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Use private schools to spur universal education

Monday January 8 2018

Form Four students at St Georges Secondary School conduct a Physics practical.

St Georges Secondary School students conduct a Physics practical. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP  


Starting this month, secondary school education will be free in Kenya.

But education is about learning, not just schooling. One way to expand access and improve quality at low cost would be to allow private secondary schools to join the free secondary education (FSE) scheme—as has been done in Uganda for the past 10 years with good results.

One promising route for improving school quality is through public financing for students to attend private schools. Students at private schools often get better grades than their peers in public schools, and at lower overall cost, but is this still the case with public financing?

The Ark Education Partnerships Group recently commissioned a global review of such arrangements. And all the nine studies considered—from Pakistan, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Venezuela—found positive effects on learning.


One of these studies is mine, from Uganda, published in the Journal of African Economies, housed at Oxford University.


Uganda started its free secondary education policy in 2007. And due to lack of enough government secondary schools, it opened up the scheme to the private sector.

While the programme focused on widening access by ensuring there were schools in as many areas as possible, my findings suggest that it has also had positive effects on learning, and at lower cost.

Two other studies—by the Economic Policy Research Centre, Kampala, and the World Bank—find similar results.

Ugandan public and private secondary schools receive similar amounts in per-student subsidy but the government also pays for buildings and teachers’ salaries in its schools.

Parents then pay similar amounts in other costs (such as books and uniforms) in both public and private schools.


Whilst, on average, government-funded private schools perform better than State-run schools, there are some poor performers. The government is also, therefore, putting in place stronger accountability measures.

This month, Uganda will become the first African country to publish a new ‘value-added’ school quality measure that captures how effective a school is in increasing pupil achievement, regardless of where they started.

This information will allow for better targeted interventions to address underperformance.

Uganda is also reforming its inspection to bring a greater focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning. These kind of measures are essential to improve the overall system.

In Pakistan, a series of studies found that different schemes involving subsidies, vouchers and contracting out of government schools to private management have raised enrolment and learning.


The Punjab Education Foundation provides government financing to thousands of privately run schools, providing education to more than two million students at less than half the cost of running public schools.

There could be risks to providing public money to private operators; so, in the United Kingdom, only non-profit private operators are allowed to participate in the ‘Academy’ programme to avoid the risk of profiteering.

Ensuring that every child gets a good quality secondary education is crucial for both their wellbeing and the future of Kenya and the government should be applauded for its move to increase access to secondary school. Partnering wisely with the private sector, however, could make this investment go further.

 Mr Crawfurd is head of research and evaluation at Ark Education Partnerships Group, a UK charity that advises governments on education reform. [email protected]