The E.G. West Centre is the world’s leading authority on the growth and development of affordable private schools serving low income communities across the developing world.  Over the previous decade extensive and detailed research, directed by Professor James Tooley, has been carried out across all five continents, documenting the enormous and previously neglected potential of private schools to serve the educational needs of the poor.  To date, research has focused on:

  • mapping the number of existing low cost private schools;
  • measuring and comparing their performance with local government schools;
  • helping to develop the ecosystem in which these schools operate (de-regulation, private school associations microfinance, scholarship schemes);
  • helping to improve the quality of education being provided;
  • helping to set up chains of low cost private schools in India and Africa;

More recent research has focused on the growth and development of low cost private schools in post conflict countries such as South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone and on the growth and expansion of chains of low cost private schools in different countries around the world.

Low cost private schools in the US & UK - based upon our experience of helping to set up a number of chains of low cost private schools in developing countries, the E.G. West Centre is now developing a business model for a chain of low cost private schools for the US & UK education markets.

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Funded research projects

A survey of low cost private schools in Bihar, India (India Institute, Jan 2012-June 2012).

This research in the Indian city of Patna has produced some remarkable findings.which show that government statistics are currently excluding three quarters of the schools in the city and 68% of school children.  This means that 238,767 school children out of a total of 333,776 were missing from the official data.  Instead of the official 350 schools, the research located a total of 1,574 schools with 78% identified as private unaided, 21% government and 1% private aided.  Therefore, approximately 65% of school children in Patna were attending private unaided schools, with just 34% attending government schools.  Based on the monthly fees being charged at each private school, the research also found that 69% of private unaided schools were low cost, 22% were affordable and only 9% higher cost. In other words, the vast majority of private unaided schools found in the city of Patna were low cost, charging fees of less £4 per month.

Low cost private schools in the world’s most difficult places: the role of for profit private education in conflict-affected states in Africa, (John Templeton Foundation, June 2011 – May 2013, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan).

The project extends earlier Templeton-funded research, by exploring the role of low cost private schools in the world’s most difficult places. Highlighting their role in conflict-affected states in Africa may dramatically challenge policy makers and opinion formers to rethink their understanding of the potentially beneficial links between profit and education.  The project has four components. First, the nature and extent of private education in four conflict-affected states in Africa will be mapped (Sierra Leone, Liberia, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo). Second, comparisons between children in government, for profit and nonprofit private schools will be made, on academic achievement and other indicators. Third, regulatory, policy and investment climate impacting these schools will be explored. Fourth, business plans will be developed to stimulate investment in low-cost for-profit education.

The anticipated outputs include data-sets and reports for each country, and ten articles for publication in peer-reviewed education and business journals. Workshops will be held in each of the three countries and in the USA and UK. A monograph will be published by an American or British think-tank, with associated opinion pieces in the media. A trade book proposal will be submitted to major publishing houses.  The research outcomes will include measurable change in the attitudes towards low cost private education of national and international agency policy makers and opinion formers. Measurable change will also be apparent in investors and philanthropists, committed to investment in low cost private education in conflict-affected states in Africa.

Extending Access to Quality Education for the Underserved (Optimus Foundation, Oct 2011-Sep 2014, + significant investment from other sources, Ghana, India, Sierra Leone)

The project will assist with the R&D and other measures for the creation of a group of small chains of low cost private schools, helping to develop and measure the impact of: the educational programme for these schools, innovative methods to ensure access to low-income families, and scholarship schemes for the poorest of the poor.  Within three years, the group will encompass four embryonic chains of schools in two ‘hubs’, West Africa and India, serving 20,000 children, from the bottom two quintiles of wealth in the countries served. The project objectives are to create a global group of four embryonic chains of low cost private schools in two `hubs’, West Africa and India. At the end of the project the group will:

  • serve at least 20,000 students
  • be financially sustainable at the school, chain and group level;
  • show improved academic performance in key subjects in the two original chains (Ghana and Hyderabad, India) compared to control groups of students in government and private schools;
  • offer free scholarships to at least 5% of its students in the two original chains, using surplus from the chains which can be supplemented with additional philanthropy
  • have at least 50% of enrolment girls in schools in the two original chains;
  • have developed all necessary programmes to be ready to expand to very large scale.

Thus the group of chains of schools will be fully sustainable after three years, demonstrating a workable, scalable, sustainable and replicable model of how to extend access to high quality education for low income families across the world.

Improving Access for Girls to Quality Low Cost Private Education in Sierra Leone (Google Foundation, Jan 2012 – Dec 2013,  + investment from other sources, Sierra Leone)

The funding will be used to create an embryonic but sustainable chain of low cost private schools in Sierra Leone, together with a scholarship fund to enable girls from the poorest families to attend the schools.

Preliminary market research in Freetown revealed some low cost private schools in fishing villages and neighboring slums charging around $5 per month.  However, in the poorest slums (e.g., Kroo Bay, Susan’s Bay, Malaba) there did not appear to be any, unlike in similar slums in Ghana and Nigeria. One estimate for Susan’s Bay alone suggested 9,000 children out of school. There appeared to be considerable demand for low cost private schooling from women in the slums; local chiefs and councilors also expressed interest.  Discussions at the Ministry of Education suggested that Omega Schools Foundation, based in Ghana, will relatively easily be able to open a new office in Sierra Leone, a member of ECOWAS.

In Freetown, the project will match what has been created through the work of the E.G. West Centre in Ghana, except that it will ensure at least 60% enrolment of girls in its schools (in Ghana current enrolment is 51% girls). The funding will be used to (a) open an office in Freetown and recruit the team leader and team; (b) adapt the Omega lesson plans, work books, assessment systems and other learning materials for the Sierra Leone curriculum and situation; (c) open two new schools in slums of Freetown per year; and (d) monitor the academic achievement of children in the Omega schools compared to children in other low cost private and community schools, and government-assisted schools.

The scholarship fund will be created to enable girls from the poorest families and orphans to attend Omega Schools. Already Omega Schools Foundation has given a small number of scholarships in Ghana, using local knowledge of the school managers and teachers to ensure that they are directed to the poorest children who would otherwise be unable to attend. The new fund will follow these methods but will be dedicated to girls only. Because of the innovative all-inclusive funding method, all associated costs will be covered with the scholarships – including uniform, books, food, transport, insurance, etc. This means that there will be low discouragement to take up scholarships from parents/guardians. Moreover, because all children receive 15 ‘free’ days in the school, with ‘get-into-school-free’ cards used whenever required, scholarships are stigma free, administered with these same cards, so that no-one need know who is on scholarship.

In two years the project will deliver:

  • 400 girls’ scholarships annually
  • Four new schools in Sierra Leone, serving 1,800 children, at least 60% of whom will be girls. The surplus from these four schools will cover the cost of the head office and the program office for the scholarship fund.
  • Measurements showing value added performance of children in the schools, plus comparisons with children in government and other low cost private schools: 90% of children showing improved quarter on quarter performance, while 80% of children in Omega Schools will significantly outperform those in other school types.
  • Measurements showing value added performance of scholarship girls in the schools, with comparisons with fee-paying children, and children in government and other low cost private schools: 100% of scholarship children showing improved quarter on quarter performance, while 80% of scholarship children in Omega Schools will significantly outperform those in other school types.

ENABLE (Ensure Access to Better Learning Experiences) and ASPIRE (Allow Synthetic Phonics to Improve Results in English), (Absolute Return for Kids – ARK, Jan 2009 – present, India)

ENABLE is a pilot school voucher programme which aims to provide a model that can be replicated across India and other developing countries as well as provide a platform to advocate its systematic implementation. Currently around 900 children aged between five and seven years are being funded at a cost of around £100 per year for 5 years to attend a low cost private unaided recognised school of their choice. A randomised control trial (RTC) is being overseen, analysed and directed by Dr Pauline Dixon which looks at the impact of the voucher intervention for the 900 voucher recipients as compared to the 900 control children over a five year period (that is those who applied for a voucher but were not allocated one during the randomised lottery).

ARK India’s English literacy programme (ASPIRE) has provided learning for children in nine government and 25 low cost private unaided schools in Shahadra through synthetic phonics and Genki English.  Dr Dixon provided the teacher training as well as trained the ARK team in pedagogical methods around synthetic phonics. She also oversaw the external research component where 1,412 children were tested in the treatment group in both private and government schools to carry out a comparison of their gain in achievement compared to a control group of the same number of children. Dixon carried out multilevel modelling to write a comprehensive report around the results which found that children studying within the ASPIRE programme outperformed those who did no significantly in reading and speaking English.  Dr Pauline Dixon is international advisor for both the above projects. Both projects are intervention projects, launched in the slum of Shahadra (North East Delhi) in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

Competition, Innovation and Change in Education Markets for the Poor in Developing Countries, (Orient Global Foundation, Jan 2007 to Sep 2009, India, China, Ghana)

The research linked the findings from the John Templeton Foundation/University of Newcastle ‘private schools for the poor’ project with those from the innovative World Bank/NIIT ‘Hole in the Wall’ research project.  Combining insights from both these research strands explored a sustainable and scalable solution to help overcome some of the impediments to improving educational quality for the poor.

While the earlier Templeton-funded research suggested that a more sanguine assessment of the quality of the private education sector for the poor may be possible than is argued by critics of these schools, it would be rash to suggest that educational quality cannot be improved.  School proprietors are the first to suggest that their schools suffer from a similar emphasis to the state schools on methods of rote learning and narrow curricula that may not adequately prepare their children for adult life, particularly in terms of likely career options in self-employment and business.

There are many possible ways in which to explore possibilities of innovation in curriculum and pedagogy in private schools for the poor. However, one particularly suitable vehicle for innovation in education that can be harnessed in the private schools is what has been dubbed by the media as the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ experiments. This has utilized a pedagogy described as ‘minimally-invasive education’ (MIE), a term borrowed from surgery indicating, in the educational context, only minimal trained professional intervention. Recent experiments in 27 locations in India and four in Cambodia have shown that groups of children can learn to use computers and the Internet without teacher instruction (Mitra and Rana, 2001, Mitra, 2005, Mitra et al, 2005), and can learn the state computer and mathematics curricula, without instruction, to a level comparable to those children taught conventionally (Inamdar, 2004, and forthcoming). The findings pose the question whether similar learning may be observed in other curriculum areas.

During the research, the technology for MIE evolved into the construction of SOLEs – Self-Organised Learning Environments, equipped with a dozen computers, designed for children and robust in outdoor tropical environments under minimal or remote supervision.

There were four objectives:

  1. To explore the educational efficacy of SOLEs situated in low cost private schools for the poor, to improve learning outcomes, increase educational relevance and extend educational access.
  2. To disseminate findings on educational efficacy of SOLEs in private schools for the poor to stakeholders, especially private school proprietors and associations.
  3. To explore the potential sustainability and scalability of using private schools for the poor as vehicles for the implementation of SOLEs

One of the experimental results showed that children in groups, in remote and under developed environments, can fulfil educational objectives on their own, and if helped by a friendly, but not knowledgeable mediator, can reach levels of learning comparable to those of high quality urban schools with good teachers.  This work has resulted in the creation of 12 ‘Self Organised Learning Environments’ (SOLEs) and a ‘cloud’ of e-Mediators who teach over Skype to children in inaccessible areas. The ‘cloud’ is called a ‘Self Organised Mediation Environment’ (SOME).

For-Profit Schools Serving the Educational Needs of the Poor: A Global Research and Dissemination Project (John Templeton Foundation, June 2003 to Dec 2005, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, India, China)

Despite the common perception that private education serves only the needs of the privileged, there is a growing body of evidence that points to the phenomenon of private schools for the poor, in a range of developing countries. The research was motivated by these findings to examine the extent to which private education is meeting the needs of the poor in five countries: Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, India and China.  Some of the assumptions we found during the course of the work, together with findings, structured around five assumptions that have been encountered in the course of conducting the research, and the challenges to these that the work has revealed:

Assumption 1: “Private education for the poor does not exist” – on the contrary, the great majority of schools serving the poor are private in low-income areas of India and Africa researched. In Hyderabad low-income areas researched, 65% of school children are in private unaided schools, with the same number of children in unrecognised private schools as there are in government. In Ga, Ghana, the figure is 64%.

Assumption 2: “Free (public) education is required to increase enrolment for the poor, not private education” – on the contrary, our evidence suggests that, when free primary education was introduced in Kenya, with $55 million World Bank funding, there was a net decline in enrolment, due to the “crowding out” of private schools.

Assumption 3: “Private education for the poor is of a lower quality than public provision” – on the contrary, private schools for the poor are of a higher quality than the available public schools. An average child allocated to a government school, with all the characteristics of an average school, would be predicted to obtain 39% in maths and 29% in English. Put the same child into a school whose only difference is that it is privately managed and owned (but not recognised by the government), and he or she will obtain 57% in maths and 46% in English. Finally, put the same child into a school whose only difference now is that it is recognised, and he or she will obtain 65% in Maths and 55% in English. In Nigeria, an average child allocated to a government school, with all the characteristics of an average school, would be predicted to obtain 42% in maths and 45% in English. Put the same child into a school whose only difference is that it is privately managed and owned (but not registered with the government), and he or she will obtain 60% in maths and 66% in English. Finally, put the same child into a school whose only difference now is that it is government registered, and he or she will obtain 60% in Maths and 68% in English.

Assumption 4: “Private education can only be more effective because it is better resourced” – our research found that the private schools had higher standards of education at considerably lower costs than public schools.  Per pupil teacher costs ranged from 25% to 50% of the government equivalent.

Assumption 5: “Private education for the poor could only be a charitable activity” – on the contrary, our research has found private schools able to make a surplus, and hence become attractive propositions for a revolving loan fund.