Low levels of learning globally make for one of the most sobering statistics in education. In 12 out of 13 countries in South-Eastern Africa, fewer than 40% of students had mastered basic numeracy and basic literacy skills by grade 6. At the current pace, any significant progress would take tens of years. Increasingly, policy makers in developing countries look for strategies to improve learning by engaging with private providers. In Nigeria, DFID has been working with the government to support better information on school quality to parents and teacher training services for low-fee private schools. This takes place alongside successful efforts to build government capacity for basic education management in Nigeria, through programmes such as ESSPIN. In Liberia, the Ministry of Education has funded a set of private providers to offer primary education at no cost to parents.
Some people, including ourselves, suggest that rather than trying to decide whether public or private schools are better, basic education systems should be publicly funded and sensibly provided through a mix of providers, including local NGOs and “mom and pop” schools. There are several examples of this change in discourse towards partnerships: the recent rigorous review of public-private partnerships commissioned by Ark EPG; the Parthenon report on the importance of private providers partnering with the government in Africa; and appeals for more inclusive and collaborative systems by private education providers such as Bridge (here and here).
But what should successful partnerships look like? Specific arrangements – e.g. per-pupil subsidies or vouchers do not work well in every context, according to the scant evidence base. The detail of how specific partnerships are implemented matters. For example, the success of Colegios en Concesión (CEC), a contracting out model in Colombia, has been contested based on specifically this kind of detail. Rigorous quantitative studies point to neutral or superior learning in PPP schools. On the other hand, interviews with key informants in the Education Department implementing the scheme suggest that there has been progressively more room for student selection in each tender for the selection of providers.
Given the importance of institutional detail, it seems like there are two natural steps towards successful partnerships between education policymakers, partners, and private providers.
First step: Agree on the objectives and principles of the partnership
Principle 1: Education system
Whatever the reasons, these need to be clearly articulated and an assessment made of whether the expected benefits will really materialize.
Principle 2: Quality
Are the potential providers offering quality education? Given the low levels of achievement in the developing world, it is unlikely that any private provider will accomplish miracles. In Lagos (one of the best performing education states in Nigeria), we find that only half of children tested in low-fee private schools achieve at literacy levels expected by the curriculum, and about one in 17 do so in numeracy. Even so, governments must pre-emptively assess the level of quality offered by potential providers.
Principle 3: Access and relevance
Are providers sufficiently geographically close to beneficiaries for the type of services provided? Are these services relevant? It is worth considering before entering into a partnership with private providers whether they can serve the most disadvantaged in the specific context of their proposed involvement.
Principle 4: Value for money
Do private providers offer value for money in the long as well as short term? This has been a contentious point in Liberia, where operator budgets indicate spending between $50 and $1,100 per child in year one, in addition to the $50 spent by the government, according to an open letter by an evaluation team to the Ministry of Education.
It is also specifically worth considering whether existing public sector providers be encouraged to deliver higher standards or more focused services? Would this be more cost-effective than contracting with the private sector?
Once governments and private providers agree on a common stance for each of these principles, the pre-requisites for a successful partnership will depend on the type of design considered.
Second step: Considering the detail of the specific arrangement
For contracts, some relevant considerations include:
- Can the services procured be specified in a way that is well defined and easy to monitor, whilst remaining focused on outputs (e.g. quality and access) rather than inputs (e.g. teacher salaries and infrastructure)?
- Does the agency managing the contract (Ministry of Education, Development Partner or other organisation) have the capacity to develop and monitor contracts, avoiding loopholes and ambiguities like that potentially allowing for selection in Colombia?
- Is it possible to manage the political economy (teacher unions, political capital of ministry stakeholders and partners) in such a way as to make the contracting process transparent and open to external validation?
- Can the contracting agency monitor how funding is used and limit the amount spent on administrative and operating surplus?
- Do systems exist for ongoing assessment of the quality of provider?
- Are procedures in place to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not excluded in theory and in practice?
- Can systems be put in place that ensure that providers are fairly compensated for enrolling a mix of students?
The list of questions and considerations is far longer than this, and arriving at answers is a pain-staking process. For all their promise, partnerships with non-state providers need to be approached with caution. Government implementers and private sector providers need carefully to work this through in their specific contexts.