Rarely does a subject on education provoke such a passionate debate as the one on private and public schools. About 350 million students around the world are educated in non-state schools, ranging from faith-based institutions and schools run by NGOs to for-profit schools. Non-state actors also run school buses, provide uniforms, produce textbooks and run school canteens. Technology companies have also made progress in education, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic – from online testing to virtual classrooms.
There are many reasons why the private sector plays such an important role in education. One of the attractions is that there is a potential market for them. Worldwide, 1.6 billion children and young people go to class every day around the world and $ 5 trillion is spent on education every year.
So what are the consequences of the presence of the private sector in education?
There is no denying that many non-state role players deliver where there is a need: in conflict situations, in crises, in many countries where the public education system is dysfunctional. But there is also no denying that although governments are bound by their public obligations to education equity, the private sector is not.
To investigate the role and impact of non-state role players in education worldwide, UNESCO has compiled the 2021/2 Global Education Monitoring Report. Titled “Who chooses? Who loses? ”Examines how the right of all children to have 12 years of free education, to which all provinces committed themselves in 2015 in the Education 2030 Framework for Action, was jeopardized by a stronger role of private actors can be.
In the report, we cite many examples of strong collaborative partnerships between private and public actors, designing, for example, skills systems set up in the labor market. But there are also many opportunities in which the management and oversight of the plurality of actors in education have gone out of control and led to the fragmentation of education systems.
The big challenge now is to make sure that the presence of the private sector in education does not make it more difficult for school children who fall behind in their education due to poverty. Despite some well-intentioned regulations, it can be difficult to guarantee that private schools will support governments’ agendas to help such children.
Our report shows that the children of the richest households in about 40 countries were 10 times more likely than the poorest to attend private primary school. Recognizing the potential dangers to equity, more than a quarter of countries banned non-profit provision in primary and secondary education.
However, such measures are rarely introduced in early childhood education, a period that is critical to a child’s development and their potential later in life. At this level, private providers are even more present than in primary and secondary education. In many countries, it makes kindergartens unaffordable for the poorest families – especially those who need such services the most, as they are more likely to have no other childcare options. For example, in the United States, where poverty affects black people disproportionately and where there is a significant shortage of state-funded early education institutions, black families with two young children must average 56 percent of their income in preschool and kindergarten education.
Our report calls on governments to make sure that, whoever is involved in education and whatever they do, they respect and adhere to the values of fairness and allow every child to realize their potential. There are some solutions we recommend.
First, governments must meet their public obligations and invest in good quality free state education. They need to make sure that the poorest families, who do not have the funds to pay for better education elsewhere, can always have access to a good quality school wherever they are. But one in three countries still spends on education under the two internationally agreed measures: at least 4 percent of GDP or at least 15 percent of total public spending.
As a result, costs for public schools are often passed on to parents. In Uganda, for example, families regularly pay informal fees to go to school even though it is against the law. It has been proven that eliminating such costs has significant benefits. A scholarship program in Gambia that covered informal fees for uniforms and books increased the enrollment of girls by 13 percent.
Second, governments must ensure that regulations covering public and non-public schools are fair and enforced. Our report has compiled and evaluated regulations in more than 200 education systems. It has been found that although a variety of rules exist on paper, they are not properly applied. It is most evident in countries like Nigeria where the proliferation of unregistered low-fee schools of high quality endangers the education of many children.
Regulations that actually promote fair education are not common. About 55 percent of countries try to prevent selective student admission procedures in non-state schools, but only 7 percent of countries have quotas to support access to schools for disadvantaged students.
Our report calls on all governments to take a serious look at schools, teachers and students together as they are part of the same education system. Governments cannot turn a blind eye to privilege or harm – as they have so often done during the pandemic. Regulations should work for everyone and should promote equality and quality for everyone, not fancy ideas for some.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.