolving every day. These households are doing everything they can to give their children a better future. While they are not waiting to act, neither can we.

 

About the authors: Irene Pritzker is a founding member and president of the IDP Foundation, which develops programs in education that are sustainable and move away from aid-dependent models. Arjun Upadhyay is a senior program associate at Results for Development.