Is There a Role for the Private Sector in Education?


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Parents in Ghana, as in any other country around the world, want the best for their children. Most parents believe education is the answer to their children leading a more prosperous life. But does it matter if education is provided by the government or the private sector? What is the role of the government in ensuring access to quality education?

Along with a team of colleagues, I recently travelled to Kasoa, a rapidly growing area on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana – and one of the fastest growing areas in Africa – to analyze private sector engagement in education. As soon as we arrived, we could tell that this vibrant, bustling town had a sense of purpose. Our goal was to locate the different types of private schools in the area, including for-profit, non-profit and faith-based.
Our team of local consultants, led by Husein Abdul-Hamid, found surprising results.  The local school market in Kasoa includes 207 schools, only 7 of which are public. The reason? As people move within the country for jobs, and to provide for themselves and their families, the private education sector is often the first to respond, providing education services needed by the local community.
Outside Ghana, the private sector has grown significantly in its role of supporting learning for all. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of students enrolled in private primary schools doubled from 11% to 22% in low-income countries globally. In some of the poorest countries the private sector is large and growing. In Liberia, 60% of secondary school enrollments are private while in Sierra Leone the figure is 50% and in Burkina Faso 40%. Education in Somalia is being delivered by a number of non-state organizations. In many contexts, the size of the private sector is often unknown.
However, the fact that the private sector provides a greater share of education services does not eliminate the need for the government to play a stewardship role to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. The government’s role in setting up an effective regulatory environment is paramount.
This is the idea behind Education Markets for the Poor, a research partnership between the World Bank and the Department for International Development (UK), started in March 2013. The goal is to look at 60 countries, states or provinces across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, to examine the current regulatory environment and whether it supports four key policy goals:

  1. Encouraging innovation amongst providers. The government ensures non-state sector schools can provide education services that meet the needs of the local community.
  2. Holding schools accountable for results. The government monitors and ensures that high-quality education services are delivered by non-state providers.
  3. Empowering parents, students and communities. The government provides information to parents so that they can make informed decisions about sending their children to non-state schools.
  4. Promoting diversity of supply. The government ensures new non-state schools are able to enter the market in order to support new models and reduce monopolies.

Based on the partnership’s activities so far, what have we learned?

  • There are differences between policy intent and implementation. Having well thought out and well-written policies does not mean there is effective government engagement with the private sector on the ground.
  • Some policies can deter the private sector from registering schools and reduce the government’s ability to provide stewardship. In one state in Sub-Saharan Africa private schools are not allowed to be situated on hilltops or undulating land or within 500 meters of a market or political party office. These strict guidelines have led to almost 90% of private schools being unregistered in the state.
  • Some parents are willing to pay substantial proportions of their income to give their child a better future. Despite innovations such as paying school fees daily, early indications from one country study show that private schools might not be affordable to the poorest of the poor.  However, there are also hidden costs associated with attending  public schools, including school feeding and learning materials.
  • Information on school quality is often not easily accessible to parents. For example, this has been overcome in Pakistan where other World Bank research has shown that providing information to parents through school report cards is an effective way to raise attainment and access and reduce school fees.

Through the Education Markets for the Poor initiative, which will run through late 2014, we are gaining a clearer picture of how the private sector is involved in providing education services around the world, while identifying key policy options for governments to engage the private sector more effectively in delivering quality education services to the poor.

Parents will continue to seek opportunities for their children to improve their life chances. This may include public schools, private schools or government-supported private schools. In short, no matter who the education provider is, there is a role for government to ensure that all schools provide a high-quality learning environment for every student. Do you agree?  

Follow the World Bank education team on Twitter: @WBG_Education



Laura Lewis

Health and Education Specialist, International Finance Corporation (IFC)

Join the Conversation

loise gichuhi
December 19, 2013

Very informative piece . Help to compare the scenario in Kenya

Alex Medler
December 20, 2013

Very interesting project. I look forward to hearing more about the results. Here in the states, our charter school sector seems an interesting analogy. Our charter laws are 20 years old, and we are slowly figuring out how to apply new forms of public oversight for non-traditional providers of public services. Some of that might be relevant in your work; and I’m sure we could learn a lot from this study as well.
The field here has been evolving constantly and it benefits from the distinct approaches in each of the U.S. states. Amidst the variation and experimentation, however, we see common approaches emerging. For example, there are growing networks of operators, like KIPP or Aspire, that can replicate high-performing schools for low-income children with surprising regularity. And many local school systems are competing to make their districts attractive to these operators. It is similar to the way cities compete to get a company to locate their headquarters in their downtown by offering tax breaks. Here, willing districts offer a building to a strong operator. I am curious about all the international analogs that must be out there and how governments and people respond to them.
Meanwhile, the groups that authorize charter schools are getting better at distinguishing between good and bad schools, and acting accordingly to influence the overall quality of these sectors. These authorizers are also charged with protecting students’ rights, as our civil rights protections remain in place in these hybrid schools. Since the usual systems for protecting students rights, like our special education programs for student with disabilities, are designed and regulated through school districts, this gets very complicated.
The lessons of our charter school movement are perhaps more applicable to non-state actors that willingly enter into a regulatory structure that provides significant benefits (like public funding and a designation as a "form of public school" rather than a designation as a private school). For governments trying to regulate providers that they are not so deeply engaged in the public funding stream, I am curious what similarities in oversight could work.
Thanks for the update,
Alex Medler

Tony McAleavy
December 25, 2013

This is an interesting article and an important topic. I think it shows that the global discourse is now getting a lot more mature and we are moving way beyond simplistic binary notions of public provision being axiomatically good and private provision clearly bad. The Bank/DFID project assumes that budget private schools exist because they meet a real need and the question for the state is how to support and regulate. I guess another question is whether the state should buy places in private schools for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. If budget private schools are more effective educationally than government schools and cost no more per capita then surely the state should buy seats for poor kids.

Tosin Taiwo
December 26, 2013

Most times, I imagine how far we could go in the developing world without the huge support we receive from International Agencies like the World Bank, DFID, etc. to ensuring that things are done uprightly in the Education sector and others. A big kudos.
In Africa, the proliferation of non-state sector schools is becoming worrisome, considering the fact that there are no ADEQUATE government policies to ensuring that these schools provide high-quality learning environments for students. We wish there are better ways of making our government respond eefectively to this. In Nigeria, especially, there are thousands of non-state sector schools, and while some are doing terrific jobs, a good percentage do not provide quality education, nor have educative schools. Learning outcome has been defective as evident in some national basic examinations (WAEC, NECO, JAMB, GCE). Maybe, if our government could be strigent on their governing policies and regulatory exercise..then the intervention of private schools would mean more good than harm. #Think Private? Think Quality.

January 17, 2014

Of course there is! Private sector education has been involved and highly successful in providing education for decades from k-12 to college. The overly simplistic notion that public equals good and private equals bad is ridiculous. Unfortunately, there are bad providers in both sectors.

January 29, 2014

very good post.

Dagne Woldie
February 04, 2014

It very interesting having such commitment form international community. I think we all agree with contribution of private school in any country. But what is the role of the government? how the ministry of education control the quality? what they are teaching,do we have standards for these school, are they provide the same content,
there many question. Here in my country Ethiopia, there many private school from k-University. All of them are teaching what they want teach, they don't have similar content, no control, some teach many foreign language, some don't want kids to speak there own language in school???. If they are doing in this way, are they contributing or ???? do they have role in education our citizen or getting only money?

John Friend-Pereira
April 14, 2014

This was a very slanted piece in my opinion clearly arguing for an increased role of private providers in the what is been termed the 'education market'. It is most interesting the blog on the World Bank page has little hard quantitative or qualitative data to back up the assertions made in the blog about the role of private providers in education. While there are numerous forms of Public Private Partnership and provision of services they each need to be carefully examined within given national and political context this piece failed to do that. What is most worrying but not surprising was that the issue of the Right to Education and obligation that this International Human Right places on the State was not mentioned at all.

Laura Lewis
April 14, 2014

Thank you for your comment. We agree that education is a fundamental human right and that each local, regional and national government should ensure learning for all. Each child has a right to a good quality education regardless of whether the provider is public or private. The political context is important and something that has been mentioned by others above which we reaffirm here.    Rigorous impact evaluations are mentioned in the article with links but far more is needed as you point out in terms of rigorous research in the area particularly in different development contexts. The Bank is working to do this through its Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF) and there is a growing academic literature also. Its a space which offers innovations and opportunities which need to be balanced by strong government stewardship. On the evidence...
Charter type schools 
Abdulkadiroğlu, A., Angrist, J. D., Dynarski, S. M., Kane, T. J., & Pathak, P. A. 2011. “Accountability and Flexibility in Public Schools: Evidence from Boston's Charters and Pilots.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126(2): 699-748. 
Showed that charter schools who were subject to greater accountability had large and significant test score gains for lottery winners in middle and high school. In contrast,  for pilot schools, who were subject top less accountability than charters,  gains were small and mostly insignificant for pilot school lottery winners in terms of  test scores. 
Angrist, J D. Dynarski, S.M., Kane, T.J., Pathak, P.A. and Walters, C.  2010.  "Inputs and Impacts in Charter Schools: KIPP Lynn." American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings 100(2)
Found that charter school winners performed 0.4 s.d higher on math than charter school losers and that KIPP Lynn raises achievement more for weaker students.
Dobbie, W., Fryer, R. G., & Fryer Jr, G. 2011. “Are High-quality Schools Enough to Increase Achievement Among the Poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children's Zone.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 3(3): 158-187
Found the effects of attending an Harlem Children's Zone middle school are enough to close the black-white achievement gap in mathematics. The effects in elementary school are large enough to close the racial achievement gap in both mathematics and English Language Arts. 
Hoxby,C.M. and Murarka, S.  2009. "Charter Schools in New York City: Who Enrolls and How They Affect Student Achievement." NBER Working Paper 14852.
Found that charter schools performed 0.09 standard deviations per year in math and 0.04 standard deviations per year in reading with a longer school year related to higher student achievement .
Tuttle, C. C., Gill, B., Gleason, P., Knechtel, V., Nichols-Barrer, I., & Resch, A. 2013. “KIPP Middle Schools: Impacts on Achievement and other Outcomes.” Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research.
An evaluation of 43 KIPP middle schools found an average estimated impact of 0.36 standard deviations in math. 
Evidence from developing countries 
Barrera-Osorio, F. and Raju, D. 2011. "Evaluating Public Per-student Subsidies to Low-cost Private Schools: Regression-discontinuity Evidence from Pakistan.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 5638.
Found the program has also increased test scores in math and science by 0.4 and 0.5 standard deviations.
French, R., and Kingdon, G. 2010. “The Relative Effectiveness of Private Government Schools in Rural India: Evidence from ASER Data.” Department of Quantitative Social Science Working Paper No. 10-03. Institute of Education, University of London. 
Showed that the private school achievement advantage of 0.17 standard deviations.
Muralidharan, K. and Sundararaman, V. The Aggregate Effect of School Choice: Evidence from a Two-stage experiment from India. NBER Working Paper No. 19441
The results suggest that private schools in this setting deliver (slightly) better test score gains than their public counterparts, and do so at substantially lower costs per student. 
The Impact Evaluation in Education database includes many more studies on the private sector and can be accessed here