The Poor Can And Will Pay For Affordable, Quality Education
This was, I thought, good news: British Pearson, an education and learning company and the owner of the Financial Times, have announced launching a USD15m fund to ‘invest in private companies committed to innovative approaches, sustainable business models and improving learning outcomes, as well as its own projects’ in Asia and Africa.
In addition, they will also look for investments that support such schools as well as ‘educational solutions ranging from mobile content to teacher training to accreditation services that can benefit all schools.’
With an existing track record in education, I am sure that they have much to contribute. Their first investment is in Ghana’s Omega Schools, a private, for-profit school company that has expanded to 10 schools and 6,000 students in two years. Pearson’s investment is intended to help Omega go national. And, I was happy to see, Pearson already have a stake in Bridge International Academies who have rolled out a highly streamlined, very efficient chain of slum schools in Kenya.
So I was a little surprised when I read a fairly negative article in the British Guardian (kindly pointed out to me by one of the Focus Group members aka Facebook friends – thank you Focus Group!). The article cites David Archer, head of programme development at ActionAid: "To suggest somehow that supporting low-cost private schools would boost school attendance flies in the face of the evidence," he said, adding that girls would also lose out if schools started charging. "It's ironic at a time when girls are a priority in primary education, as this kind of initiative will almost certainly discourage girl attendance. But, he said, education should be in the hands of the state. "The big gains in the end come when school is free," he said.
The article also cites Kevin Watkins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: "If we are talking about poverty reduction, the idea that poor people should be paying for education is absurd," he said, adding that there was very little evidence that private schools provide a better service than the public sector.
Both comments miss the point by a mile, I think. As with healthcare, there is a global discussion of whether education should be free – a public investment provided by the state, just as much as it invests in infrastructure – or whether recipients (or their parents) should be charged for this.
Raising university fees has been a heated discussion in the UK. Yes, of course, in an ideal world, children, especially from poor families, would get a basic quality education for free. But this isn’t an ideal world, far from it. The rollout of free primary education in Kenya was enthusiastically received by many parents who previously could not afford to send their kids to school, but its quality was and is dire.
So there are two points here: With the very limited resources that the public sector can offer and the often considerable, governance challenges (has Prof Ongeri resolved the issue of that FPE money that went safari in his tenure?), surely the more the merrier in education. Private schools offer parents choice in the face of a severely overstretched public school system – and have an automatic corrective: if they are not better than public schools, then parents won’t pay for them. Also, the lovely Shannon May from Bridge International Academies pointed out to me, free primary education isn’t actually free: there’s a ‘desk fee’, a teacher’s ‘motivation fee’ and so on. Bridge International Academies (who I’m unashamedly excited about) charge around USD4 a month per child, which is roughly equivalent to what parents would have to cough up for ‘free’ schools as well.
Secondly, I find it very patronising to assume that people with little income will not pay for services, especially for quality services that meet their demand. There's plenty of evidence to the contrary. The entire mobile telecommunications industry, for example: Years ago, it was argued that mobile telcos stood no chance in Africa because the per capita income was too low. But it turns out that people do want to communicate – and will pay for it. Duh. ‘The Poor’ are not an amorphous mass waiting for some NGO to show up with handouts. Even in that so-called ‘bottom of the billion’ segment (how would you feel if someone called you the ‘bottom of something’?) demographic, there are people with disposable incomes, with preferences, and with demands – if you treat this as a market, and provide an affordable product, you’ll see the response.
Bridge International Academies deliver quality on their education – and, Shannon said, positive parent feedback also included relief that their kids no longer worry about being beaten. More private-sector involvement may throw the shortcomings of Kenya’s public education system into sharp relief, but it does not actually undermine it. And I hope that more competition will lead to overall better quality.