…in both private and public sector schools
Some popular perceptions, that are persisting in certain circles in Pakistan, are that private schools only work for the better off, work for profits only and make a lot of profits, work in urban areas mainly, but do provide better education for the money that they charge. Although some of these perceptions have a degree of truth to them, things are changing quite rapidly in the sector and, equally importantly, these perceptions need to be contextualised as well.
There are about 55,000-odd private schools and some 8 million school-going children in Pakistan that go to private schools. This is not a small sector anymore. Most of these 55,000 schools are small, local, low-fee private schools (LFPS) that charge up to Rs 500 per month, and many of them charge less than Rs 300 a month, while the elite private schools, charging thousands of rupees a month are not more than a few thousand. This reflects market realities as well. The elite schools cater to the middle and higher income brackets, while the LFPS cater to the lower and lower-middle income groups.
It is true that the very poor do not go to private schools in as large a number as they do to public schools, but private school enrolment now does span the entire income spectrum. These schools are also spread over the urban and rural landscape, though it is true they are concentrated in places where population density is higher (urban areas, or rural areas of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and where the supply of educated females is present. Rural Balochistan and Sindh do not have many private schools.
In terms of profits, while private schools charge money for providing the service, and education is a business for them, most of the LFPS do not make a lot of money. They cannot charge a lot to the market they cater to and hence their net returns are not very high. Imagine a class of 30 students being charged Rs 200 a child on average. The school will have gross revenue of Rs 6,000 from this class or section. They have to pay for the teacher, the utilities and for other overheads (rent) out of this revenue. The net income of the school owner might not be much. Many schools try to tie markets (sell uniforms or books) and/or charge other fees (admission fee, examination fee, etc) but these are limited in LFPS. So, the perception of large profits, for LFPS, is incorrect, and most of them might be making only ordinary returns. The perception, though, holds for schools charging higher fees.
There are many surveys that show that on average children from private schools, even LFPS, do better than children from public schools in standardised tests, and across most subjects, even after controlling for a host of factors such as parental income, education and so on, but there is substantial variation in quality in both types of schools, and overall, the quality of education, in both type of schools is very poor. On an absolute quality basis, when we test children against what they should know at a certain age in mathematics and languages, we find that most children are way behind where they should be. So both types of schools are failing our children and failing us, but the children in public schools, on average, are doing worse than the private school children.
On the cost side private school costs, per child, are much lower than public school costs, but most LFPS are not regulated, do not face the salary related, employee related, tax related and other labour/regulatory structures that public schools live under. So, it is unclear how much of the cost differential is driven by efficiency and how much of it is due to structural differences. This needs more investigation.
The context above should help in deepening our understanding of the perceptions about private/public education. Pakistani policymakers have encouraged private education over the last couple of decades and it has expanded significantly to the point where it caters to some 8 million children now. It has expanded much faster than the government has been able to expand the public sector. And has the potential to continue to expand.
Sadly, by design and default, the government has also taken this expansion as an excuse for keeping its commitment to education low, and in the process there have been negative consequences on public schools as well: exit of children from middle and higher income groups from public schools and concurrent reduction in government’s willingness to reform public school system. And it has also led the debate, about private and public, in the wrong direction.
We want all children in Pakistan to have access to quality education: under Article 25A of our constitution, it is our constitutional obligation to provide for this. The real issue is how is this objective to be achieved? We have decided that we will do this through government schools as well as private schools. The word ‘private’ has connotations that are not appropriate for the context. A school where our children go will never be private space of the entrepreneur. We are not going to entrust our children to any individual or company. We have the right to not only know what is being taught there and how, we, as a society, have a right to regulate and monitor it.
Society has certain objectives and expectations regarding education and these need to be implemented and monitored irrespective of the ownership and/or management structure of school. If the quality of education is poor, irrespective of school type, we, as a society, need to work on improving it. The best way to improve private sector quality is by improving quality of provision in the public sector: since private sector has to compete, and charges money, it will have to deliver better quality than the free alternative.
But reforming public sector has been difficult, largely due to lack of incentives for such reforms. But that does not mean the society should not be looking into how private school quality should be improved to some minimum threshold. The nature of the intervention would be different for LFPS and elite schools as LFPS have little fiscal space. Accordingly, from grants to loans, we will have to develop all sorts of products and instruments that can provide access to finance for different types of schools. We will take up the issue of appropriate products/instruments in a later article.
Educational quality is poor in Pakistan, for most schools. We need to fix that, irrespective of whether the school is owned/run by government or not. The instruments for doing that will vary according to the type of school, the group it caters to, and so on, but the facts of their ownership/management, private, for-profit, public or not-for-profit, do not matter for this argument.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]