Who Pays For Education?

There is a widespread myth in developed countries that education for the masses more or less started when governments made it compulsory and free. Of course, if you give the matter a little thought, this just has to be nonsense. If, 150 years ago, only a tiny minority were being educated, it would have been impossible to have developed universal schooling overnight. Where would the schooling have taken place? Where would the teachers have come from?

Yet, these myths continue. Charities and government departments which sponsor aid to poorer countries have been recently praising Kenya, which, in 2003, made elementary education compulsory and free. It is wonderful to think of children in Kenya getting schooling which, just a few years ago, would have been impossible. Except that it was not impossible, and government involvement seems to have made things worse.

Though governments – both of developing countries and in the west – deny it, there is a thriving private education sector serving the needs of the poor in developing countries. Academic research by Professor James Tooley is definitive on the subject. His research in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, India and China shows that up to three-quarters of the children in the poorest areas – urban and rural – are educated privately. Schools charge fees of a few dollars a month. Even at this level it is a hardship for some families, but they work hard and save in order to be able to meet the fees, even though there are government schools which are free.

Why would this be the case? Why would parents part with up to 20% of their income to pay school fees when there are free government schools available? Because the governments lack the economic and social infrastructure to monitor what is going on in their schools. And what is going on in their schools is very little teaching.

Professor Tooley found examples of teachers asleep in the class or absent altogether, even when they knew a film crew from the BBC was coming. In other cases teachers used children to perform domestic chores for them during school hours. At the private schools, meanwhile, proprietors dependent on custom from parents, keep the teachers in line. These are not, mostly, charitable schools. Churches and mosques do play a role, but most of the schools are businesses. They charge tiny fees and make a profit. On every measure – even allowing for different intakes – they outperform the government schools.

In the west, earnest well-motivated people send money to development charities or vote for higher taxes to help some of the least fortunate people in the world. They want to help, and think education is the best way of doing this. USAid – part of the State Department – provides money to erect new school buildings, which then stand empty, while unsupervised children play outside, or try to struggle with school work alone. Meanwhile, in a nearby shack, dozens or even hundreds of children work enthusiastically in a cash-strapped private school.

Since elementary schooling became free and compulsory in Kenya many private schools have closed. Others struggle on. Some children have transferred from successful private schools to failing government schools. The number enrolled in schools has gone down. Parents, who are willing to pay fees, keep their children home rather than send them to government schools.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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