Scaling up the Private Sector in Education: Three Lessons


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This week the IFC – the World Bank Group’s private sector arm – holds its 6th International Private Education Conference.  The occasion prompted us to think about what it would take for the private sector to scale up and really make a difference to children’s lives across the globe.  

We’ve all heard the figures of 57 million out-of-school children and 250 million children who cannot read.  But the extent to which the private sector can play a role in addressing these challenges depends on answers to the following questions:

  1. Are there enough successful models out there to bridge the gap?
  2. How quickly can these models expand, but still maintain the same level of quality?
  3. Is the regulatory environment conducive for ensuring that these models are held accountable and given the freedom to innovate?
Below, we offer some possible answers.

1. Pioneering models exist in developing countries.

In Africa, Bridge International Academies and Omega Schools are two rapidly expanding private, independent school chains.  Bridge in Kenya was founded in 2009 and currently operates 134 schools, educating 50,000 students.  The chain plans to expand outside Kenya to reach more than 100,000 students in coming years.  Bridge’s “school in a box” concept supports this rapid expansion.

Omega, currently operating in Ghana and Sierra Leone, was also founded in 2009.  It currently operates 38 schools, which are currently educating 20,000 students, and hopes to double in size in the next year.  Part of Omega’s appeal is that it collects student fees daily to make school more accessible to lower income families.  Tuition at these schools is, on average, a few dollars a month, with many poor households willing to pay the fees.

Outside of Africa, other low-cost chains are being formed, including IDEO’s 23 Innova schools in Peru, currently educating 13,000 students, and APEC in the Philippines, which currently has one pilot school with plans to expand to 12 schools this year.

The lack of any rigorous impact evaluation for these chains remains a concern. To remedy this, the World Bank is seeking to increase the evidence base for low-cost, private schools through its Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund. For example, in Mexico, a school targeting the poorest of the poor, run by the nongovernmental organization Christel House with more than 2600 students enrolled, is being evaluated by the Bank and Mexican researchers.

2. Lessons for scale have been demonstrated in England and the United States.

In some countries, expansion of private school chains has been supported by government funding rather than fee-paying parents.  In England, 55% of all secondary schools are state-funded, independent academies.  ARK, recognized as one of the country’s top performing chains, was founded in 2006 and   currently operates 27 schools.  ARK also aims to educate 20,000 secondary school children at state-funded ARK-supported schools in Uganda.  

In the United States, 6% of public schools are charters. Uncommon Schools operate 38 charter schools in the northeast region. The chain recently won the Broad Prize for Urban Education in recognition of students’ high performance. Meanwhile, KIPP, the largest charter school model, operates 141 schools, educates 50,000 students, and is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. KIPP is one of the few models that have been evaluated using rigorous impact evaluation, and is now expanding to developing countries through its One World school network in Mexico, India and South Africa.

Comparisons of selected private-funded and government-funded non-state chains

Number of Schools and Year Established

Source: Organization websites

3.  A strong regulatory environment can help to ensure quality  

We offer a few cautionary tales on ensuring quality: Education Week recently reported that some school leaders at Rocketship, a U.S. charter school chain that uses “blended learning,” had concerns over the expansion of the model before its impact had been rigorously studied. Leaders are now reviewing the model but still plan to open another 50 schools in the next five years. The role of legislators will be to ensure that standards are improved in existing schools, and applications for new schools are also scrutinized. 

E-ACT, one of the largest chains in England, recently lost the right to operate 10 academies—one-third of its schools – due to poor inspection results. Once again, this highlights the stewardship role of the state in ensuring high-quality schooling for all.

What do these examples teach us about what is needed to ensure high-quality scalability?

Create the right model and test it through rigorous evaluations:

We know a lot about successful charters and academies thanks to research by Abdulkadiroglu, Dobbie and Fryer, and Tuttle, among others. An evaluation of 43 KIPP middle schools found that students were about 11 months more advanced in learning than students who did not attend a KIPP school. But we need to learn more about what works in developing countries for the poor.

Ensure that expansion replicates the fidelity of the model and is financially sustainable:

Proven, strong instructional models that deliver high-quality student outcomes must be supported by efficient, technology-enabled, back-office functions and strong financial management. This enables financial viability, allowing schools to scale up. A report by the Center of Education Reform found that 41% of charter school closures in the U.S. were due to financial difficulties. 

Establish the right regulatory environment, which supports the following:

a.       Encourages innovation among providers. The government allows private schools to decide on teachers, curriculum and learning materials to meet the needs of the local community.
b.      Holds schools accountable for results. In the interest of accountability, the government monitors schools through inspections and standardized tests, and intervenes as appropriate.
c.       Empowers parents, students and communities. The government provides information on school performance, sometimes in form of school report cards, so parents are able to choose based on quality.  
d.      Promotes diversity of supply. The government ensures new, non-state schools are able to enter the market to support new models and reduce monopolies.

In sum, the private sector can scale up and make a difference for 57 million children out of school and the 250 million who cannot read.  It will take rigorously validated service delivery models and financially sustainable expansion.  The public sector can play its part by establishing a regulatory environment that supports innovation, ensures accountability, empowers parents, and promotes diversity of supply.

Follow the World Bank education team on Twitter: @WBG_Education


Laura Lewis

Health and Education Specialist, International Finance Corporation (IFC)

Join the Conversation

Mike Goldstein
March 31, 2014

Great blog. I'm glad you mention the regulatory environment. Two thoughts.
1. You mention charter school growth in the USA, and one thing that has helped is philanthropic investment in various institutions -- state and national charter school associations, along with a few think tanks -- that help tell the general charter school story to government officials.
I.e., it's not just KIPP, ARK, and Uncommon that tell their own story -- regulators would be skeptical. It's third party scholars and advocates.
At the Harvard conference this weekend about social enterprise, that topic arose -- is it possible to imagine a philanthropically funded "SWAT team" that would fly around to inform regulators about the potential of private schools to help them achieve their goals?
2. Because parent demand for Bridge is so high, and because of support from institutions like IFC, Bridge actually increased from the 134 academies (in 2013) to 259 (in 2014). That's in part because unlike top charter schools like KIPP (which rely on unusual teachers, recent college grads of Harvard and Stanford and the like), networks like Bridge look to hire teachers from the local community, and give them the tools and training to succeed.
Best, Mike Goldstein, Bridge International Academies

Harry A. Patrinos
March 31, 2014

​Thank you for your comment. We agree that third parties also need to highlight the role of the private sector. The World Bank, through its joint research partnership with DFID, Education Markets for the Poor is trying to understand and identify successful innovative models across SSA and South Asia. Others like the Centre for Education Innovations and academic institutions through rigorous impact evaluations are also helping. It is definitely an area where greater research is needed.   Let's organize the SWAT teams!

Susannah Hares
April 02, 2014

Hi Harry and Laura (and Mike) -
Thanks for a great blog - characteristically insightful commentary on the sector.
In his blog Mike mentions a philanthropically funded SWAT team that helps government/regulators consider how to best involve the private sector. As it happens, ARK is launching exactly that. We have established an in-house team, in partnership with a major philanthropic investment firm, which is a dedicated resource to help policy makers think through what a good public/private partnership framework might look like. Some of the things we hope this SWAT team will do include:
• Convening a global coalition of education reformers
• Facilitating country-level roadmaps to develop good PPP policies and frameworks
• Supporting execution of PPP programmes
• Creating a repository of knowledge, evidence and tools to support PPPs
• Supporting systemic reform in other related and complementary areas – e.g. quality assurance, school inspection.
It's quite ambitious and we are just getting started. I've talked to Harry about this in the past - would be great to have Bridge involved too. Mike, I'll drop you a note offline to tell you a little bit more about it. Harry, it would be great to reconnect on this so I can let you know where things stand. I hope the conference goes well!

Laura J. Lewis
May 23, 2019

More SWAT teams are definitely needed and great to know ARK will also be moving into this space.

Lucrecia Santibanez
April 01, 2014

Very interesting post. I wonder whether results are different in the non-profit vs. for-profit model. Regarding the comment on whether top charters cream teachers from top universities, the evaluation of the Christel House model in Mexico will help illuminate this, as their teachers do not come from the likes of Harvard and Stanford.
Best, Lucrecia (part of the research team evaluating Christel House in Mexico)

Harry Patrinos
April 02, 2014

Dear Lucrecia
Thank you. I have not seen any work that suggests that it really matters if schools are for profit or not for profit. There is an emerging literature on school chains, showing positive effects. But of course these things matter in the public space and will vary depending on the regulatory environment. I would lke to see more work in that area myself.

Alex Medler
April 02, 2014

In terms of who works at these schools, I would suggest that at any scale beyond small pilots, we must assume the teachers will be like local teachers, hired from local labor markets, and probably compensated at levels of compensation comparable. That is certainly how it works in the charter world. Incrementally, they may get a little more or less compensation, and they may use alternative certification for a higher proportion of their teachers, but mostly it is still the same labor market for the same types of teachers.
I am very curious whether the U.S challenges with teacher retention (especially for those teachers placed in the most difficult circumstances) play out in other contexts.
We have some charters that attract and retain teachers over time, despite offering slightly less financially, because the school is high performing and the teachers find the efficacy and work environment superior. Other charters, meanwhile, certainly ask more of teachers, and unless it works, cannot keep them for long.

Laura J. Lewis
May 23, 2019

Several low cost chains are basing teaching decisions on local needs including Bridge, Omega and BRAC. Intrinsic motivation is also observed among teachers in developing countries. The regulatory environment is also key in ensuring they are able to do so whilst simultaneously holding them accountable for their student outcomes. Our work through Education Markets for the Poor research initiative will also aim to analyze teacher retention rates in schools in two localities Kasoa, Ghana and Adjeromi-Ifelodun, Lagos, Nigeria. Although, this may only be a snapshot.

Alex Medler
April 01, 2014

Very interesting analysis. Thanks.
In the spirit of sharing observations of the U.S. version of this, I think it also helps to come into this work with one's political eyes wide open.
Fostering the regulatory environment for U.S. charter schools involves state education systems, district school systems, and new charter authorizing entities that use oversight tools that are not used in the rest of the school system.
The need for new policies, new institutions, and new tools for performance management are several pieces of the U.S. charter sector that enable, or allow the emerging field of performance management. This progress in creating this regulatory environment is part of what is fostering the growth of the great school models you describe.
But all this institution building and the new stakeholders, as well as the old stakeholders that are increasingly doing new forms of "work", also creates multiple venues for political conflict. And the various stakeholders advocating for change and those running the rest of the "regular" schools can perceive these new "opportunities" quite differently. Those who run traditional systems feel threatened, both by growth and by superior performance of new players.
I think you point to a key part of how such politics will likely be managed. Quality data on efficacy and impact evaluations can help us understand what works, direct work that is currently struggling towards more promising strategies, but it also helps build support for the work that is required as we build and sustain the regulatory environment you describe. But, at least in the U.S., it takes a lot more than thoughtful evaluation and good data to manage these politics.
I am curious how those political issues are playing out in these various settings and what, in addition to strong impact evaluations, can help create these new environments.

Harry Patrinos
April 02, 2014

Very thoughtful and useful. So far we have focused on what the evidence is saying, and trying to create strategies for dissemination. We hope to work more on the political economy of reform in the future. As you point out, this is a space where perceptions matter and the realities of politics cannot be ignored. Going intot his "work with one's political eyes wide open" is an apt way to describe the task ahead.

Catherine Yan Wang
April 03, 2014

Thanks for sharing.

But here is situation in China:

Pre-primary education: There is a recent trend of public-private partnership in delivering pre-primary education services, by establishing chain private kindergartens of best public kindergartens.

Primary and lower secondary education (Grade 1-9 which is defined as compulsory education by legislation): Almost all the schools are public. There have been a reform of public-private partnership in the 1990s that delegate public schools autonomy for governance, including fee-charging. However, these schools were bought back by the government later, meaning that schools could get resources from the government again, but lost their autonomy, especially for charging tuition and fees. The purpose of the reform is said to ensure access to quality education services free of charge.

Upper secondary education (Grade 10-12): this is the stage when students engage in intensive preparation for college entrance examination that tend to involve fierce competition. There are emerging private schools that most serve students with better social-economic status, especially those intending for going abroad for tertiary education.

Having said that, there is one exception: Shiyi Secondary School, which was the only public school that retained its autonomy for governance (the only one that survived from the reversal reform of public-private partnership) thanks to insistence of its principal. As a result, it has been able to engage in many accoutability reforms and teaching innovations, such as much more flexible curriclum, learning credit points system instead of fixed class, involving students and parents in school governance, etc. It has now become a model (examplary school) in China and the school itself has started a hot debate on how to deliver education services. You'll see many coverage of the school on media just in these few days.


Harry Patrinos
April 07, 2014

Dear Yan,
Thank you for updating us on what is happening in China.
The trends towards chain private kindergartens is very interesting. They must be quite large chains in China; or at least will be.
Shiyi Secondary School sounds very important and highly worth following. Please keep us posted on the media coverage of this school.

IDP Foundation, Inc.
April 07, 2014

Great blog post highlighting the role that private education can play in reaching the 57 million children still out of school. Research on the low-cost private school sector is indeed lacking and I am so pleased that the World Bank’s Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund will help fill the gap. While this blog is focused on chain school models, in your research will you also include individually owned low-cost private schools? In Ghana, there are an estimated 6,000 already existing low-cost private schools. Ensuring that the regulatory environment is such that they are held accountable is imperative given the scale at which they already provide education, in comparison to Omega’s nearly 40 schools in Ghana. Despite their contribution to reaching Education for All goals, these school remain largely marginalized and outside the focus of the government.
In order to strengthen this sector of existing low-cost private schools, the IDP Foundation’s keystone initiative, the IDP Rising Schools Program, provides training in school management and financial literacy to the individual proprietors coupled with access to microfinance credit to improve the infrastructure of their schools. However, in order to ensure the delivery of quality education they require better oversight and inclusion in teacher training and materials provision by the Ministry of Education/Ghana Education Service. I hope that your research helps push policymakers to create the right regulatory environment which will support both chains of low-cost private schools as well as the thousands of low-cost private schools established by individuals attempting to improve education in their communities.

Laura J. Lewis
April 08, 2014

We recognize the needs for more innovative providers in often hard to reach communities. Financing models are also important in scaling up the role of the non-state sector and its great that you mentioned IDPs role in supporting a number of low cost schools. We hope to investigate the role of different financing modalities through our Education Markets for the Poor work. We are also interviewing representative groups as part of the work, including Deprived Private School Association Ghana ( DEPSAG), the low cost private school association which represents many of these individual school proprietors in Ghana. These will both help to highlight current issues and provider greater insights to government as they continue to play a stewardship role.

Steve Munby
April 16, 2014

I think this is a really good blog.  There have been many studies on charter schools in the U.S and on Academy chains in the UK but the implications for developing countries of chains of private schools is really under-researched and this blog highlights the challenges and the opportunities.