by Modupe Adefeso-Olateju
LFPS are without doubt serving the poor in Nigeria. The future of these schools however, is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, it is useful to remember that education provision in several countries is bifurcated and regardless of the quality of state schools, some will always opt for the private path to education.
‘Only a parent that doesn’t love his child will send him to a public school’. This comment made by a highly educated principal of a private school during a research interview shocked me greatly. I was trying to understand why poor parents were choosing to use low fee private schools of questionable quality when public schools were available tuition-free, and our conversation began with a discussion of perceptions surrounding both public schools. In hindsight, I should not have been too startled by this principal’s response because worse was to come from those who actually taught in public schools.
‘Corrupted’, ‘miscreants’, ‘thugs’, and ‘wretched’, ‘from bad homes’, ‘don’t value education ’were some of the common terms with which public school teachers described their pupils. On the other hand when asked to describe private school learners, the terms ‘serious’, ‘respectful’, ‘children from good homes’, ‘children that value education’, and ‘of high intelligence’ were uttered in abundance. Not a single one of the 17 public school teachers and headteachers whom I spoke with had enrolled their children in a state school! It was therefore no surprise that even uneducated parents cited the negative stereotype of public school pupils as one of their main reasons for dissociating from publicly provided education. The State represents the provider of last resort, catering to some of the poorest demographics – which in Nigeria include domestic helpers who live with wealthy relatives or employers, street urchins; also known as area boys, and offspring of low waged artisans – but to hear teachers almost unanimously equate poverty with vice was very disturbing for me.
Another reason for choosing LFPS, which is closely related to sector stereotyping, is the perception of care in LFPS. Several of the parents I chatted with said they felt teachers in LFPS were more caring of pupils than their public school counterparts. For these parents, care is when the teacher calls to find out why a child arrived late to school, and makes a home visit when the child is absent for one day. These parents also valued home-school proximity so that younger children especially, could be visited during the school day. This demonstrated ‘care’ is associated with the fact that these schools are very often owned and run by sole proprietors who are extremely involved in the day-to-day running of the schools. The prevalent hire-and-fire policy means that teachers can lose their jobs at the drop of a hat, and within the context of unemployment rates higher than 20%, every effort is made by easily dispensable teachers, to please the proprietor. Parents value these high levels of teacher accountability and the easy access to headteachers and school owners who are usually only a phonecall away.
There was also the general sentiment amongst LFPS parents – several of whom were petty traders and waged artisans – that public school teachers were far above them on the socioeconomic scale, and that they induced feelings of inferiority in their pupils’ families. Fact is, the average teacher in Lagos State is armed with a post-secondary education degree and/or professional certificate. Several of these teachers actually hold Masters’ degrees. Today it is virtually impossible for a non-certified teacher to be employed on full time basis in a state school – which sounds great, save that skills to meaningfully engage a socioeconomically deprived clientele are generally lacking. The massive socioeconomic gap between these state-employed teachers and the families they serve is such that parents do not feel like valued stakeholders in the education process. They consider themselves inadequate even to converse with teachers, and often time shrink away from visiting their children’s schools.
Finally, regarding learning outcomes, parents who had switched their wards from public to private schools swore that their children’s achievement had improved. Whilst it is difficult to verify this because of the lack of state-wide standardized assessments at primary level, limited statistical evidence from research carried out in Lagos by James Tooley and more recently Modupe Adefeso-Olateju, show that these parents may actually be right. Ceteris paribus, there does seem to be a small but significant learning benefit to attending private schools – even of the low fee genre. This is very telling indeed.
So in the face of the evidence, do we go right ahead and begin to advocate for all low fee private schools (LFPS) to be licensed? I think not. Whilst they contribute significantly to the achievement of the Education for All goals, the sector is blighted by myriad problems ranging from health and safety risks, to overworked and underpaid teachers. Still, parents weigh their options, and spurred on by incentives such as flexible tuition payment plans, opt for LFPS.
It is no news that the Lagos State government has all guns blazing in its efforts to lure parents back to public schools. Beautiful red brick structures are springing up across the state so that characteristically large primary class sizes can be reduced. A ninety million dollar loan from the World Bank is providing substantial school development grants (of between two and four million naira) to each of the 647 secondary schools in the state. These funds are administrated directly by the school principals, empowering them, and providing teachers with access to high quality professional development. Given however, that the characteristics of LFPS that parents most value are very difficult to replicate in the public sector, I perhaps for the first time feel some sympathy for the State. As public schools improve, there will undoubtedly be a measure of school shifting. As the Kenyan case shows however, this is not the end game. The real test is retaining these children in public schools, raising and maintaining the quality of these schools, and ensuring that the pupils actually learn.
LFPS are without doubt serving the poor in Nigeria. The future of these schools however, is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, it is useful to remember that education provision in several countries is bifurcated and regardless of the quality of state schools, some will always opt for the private path to education. I wouldn’t worry too much about this demographic. The focus in Nigeria should be on ensuring that no child is precluded from receiving a meaningful education simply on socioeconomic grounds. Whether this is operationalised through expanding public provision, funding private schools that cater to the poor or establishing public-private partnerships should be a secondary issue – as long as the implications of each model are well thought through. As one parent mused aloud during our interview, ‘If I am to be honest, I don’t really care where my child goes, as long he will be well taken care of and learns enough to make him a productive member of society’.
Modupe Adefeso-Olateju is Managing Director of The Education Partnership Centre (TEP Centre) Lagos. She is an Education Policy Consultant with expertise in public and private school effectiveness, and the design of Public-Private Partnerships in Education. She holds a PhD in Education and International Development from the Institute of Education, University of London. Modupe sits on the board of the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council London, and is passionate about helping young people fulfill their academic and career potential. She tweets from @tepcentre
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