Are private schools really better than state schools?

October 10, 2013Modupe Adefeso-Olateju

Modupe Adefeso-Olateju is Managing Director of The Education Partnership Centre (TEP Centre) Lagos, a regional partner of CEI in Nigeria.  She is an Education Policy Consultant with expertise in public and private school effectiveness, and the design of Public-Private Partnerships in Education.  Follow on Twitter: @tepcentre

Are private schools really better than state schools?

When I first asked this question at a gathering of professional colleagues in Nigeria, the immediate response was impassioned.  I’ll paraphrase:

"What?! Look at the calibre of children that attend private schools – they dress well, they can speak proper English, they comport themselves well.  In fact there is no comparison!  Have you visited a state school recently?  Seen the dilapidated structures, non-existent furniture and uninterested teachers?  In fact have you spoken with a state school pupil recently?  And you still ask such a question? Of course private schools in Nigeria are far, far better than state schools!"

A few others were more measured in their responses.  They felt that if we excluded private schools for the poor – otherwise known as low-fee private schools – that private schools were certainly giving far more bang for the buck than public schools.  One lone voice, however, was of the opinion that we couldn’t as of yet tell – at least not scientifically, anyway.  In her opinion, for us to conclusively state that private schools are far more effective at educating children, we would first need to subject both public and private schools students to the same personal, home and school conditions. Thus began an exploratory journey that I will expand upon in this and subsequent articles.

I’ll start by explaining what the lone voice meant.  For us to properly compare pupils in public and private schools, we must begin by assuming that they are similar in every way save for the type of school they attend.  This way, we can more accurately determine whether attending a private school makes any fundamental difference in learning.  Of course we also have to determine what we mean by learning.  I, like many other researchers, chose achievement on academic tests as a measure of how much a pupil has learned, and consequently as a proxy for how effective the school type in question is.  Now, how do you accomplish the feat of making public and private school pupils similar when they most certainly are not?  Again, like many other researchers, I used a statistical technique known as modelling.  This simply means that one collects available data, analyses the patterns of such data and, based on such patterns, projects probable realities.

But why embark on this exercise in the first place?  Let’s consider a scenario: Assume Dupsy-Doo Private School charges N40,000 a term (N120,000 a year) as tuition.  A family that can afford those fees, for perhaps two children, will likely have a television set at home (maybe even with cable/DSTV to boot), perhaps a computer which the children have access to, and parents that are most likely educated, have a source of income and can perhaps afford to pay for after-school tuition or lessons.  When we test a pupil from this school and find that comparatively, her scores are much higher than those of a pupil from a neighbouring state school, it would be erroneous to immediately conclude that her superior results are due to the private school she attends (although this could certainly be the case). 

It could be that her results are related to her exposure to the educational programmes available on cable television, or because she has the chance to properly research her homework on the family computer, or even perhaps because she has an amazing after-school lesson teacher or extremely motivated parents who help with school work and constantly push her to study at home.  On the flip side, a child in a tuition-free public school may record lower scores not necessarily because of factors relating to her school, but because her living conditions are not conducive to learning, or maybe because she has to hawk goods or take care of her Oga and Madams’ children every day after school and is usually too tired to study afterwards.

As I travelled from the North to the East and then the South of the country collecting data, I made some interesting findings, some of which were extremely disturbing.  For example there was the school in Ngwo, Enugu State that didn’t present candidates for JSCE Biology because a Biology teacher had not been posted to the school.  There was also the Principal of a mission school in Surulere, Lagos who argued that trying to eradicate poverty by providing opportunities for poor children to receive an education was against some divine law, which ‘created us unequal’.  But I digress…

In subsequent articles, I will share other findings which contextualise the effectiveness of public and private schools in Nigeria.

This article originally appeared October 7 on Ynaija.

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This article is really enlightening! Keep up the good work.

The income inequality in places like Nigeria will widen the disparity in the performance of kids from different backgrounds due to factors like diet, access to resources, and even healthcare.

Nice intro. Look forward to subsequent presentations

Income inequalities and the comparative poverty levels of lower income homes will create a much bigger gulf in the performance of public school students compared to those in high fee private schools. The higher education levels of the parents, the conducive home environment and the greater access to learning aids gives these kids a leverage and advantage over kids in public schools. The challenge is to measure how much learning takes place in each type of school, and it will be interesting to see how the author intends to measure that.

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