Co-authored opinion piece by Dr Rachel Linn (Monitoring and Evaluation Manager, PEAS) and Dr Francis Mwesigye (researcher at EPRC).

The expansion of private education in Africa has been a topic of policy debate for some time. On one side, proponents speak of the private sector’s ability to help rapidly increase the number of school places available where government infrastructure and/or budgets are inadequate to meet rising demand.

Current students attending Forest PEAS High School

On the other hand, critics warn of fee-charging private schools failing to cater for the most disadvantaged in society. If education comes to be expanded only to those whose parents can afford to pay – as the argument goes – it will increase income inequality and class divisions. Further still, poorly regulated private schools may provide education that is actually worse than mainstream standards, perpetuating issues with students completing school without the basic skills needed to succeed.

In 2007, Uganda became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to introduce a Universal Secondary Education (USE) programme. Following increased enrolment rates at primary level due to the country’s Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme, many students were not transiting to secondary school because of access and cost barriers. The USE policy commits the government to expand universal access to secondary schooling – a progressive pledge which is in line with the new Sustainable Development Goals to ensure inclusive, lifelong learning for all.

The provision gap at secondary level in Uganda is huge. At present, there are still hundreds of sub-counties without a secondary school, and less than 30% of children eligible to enrol do. To help address this challenge, the government initiated a public private partnership (PPP) programme to encourage the growth of non-state operators at secondary level. Through the programme, private schools which meet specified criteria can receive a per student grant of 47,000 UGX ($14 USD) per term to subsidise costs for students who have achieved a minimum score in their Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE).

Research by the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) demonstrates that the PPP policy has helped to substantially increase gross secondary enrolment. However, common criticism has focused on the variable quality of education provided in PPP schools, with evidence suggesting that not all schools are implementing the programme requirements as intended.

A English class in full swing at PEAS Pioneer High School

PEAS (Promoting Equality in African Schools) is an operator of low-cost, private schools in Uganda. Since 2008, PEAS has built 28 secondary schools in predominantly rural communities which were selected specifically because they didn’t have a secondary school.
EPRC recently embarked on a 3-year study into the performance of PEAS schools in comparison with government and other private secondary schools operating under the USE programme. The results from the first year of the study – being launched today (April 27th, 2016) at a Learning Summit event in Kampala – show promising signs that public-private partnerships can achieve their aims.

In the area of access, the research has found that PEAS schools enrol a student population that is substantively different from mainstream schools. 60% of students in PEAS schools were found to be from the two lowest asset quintiles in society, compared with 39% in government schools and 18% in other private schools. PEAS students further come from larger, less-educated families, eat less meals per day, and have worse prior attainment (measured by PLE scores) on average than their peers in both government and private schools.
PEAS schools operate on a not-for-profit basis, and – on a comparison of total costs – are cheaper to attend than comparative government and private schools. These indicators suggest PEAS schools are reaching a student population that is currently not well served by mainstream schools, and as such are supporting the USE programme aim to ensure equitable access.

In the area of quality, the study is partnering with the National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) section of the Uganda National Examinations Board to assess academic attainment. The results show that, although PEAS students start off further behind, within as few as 1-2 years they have equal or better Maths and English test scores as their peers in both government and other private schools.

The study is also exploring which aspects of PEAS schools drive greater gains in student attainment. The results show that strong school management, strong child protection practices, good community engagement (indicated by well-functioning parents-teachers associations), and more participatory classroom teaching are behind the differences observed. Well-functioning school management in particular enhances performance monitoring. The study found that the number of both internal and external inspections in PEAS schools is higher than in government and private schools, helping ensure that teachers deliver and continuously improve.

The results demonstrate that partnerships between government and private operators do have potential to meet goals for providing equitable access to quality education. The question then becomes: How can government translate what is going well in partnerships with operators like PEAS to the wider sector to effectively increase access and raise standards for all?