Tuesday, 4 August 2015

More educational bang for a private buck?

The Economist, a magazine, has written an interesting item “Learning Unleashed” in its 1 August print edition. They look at the cost-effectiveness of state and private education in poor countries, and come to the conclusion that private education is at least as effective as state education, but at a gratifyingly lower cost.

They draw their data from UNESCO and the World Bank, but there are no direct links to all the studies mentioned, though the digital edition may be more illuminating in that regard. It being August, we shall have to take it on trust, and I will not be able to lead you, as is my habit, to the all-revealing supplementary tables, in which the authors furtively confess their foul adulterations of the pure mother-load of Truth.

The first 1000 word picture reveals four African school children holding pens and working attentively, usually the signal for uplifting copy, of which I am in favour, at least in the holiday season. Lagos, Nigeria, is estimated to have 18,000 such private schools, where fees average $35 per term. By 2010 someone has estimated that there are 1 million private schools in the poor and disorganised world, though I would suggest the million be taken in the medieval sense of that word, meaning “lots”. Another estimate is that half of all spending in such countries comes out of parents’ pockets, driven to private providers by dismal state schools, where salaries are being paid to teachers who have moved or died. Sierra Leone got rid of 6,000 fake teachers by checking identities, and Pakistan found that over 8,000 state schools did not actually exist. In some African countries teachers are absent 25% of the time.

By now many of you will be warming to the benefits of private enterprise. However, if disorganised and corrupt countries cannot educate their children on the public purse, still less can they set and mark fair and honest exams. Absent those, the private schools could be an expensive con trick, giving kids high marks in the hope of high profits. A further artefact is that children at private schools, while still very poor, are the better-off of the poor.

Chile instituted a voucher scheme in 1981 which resulted in 38% of pupils ending up in state schools, 51% in private schools accepting vouchers, and 7% in fully fee-paying schools, which may be a cause of it doing well in PISA tests relative to the rest of South America. “A recent study in the state of Andra Pradesh” found good results after random allocation of vouchers, up to state standards but at one third of the cost. Lagos state education rates of $230 per are twice private school costs. Pakistan is now experimenting with voucher schemes and private providers. Inspectors sent out to test teachers themselves on the material they were supposed to be teaching found very poor results. Letting parents know about average results for nearby schools boosted performance. NGOs and the United Nations often oppose private education for ideological reasons. Regulations are often used to hamstring private competitors, for example demanding school playgrounds in slums, requiring teachers be paid high salaries and obtain complicated official qualifications, and inspectors simply requiring bribes or the private school will be closed down.

Some low cost schools are forming chains, providing shipping container buildings, and scripted lessons from a hand held computers linked to a central teaching system. All these sound excellent steps. In my view it is a good thing if education does not fall into the hands of any monopoly, not even a state monopoly, and there should be no monopoly of examining powers.

The cost-effectiveness of education is no small matter. If one looks at the current population of under 15 year olds, and then the UN forecasts for 2050 (The Economist, The World If, page 16) there are three major regions where the number of children is predicted to fall: Europe from 117 million to 109 million; China from 255 million to 204 million; India from 364 million to 317 million; and South America from 104 million to 86 million. United States is predicted to go from 63 million to 73 million, presumably through immigration and the higher fertility of immigrants; and Sub-Saharan Africa, from an enormous 406 million currently to an astounding 698 million, due to no immigration and the higher fertility of the locals.

I can only conclude that the UN, whose confident predictions of world wide reductions in family size I remember being comforted by in the 1980s, did not have the foresight to put up sufficient of those same posters in Africa, where people could see them, and fall meekly into line. So, I know that the UN is not flawless as a forecaster, but if their current view has any merit then The Economist’s strapline looks apposite: “The Future looks African”. Africa must rise from its present lamentable educational performance to the highest standards of quality and productivity if it is to avoid creating a massive under-skilled under-class. It also casts an informed light on Europe’s current asylum seeker crisis. African children currently outnumber European children 4 to 1 and over the next decades will outnumber them 7 to 1.

Three comments come to mind. First, even allowing for generous adjustments for purchasing power parity, the basics of education can be delivered very cheaply. Perhaps it is as cost-effective as a simple vaccine, an ignorance-preventing vaccine if you like. Second, it is hard to provide good education for citizens when corruption is endemic. When neither school inspectors, teachers, examiners or government education departments can be trusted, then strict cultural isolation in self-supporting educational systems (on the medieval Jewish basis) or emigration seem the only options for those who want to educate themselves. Thirdly, there seems to be an open space for information-age teaching systems, computer based teaching and examining. Technology is not a panacea, but could be a very cost-effective adjunct to classroom teachers for many subjects. Stories abound of iPad based transformations of poor children, but we need better evaluations before coming to any conclusions.

I hope I have given you food for thought, and even something to make you splutter over your cup of coffee. Non-existent teachers, non-existent schools, ever-existent officials.

As to why some countries have slums and others do not, and likewise why some have absentee teachers, corrupt officials, corrupt examiners, non-existent schools and very fast growing populations, The Economist is silent, presumably because they fear that you might conclude that part of the reason was the ability and character of the people who live there. Banish the thought. Onwards and upwards.


  1. "First, even allowing for generous adjustments for purchasing power parity, the basics of education can be delivered very cheaply."

    Very much so - at primary level, paper, pens, pencils, blackboard and chalk. Victorian schools would find teachers from the brightest children, who'd become 'pupil-teachers' - learn on the job and an entry into the Victorian lower-middle class.

    I spend a fair bit of time in second hand bookshops, and one sometimes finds old school prize books. I'm always impressed by the standards of literacy expected of antediluvian pupils. Take one of the opening sentences of Robinson Crusoe, which is more of an essay than a sentence:

    "He bid me observe it, and I should always find, that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind; but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were, who by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances, on one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet, on the other hand, bring distempers upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtues and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to the life of slavery for daily bread, or harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace, and the body of rest; not enraged with the passion of envy, or secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but in easy circumstances sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter, feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day's experience to know it more sensibly."

    1. Absolutely great! The English language in full glory.