Can non-state schools provide educational services in times of crisis and conflict?

June 29, 2018Robert Francis

By Robert Francis and Mark Roland


When countries are affected by violent conflict, natural disasters, epidemics or other crises, education is one of the first sectors to be severely disrupted. Governments may become unable to provide public education, as funding is shifted to perceived higher-priority sectors, or as school infrastructure is occupied or destroyed. Moreover, teachers and families are often displaced, and transit to school may become too dangerous.


In situations of crisis and conflict, religious, community, NGO or private schools — collectively referred to as affordable non-state schools (ANSS) — may be able to continue operating, given their adaptability and close ties to communities. They may also be geographically closer to communities than government schools, making parents more likely to enroll students when there are security concerns.


These characteristics are certainly attractive to parents and children who want to limit educational disruptions, but many of the same questions around equity, accessibility and quality posed to non-state schools in times of peace and stability are still relevant in times of crisis and conflict. Furthermore, these schools may inadvertently erode confidence in government or exacerbate existing social exclusion.


Given the potential of affordable non-state schools to both mitigate and exacerbate the effects of conflict, it is vital for governments and donors to understand these schools’ scope, potential contributions and strategies for addressing violence and insecurity. This analysis is foundational to determining optimal regulations and levels of support for affordable non-state schools in education systems affected by conflict and crisis.


Unfortunately, research on the status of affordable non-state schools has been scarce. While literature on both non-state schools and on education in conflict is abundant, little research exists on their intersection. Drawing on a comprehensive literature review and case studies in El Salvador and Kaduna State, Nigeria, a recent study by Results for Development (R4D) and USAID’s Education in Crisis and Conflict Network (ECCN) highlights a number of important lessons about ANSS in conflict-affected environments, including the following:


1. Affordable non-state schools play a significant role in conflict-affected countries.

Non-state schools account for an increasingly large proportion of enrollment in the developing world, growing from 11 to 22 percent over the last 20 years. In countries affected by conflict or insecurity, this proportion may be much higher. Non-state schools frequently emerge where government provision of education is not present or is inadequate: they account for over half of all enrollment in Liberia, Somalia and Haiti. However, governments and donors are frequently unaware of the true scope of these schools, or the conditions under which they operate.

2. Safety is a dominant driver for enrollment in affordable non-state schools.

Particularly in El Salvador, parents, teachers and school directors were united in asserting that the primary reason households enroll children in non-state schools is a belief that non-state schools are safer than government schools, largely owing to closer community ties. As a reflection of this, enrollment in non-state schools in the highest-conflict urban areas has grown, even as enrollment fell in government schools in the same areas. However, violence in El Salvador and Kaduna has led to displacement and migration, which lowered enrollment and revenue in some affordable non-state schools, forcing them to close.


3. Affordable non-state schools are no panacea.


Despite the benefits that many of these schools convey to the students they serve, any expansion of affordable non-state schools should be approached only after careful analysis. Because these schools generally rely on user fees, children from the lowest-income households are frequently unable to attend. Consequently, non-state schools don’t always promote equity for those at the bottom of the pyramid. Affordable non-state schools don’t necessarily produce better learning outcomes than government schools either (although parents are more likely to conceptualize quality in terms of safety, provision of additional courses, values-oriented instruction, and the level of dedication of teachers — and these qualities were associated with non-state schools). Some non-state schools may promote radicalization or non-tolerant views, and ideas espoused by non-state education providers may run contrary to those in government schools. These differences should be carefully considered in environments where civic tensions are high.


Ultimately, the role and ability of these schools to provide education that is safe, high-quality and equitable is dependent on a country’s political, social and economic context. These factors must be accounted for when evaluating the ideal role of the non-state sector.


Governments and donors would also greatly benefit by considering the role of non-state schools in education sector plans and strategies. In spite of the ever-present debates surrounding private schools, policymakers should recognize that non-state schools serve a large number of students, many of whom are low-income, and can be valuable partners in situations of conflict and crisis. But it is also important for the same actors to take actions to mitigate the risk of non-state schools exacerbating existing social, religious or political tensions. And as population displacement continues to rise and natural disasters abound, researchers and policymakers should do more to explore the appropriate roles of non-state schools in conflict and crisis settings.


[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by USAID’s Education in Crisis & Conflict Network.]

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