Thoughts on economics and liberty

Asif Saleh on low cost schools (including transcript)

A brilliant short talk on the ENORMOUS good that low cost private schools have been doing to the world. Will also link to


A few days before coming here I actually visited a few of our schools. We just introduced some fee-based schools as well in Bangladesh apart from the free schools that we were running.

Some of these free schools have been converted to fee-based schools for financial sustainability.  One of the main reasons for me to go there was to ask the parents why are they sending their kids to BRAC schools as opposed to free government schools that are very close by.

The father was a rickshaw puller, the mother was a tailor, and not so well-off family but their answer was simple. Their answer was that if I send my kid to a government school then I would need to have a private tutor at the same time because nothing happens in that school. And I get to I know my kids are learning more here because at least I get to meet the teacher when once every month. So that simple answer sums up why there has been a rise of the non-state actors in the education field throughout the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in crisis is a crisis of education in a massive proportion. It is getting worse so it boggles my mind to think that we are thinking of banning private sectors private players’ role in this sector at a time when there is a dire need of innovation.

In reality it should be the other way around. We should be embracing the role of not just a private but all the non-state actors to help the governments around the world cope with this ever-growing crisis in education.

I will look at three points. These are access, quality and cost effectiveness of private versus public.


From the access point the latest data from UNESCO shows that almost 203 million children and youth are out of school – an astounding figure equivalent to a quarter of the population of Europe. The total includes 61 million children in primary school age, 60 million of lower secondary school age, and 142 million of upper secondary school age children.

Even in positive cases where countries claim to have hundred percent or universal access for primary education, the class sizes in the public schools are abysmally large to have any meaningful learning impact for the student. So there [is] simply not enough government infrastructure keeping up with the demand of the market.

Purely from an access viewpoint that makes the case of having entities which can scale up quickly.


The biggest study that happened recently was in Andhra Pradesh. A rigorous four-year study of 6,000 pupils in Andhra Pradesh suggested that private pupils performed better in English and Hindi than public school pupils, and at the similar level in Maths and Telugu. The private schools achieved these results at 1/3rd of the cost of the public schools. There are similar examples in Nigeria as well.

But what does it mean for the parents? Government schools are not free to parents, unlike popular perception. Parents have to pay for uniforms, for books, for shoes, for transport, lunch and so on, PPA fees, exam fees. Now when you accurately calculate all these costs to send a child to a government school and all the costs to send a child to a private school you get a very interesting result.

Again, I can give you some research from West Africa from the slums of Monrovia and Liberia. The research showed that the cost to a parent of sending a child to a government school was on average 75 percent of the cost of sending a child to one of these low-cost private schools. Yes, the private school is more expensive but it is not cripplingly so. If you add the cost of the private tutors like the parent I met, private schools actually becomes less expensive.


In most of the developing world quality remains quite shocking. Half of the children in South Asia and a third of those in Africa who complete four years of schooling cannot read properly. In India 60% of six to fourteen year olds cannot read at the level of a child who has finished two years of schooling. In a survey of rural Indian schools a quarter of teachers were absent. In Africa the World Bank found teacher absenteeism rate at 15 to 25 percent. Pakistan recently discovered that it had over 8,000 non-existent state schools – 17% of the total. Sierra Leone spotted 6000 ghost teachers – nearly a fifth of the number on the total state payroll.

It the failure of the state to provide children with a decent education is leading to a massive growth of the non-state actors. Among the non-state non sectors various researchers show that (in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan) in general the quality is better, the schools are more innovative, and they hold their teachers accountable – not just for the students’ performance but also for their own attendance.

BRAC, for example, embraced non-formal education and that’s an innovation. Our approach trains people who are available in the communities to teach. This has helped combat teacher absenteeism.

We have seen strong results from the students as well. BRAC students in its 30,000 schools have outperformed public school students by 10% or so in spite of finishing the five year curriculum in four years. It is true that quality varies in non-government schools but there are many ways schools can be regulated to improve their quality.

Let the parents make the choice with their purse and the government can regulate through various assessments. Education should be a public good. The government’s role is to ensure that all schools – both private and public – are held accountable, especially until government can deliver quality results. Until governments can ensure that, there will be a role for non-profits and private institutions to fill the gaps. This is a good thing as it creates competition and pushes everyone to improve as well. Paying for school increases accountability of the school as well to the parents.

Parents not just in Bangladesh but across the world have woken up to the fact that education remains the most effective investment for them to get to that rare graduation ladder. They want accountability. Who are we to deprive them? In our school we continue to have 10 to 15 percent of ultra-poor who study for free. Girls have to account for 50 percent of the class. So we are not compromising on our mission and are being true towards inclusion. So our example shows that it is possible to do both. So why don’t we get out of this public versus private dichotomy. Let governments build up its capacity. Let non-state actors flourish with proper oversight and monitoring.

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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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