Allowing private contractors to run schools is one way Liberia hopes to improve its poorly-performing education system. But is it working?
Eight contracts were allocated under the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) programme: seven after bidding supported by ARK Education Partnerships Group and one with Bridge International Academies (BIA) negotiated separately. BIA, backed by edu-business Pearson, has attracted controversy elsewhere resulting in calls for investors to withdraw support.
A randomized evaluation by investigators described by ARK as a ‘world class research team’ finds results in PSL schools rose by 60% albeit from a low base. But results were variable and costs were higher than in public schools. With two exceptions, Stella Maris and Omega, new funding concentrated on a limited group of already-advantaged schools. In addition, the Financial Times* reported that ARK gives $50 per pupil annually to seven contractors.
PSL schools have more teachers per pupil. These higher staffing levels ‘appear unsustainable at a larger scale’, the report concludes.
The existence of PSL schools did not increase enrolment levels. PSL contracts permitted contractors to cap class sizes. This allowed BIA to offload ‘excess’ pupils.
BIA also sacked teachers on a ‘large scale’. Dismissal undermined a ‘core selling point of PSL’ to improve the organization and training of government teachers. The report recognises the importance of culling bad teachers but ‘reshuffling’ them would be unlikely to improve Liberia’s education system overall. BIA’s sacking of teachers came despite PSL schools being allowed the pick of new graduate teachers.
The report’s authors conclude that raised results in PSL schools ‘come at the direct expense of other schools’.
Investigators found ‘modest user fees’ persist in PSL schools despite government insistence that they should be free at all levels including early years’ education which can be charged for in public schools. The existence of fees in PSL schools undermines another of the programme’s ‘key marketing points’.
The evaluation admits it could not conclude which ‘operator behaviours’ achieved ‘good or bad’ outcomes. But it found a correlation between the lowest effects on learning and operator absence from schools. Stella Maris and Omega ‘were largely absent from their schools for much or all of the year’.
Omega, like BIA, has links with Pearson. It is supported by Pearson’s Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) which invests in ‘for-profit companies to meet the growing demand for affordable education across the developing world’. Why does something which sounds like a charity only invest in for-profit companies? The answer is that PALF is not a charity but a Pearson subsidiary. Pearson’s former charity, Pearson Foundation, closed in 2014 after paying fines for helping its for-profit parent in contradiction of New York state law.
Omega’s co-founder is Professor James Tooley who is behind the proposal to set up a ‘low cost’ private school in Durham. He is a keen advocate of for-profit schooling and minimum state intervention in education.
The existence of for-profit education providers in the global south raises again the question of whether such presence raises education attainment for all or just a few. And there’s the niggling suspicion that the rise in for-profit provision undermines state provision especially if the former is given advantages.
Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves that education is a right not a commodity to be bought and sold.
* 'Liberia is outsourcing education. Can it work?' in Financial Times magazine 21 April 2017 (behind paywall)