In India and Pakistan, for instance, more than one quarter of children are now enrolled in low-cost private schools, and this proportion is growing quickly. In Lagos, Nigeria, around two-thirds of children are enrolled in private schools. The proportion of children in private schools is generally higher in urban areas and in lower grades.
There is a growing body of evidence showing that children in these schools learn more than children in government schools. However, there is a wide variation in performance between schools, with some performing much better than government schools, and others performing worse. Private schools tend to do much better than government schools on some metrics (particularly, teacher attendance, English language learning) but the same or worse on others (for instance learning of local languages).
There is good evidence that these interventions are effective. For instance, a randomized trial in India found that children provided with vouchers made greater progress in literacy and math than other children. A similar evaluation of a randomized voucher program in Sindh, Pakistan, found that enrolment rates in villages targeted by the program increased by 30%, along with increases in learning, gender equity, and school facilities.
With 2.6 million children, the Punjab Education Foundation already funds the education of more children than the world’s 30 smallest countries combined (and more children than Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Mongolia and New Zealand). As is the case with most low-cost private schools, it does so at a lower cost per student than the government system. Voucher models have also been taken to scale in India, the Philippines and Uganda.
Vouchers therefore appear to be an intervention which:
Raises learning levels
Reduces the cost of schooling
Is scalable to reach large numbers of children
Despite that, vouchers have some serious limitations, which, at a minimum, mean that they need to be implemented carefully to have impact.
1. While learning levels in low-cost private schools are generally higher than those in government schools, they are not that much higher. Many voucher systems in the developing world (and low-cost private schools more broadly) still leave large numbers of children not learning. With good training, assessment and other interventions, this learning challenge can be addressed. This means that a voucher system has to be one part of a broader reform agenda, not a substitute for it.
2. There is a risk of duplication of resources. In many cases, the government ends up funding competing schools, or continuing to fund empty government schools while at the same time paying for a private school next door. Proponents argue that this is a better situation than children being in government schools and not learning. Nonetheless, it raises serious questions about resources in otherwise resource constrained systems. The best voucher systems attempt to target the most vulnerable or underserved areas, but this is difficult to affect in practice.
3. Vouchers, and market-based schooling models in general, have a tendency towards inequality. In Chile, vouchers have benefited students from better-off families more than those from less-well-off families. Good design of the vouchers can ensure that they benefit those who need them most, but this is not guaranteed from the outset.
4. As long as public schools are the dominant provider, a voucher program may prove a distraction from the main task of improving the public school system. Many opponents of vouchers argue that political and financial capital would be better deployed improving the public school system. The best reforms combine both approaches, though were financial and political capital are limited, this can be difficult.
5. As voucher systems scale, they begin to become subject to the same political economy challenges which are often the source of problems in the public school system. Good governance structures can mitigate this, but ultimately, as voucher programs scale, they will become further enmeshed in the political and bureaucratic structures which dominate the school system.
Fenton Whelan founded Acasus, he has more than a decade of experience in public health and education development.