The role of non-state schools in paving the way to universal basic education

With recognition, integration and support, low-fee private schools can both contribute to the national education budget and support national education goals.

July 17, 2023 by Corina Gardner, IDP Foundation
4 minutes read
Science class in a school in Kwame, Asunafo South District, Ghana. Credit: GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer
Science class in a school in Kwame, Asunafo South District, Ghana.
Credit: GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer

Achieving free quality education for all children remains a paramount goal. However, low- and lower-middle income countries face unique challenges in realizing this objective.

These nations require economic growth, increased tax revenue and a supportive regulatory framework to finance and deliver high-quality education. In this context, low-fee private schools emerge as a dual solution, contributing to the development of human capital and bolstering a country's gross domestic product through tax payments.

The Affordable Non-State Sector (ANS) in Ghana, comprising low-fee private schools, faith-based schools and NGO schools, is projected to represent nearly 30% of total school enrollments by 2025 (OPPORTUNITY EduFinance, 2022) - and this trend is not unique to Ghana, with the sector rapidly expanding across low- and lower-middle income countries.

However, many of these schools remain informal. For instance, in Lagos State, Nigeria, 75% of the approximately 20,000 low-fee private schools were unregistered in 2021, while in Jharkhand State, India, more than 80% were unregistered (UNESCO, 2021).

Challenges of registration and categorization

In most countries, when a school seeks government registration, it must categorize itself as either a for-profit business or a charity (not-for-profit).

The application process for charity status rightfully entails stringent requirements as it results in tax exemptions. Consequently, the majority of independent proprietors who establish community schools register as a for-profit business.

This is the case even when schools operate at a loss as their primary motivation is to make enough to keep the doors open and continue to serve their communities.

By operating as for-profit entities, these schools become integral to a country's economy, generating employment opportunities and tax revenue while supporting the government's education goals by increasing access – which has led to basic education enrollment numbers reaching almost 100% in most Sub-Saharan African countries (UIS, 2022).

Schools registered as non-profit often operate outside of the government system and make no contribution to the tax base needed to expand the public system.

Government recognition and regulatory framework

The role of low-fee private schools in meeting national education goals is increasingly recognized by governments. In Ghana, the government has taken steps to integrate all education providers into a centralized system.

The establishment of the Nationals Schools Inspectorate Authority (NaSIA), mandated by the Education Regulatory Bodies Act 2020 (Act 1023), signifies this commitment. NaSIA is tasked with developing, promoting and enforcing high-quality standards and guidelines for both public and private pre-tertiary educational institutions in Ghana.

NaSIA has reduced registration fees and simplified the process, ensuring a more accessible pathway for low-fee private schools to become formalized.

Additionally, they are now considering a graduated fees model based on the size and socioeconomic status of the schools' target population, demonstrating a commitment to equity and inclusivity.

Persistent learning outcomes challenges

In Ghana, learning outcomes across various settings remain poor. Primary research shared by the IDP Foundation in a 2022 policy brief revealed low performance levels among both public and private school students from the same communities.

The 2018 National Education Assessment showed that only 19-25% of pupils met the criterion for proficiency.

To improve learning outcomes, increased interventions and financing across all educational settings are imperative.

The funding gap and population growth
The funding gap and population growth.

Ghana's government has demonstrated its commitment to education by consistently exceeding the recommended amounts of domestic resources allocated to the sector, as advocated by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

However, the country's increasing population outpaces the allocated spending, making it very challenging to secure more significant gains in learning outcomes nationwide.

Insufficient financing remains a key factor impacting the quality of education.

UNESCO's Education Finance Watch report in 2022 revealed that governments accounted for less than half of total education spending in low-income countries, with over a third of the expenditure borne by families.

While development assistance contributes to education funding, it constitutes a very small portion of the overall financial support.

Private investment in education, particularly in low-income countries, is disproportionately low. According to The State of Blended Finance report by Convergence in 2021, SDG 4 represents only 4% of blended finance capital. Blended finance models predominantly focus on private actors.

To mobilize private funding for education equitably and inclusively, governments must recognize the pivotal role of the affordable non-state sector and integrate it into a well-regulated national education system.

UNESCO's recent GEM report on non-state actors emphasized the importance of government collaboration with all actors in building a resilient education system that works for everyone, fostering trust and promoting innovation.

Insufficient funding in low-income countries often leads to quality challenges such as large class sizes, inadequate infrastructure and a growing number of out-of-school children. For instance, a recent publication by a coalition of Ghanaian education Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) highlighted the limited public school infrastructure in urban communities in Accra, where teachers are forced to handle over 120 students and in increasing teaching shifts.

Consequently, even among low-income families, parents increasingly opt for fee-paying private schools with smaller classroom sizes that are located closer to their homes or perceived to offer better education.

Profit should not take precedence over the goal of building equitable quality education systems for all. Smart government interventions are necessary to ensure a robust tax base and to attract private funding, while simultaneously addressing the learning crisis.

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