This blog by Priyadarshani Joshi, Senior Analyst, Global Education Monitoring Report, is the first of a series of blogs in the run up to the 2021 GEM Report on non-state actors in education
Few issues have garnered as much policy and research interest in the world as non-state education expansion. Nepal is my home country and country of research. It is where I chose to systematically analyse the consequences of private schooling for the education system’s equity and quality, which had not been explored so thoroughly in lower income countries before.
My research began with a series of exploratory interviews with public school principals and national education officials in Nepal. Most of the people I initially spoke to were government officials, who expressed mixed views on ‘private’ schooling – the main school choice available. Some officials spoke as parents and their right to choose; some discussed private schooling as providing better quality; while others argued that private schools were a bane for equity in society and talked of the need to promote government schooling.
With the help of external funding, approval from the government, and a data collection team, my research also included surveys of hundreds of public and private secondary schools around the country, data collection on private schooling characteristics from district offices, and interviews with a wide range of public sector stakeholders (national, district and local officials, and principals), private sector stakeholders (private school board members and principals), and parents.
This is a brief summary of the key findings from the analysis:
- Poor parents do not benefit from existing school choice; but some middle class parents do. When selecting a school, parents in private schools are more specific about the dimensions of quality that they care about; while parents in public schools are more focused on schooling costs. Once in school, middle class parents, who chose medium cost private schools, are engaged with the school and quite satisfied with the schools’ efforts. Low income parents on the other hand are dissatisfied, but rarely engage with the school, and find their children left behind in the worst performing public schools.
- Private school actors feel they are contributing to society, and filling a void. The private sector stakeholders view themselves as shouldering the education burden and providing employment; and, on average, providing better quality and higher accountability compared to public schooling. Many proprietors also attach a strong social purpose to their work, viewing themselves as group that came together to make a living and help their communities. There is substantial contextual variation – population size and the maturity of the private market varies a lot throughout the country. Remote districts are only now beginning to open or register private schools, while the largest cities have more free-market like conditions with private schools in many price ranges.
- Public schools have tried to compete with private schools, often by mirroring what they believe parents find to be attractive about private schools. There has been little investigation on how public schools are experiencing or responding to competition, especially in lower income countries. Many public schools have adopted visible measures – such as transitioning from Nepali to English medium of instruction or adding ties and belts to school uniforms as measures that might make them more attractive to parents. Public schools lag behind private schools when it comes to instructional practices, such as remedial education or homework diary systems. Interestingly, many private school principals do not perceive private schools as providing better overall quality than public schools.
- Even the public schools recognized as the ‘best’ in the district have a hard time attracting middle class students, suggesting public school stigma. I developed a peer network-based measure of quality: all public schools principals were asked to mention three schools they view as the ‘best’ schools in their district. The interconnections between schools from their answers were then mapped and my analysis then centred on the school identified as the ‘best’ in both districts. In both schools, the analysis found that the school leaders had ushered in transformative change over time, finding ways to motivate teachers and students to participate in creating an effective learning environment. However, both school principals reported that the intertwined issues of ‘publicness’, lack of English medium of instruction, and social prestige limited the attractiveness of even these ‘best’ schools to parents.
- The political context plays a major role in parental perceptions and school efforts to reform or compete. Public school officials from localities that have a higher private market share were more likely to highlight challenges of politicization and public school stigmatization as impeding their reform efforts. Parents note excessive political interference in public schools – such as in the teaching profession – as a major challenge, and view political interference to be a much smaller issue in private school contexts.
What are the broader implications of this research?
This analysis aimed to explore the implementation of classic economic arguments – that giving parents choice will make them more engaged and satisfied; and that choice will force schools to compete and provide better quality. The analysis also included developing new indicators of competition and frameworks for parent decision-making, building on economic and sociological insights from the United States and evidence from Chile.
While the case of Nepal has special resonance for lower income countries that have experienced major private expansion, it also has implications for global analysis. The theme of the 2021 Global Education Monitoring Report is non-state actors in education. There are two key issues from my analysis in Nepal I believe central to this Report:
- First, the main consequence of loosely controlled private schooling expansion is sustained stratification, which has led to many public schools becoming concentrations of disadvantage. This is not surprising – when school choice is so strongly determined by ability to pay, the market will stratify individuals and households by income. Private tutoring is also growing at scale in South Asia and elsewhere, which adds another layer in the unending quest for competitive advantage and has consequences for societal inequality. While education policy cannot be held responsible for changing societal norms, it can play some role in the effort to redress inequality through government efforts. Thus, as a research and policy community, we need to analyse high, middle- and low-income countries’ intent to promote equity through policies and regulations around non-state provision and engagement, as well as their enforcement.
- Second, the global discourse is often dominated by a disproportionate emphasis on international players. In my localised applied research, I found that global actors are a very small part of lived realities, negotiations and decision-making – despite Nepal having a major donor presence in policy and financing discussions. We need to recognize how political and local context matters. There needs to be adequate emphasis on within-country factors and actors, household decision-making and expenditures, and discussions of within-country variation.
Share your thoughts on the role and regulation of non-state actors in education on the online consultation for the 2021 Report