For thirteen years, Dr Dixon has been following her passion studying and researching the availability, provision and standards of education in low-income communities throughout the world. Her findings and those of Professor James Tooley and the team from the EG West Centre at the University of Newcastle are extraordinary.

The purpose behind the project, Dr Dixon explained , was to examine the general assumptions that ‘private schools must be for the elite, that the only way the poor can gain an education is if it is provided free by government, and that, if private schooling is provided to the poor, it is of low quality.

‘The only way to find out the truth,’ Dr Dixon told us, ‘is to carry out research and what we found, Professor Tooley and I, definitely throws such assumptions out of the window. Research from developing countries around the world is showing a burgeoning low cost private schools’ sector.’

According to FMF Board member, Nic Frangos, no better example exists in any area of human endeavour than this project that demonstrates how efficiently and beneficently the free market system delivers what people need, no matter their status and this is the reason why the FMF had decided to present a Luminary Award to Dr Dixon.
Dr Dixon, when accepting the award, said, ‘This Award recognises more the work and effort put in by all the kids and the people who teach them than our research. We see so much good in poor areas where markets are vibrant and people are working to find ways to obtain what they want and need and not sitting around waiting for the government to do something.”

In carrying out the project, Dr Dixon and the team set out to investigate whether private schooling existed in poor areas and, if it did, what it was like. Often they were told there were no private schools or only a small number existed, but, on foot, they made their way up each and every alley in numerous low income and shanty towns in urban areas of Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, India and China looking for schools. They found, quite amazingly, that in almost every area they visited, around 60% of the schools were low cost private schools with around 65% to 70% of children in the area attending them.

Some schools were registered and therefore known, others not and therefore they and the students enrolled in them were not included in official reporting figures. In some cases there were three to four schools down one small lane which meant that competition is rife. Competition stimulates innovation and quality so the owners and teachers maintain good standards in order to compete.

As far as quality of education was concerned, Dr Dixon said, ‘We have tested around 32,000 children in Africa and Asia who attend government and low cost private schools. The subjects we examine are maths, English and home language. After controlling for school choice, family background and innate ability, we find the children in these affordable private schools outperform those in government schools at a fraction of the teacher cost. The children are typically one to two years ahead of their government school counterparts.

‘Why? Because competition regulates the quality of education, it motivates schools to deliver the best quality of teaching and to charge fees that are acceptable to the community. Fee paying parents have the power to hold teachers accountable for the standard of education their children receive and the option to move their children to another school if they are not satisfied. Our research reveals that at private schools, whether registered or not, classes tend to be smaller, teachers more attentive to the children’s needs and absent for fewer days than at government schools.’

‘Teachers in private schools are passionate about what they do. They can also be fired by the school entrepreneur if they don’t perform. There are no teacher unions in the low cost private school sector, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem as these schools have grown organically from within the communities themselves, so not only is the school owner (typically the headteacher) from the neighbourhood but so are the teachers.’

Low cost private schools charge around R30 to R50 per month and are frequented by children of illiterate parents, generally making minimum wages as taxi drivers, market stall holders and daily wage earners. In post conflict zones such as Sierra Leone, Dixon and Tooley found that, somewhat understandably, 89% of schools are private and 82% of children go to private schools. Parents, even if they are illiterate and innumerate, know what they want for their children, and are prepared to pay to get what they want.

When asked how the schools manage to keep their fees so low that they are affordable to low-income parents, Dr Dixon explained that the school accommodation and amenities are modest and teachers get paid one-quarter to one-third of the salaries paid to government school teachers. The lower pay of the teachers is largely due to the fact that they do not have the qualifications of the teachers in the government schools and that they live and work in the community.

Dr Dixon warned that when government promised ‘free’, it did not necessarily mean free. Pupils at government schools are often expected to wear a uniform, they have to buy their own books and stationery, pay transport costs, and parents are not encouraged to participate in school policy decisions. Private schools do not demand uniforms, provide what materials they can, and are situated near to homes easily accessible to students and their parents.

Based on the findings of the research of the EG West Centre, government and international aid agencies are trying to step in. But, Dr Dixon feels, they must not interfere, or be very careful how they decide to participate. The market in education is working well, regulated by competition.

What are the implications for South Africa? Dr Dixon says that some research already shows that low cost private schools for the poor exist in this country. She recommends, ‘What is desperately needed is an environment that allows low cost private schools a space to grow. And, like anywhere else, anyone getting involved in the provision of education for the poor must find ways to use available resources to develop policy, ask the poor what they want, and encourage entrepreneurship and not dependency.’