Last week, world leaders put their signature to 169 targets for the next 15 years. One of the education targets stands out in its scale of ambition: "By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes". Declaring that primary and secondary education should be 'free' is consistent with education as a right.
Yet this commitment is also a cause for reflection. If education is being provided, how much does it matter if it is not free? If parents want to pay for their children's education, is that wrong?
The spread of private education, especially low-fee private schools, has attracted much critical discussion recently. The debate was stirred by a recent lead article in the Economist that came out strongly in favour of private schools and the subsequent fiery responses written by those on the other side of the fence.
The Special Rapporteur on the right to education argued earlier this year that "privatization violates many of the norms of the right to education". Yet, it is impractical to imagine disbanding all private schools tomorrow. Can we ever achieve our vision of leaving no-one behind if education is not always free, not even at the point of access?
Private schooling has been on the rise since 2000
Official statistics suggest that the share of private enrolments has only increased modestly, from 7% in 2000 to 9% in 2012 at the primary education level. However, there is a sense that this may be an underestimate as private schools are sometimes not fully counted in official statistics. For example, UIS data do not allow trends to be observed in countries such as India, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan, which have been at the centre of the debate on private education.
The 2015 GMR quoted evidence suggesting that in South Asia approximately one-third of 6- to 18-year-olds attended private schools. In Lagos, Nigeria, private schools accounted for as much as 70% of the pre-primary and primary levels in the 2010/11 school year.
In countries at different income levels, governments have even proactively opened up education provision and financing to private actors.
How do private schools differ from public schools?
Mixed evidence on performance: While students in private primary schools often perform better than those in public schools on learning assessments, it is hard to disentangle any quality premium from the fact that those enrolled in private schools are often of relatively advantaged backgrounds.
In Chile, where it was possible to compare public and private school children of similar backgrounds, the private school advantage was less pronounced. Similarly, in the United States, recent evidence suggests a public school advantage once the demographic mix is disentangled from the dimension of school quality. By contrast, in the Republic of Korea, where students are randomly assigned to private and public high schools, private school students appear to outperform public school students, an outcome attributed to their schools' greater autonomy and higher accountability.
Perception of better quality and peer networks: Perhaps the meaning of quality shouldn't be simply through learning assessments however. It is enough if parents perceive a private school to be of better quality or recognize that it offers their children better peer networks and other lifelong benefits.
However, the tendency for parents to send their children to private schools has wider implications. In Chile, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, for instance, freedom to choose schools often leads to increased inequality. This sorting can have a direct impact on quality as the wealthier and higher ability students and the better networked schools end up with the most benefits, and public schools increasingly serve disadvantaged and marginalized populations.
Lack of evidence on innovation: It is sometimes assumed that private schools might have more freedom to offer innovative ways to improve the quality of education, yet there is no evidence to back this up. There was little difference in curricula in private schools in Ghana and Nigeria and there was a lack of innovative teaching methods in private schools in Kenya. In fact, public schools may have more scope to be innovative with the curriculum while private schools are more wedded to parent demands for good examination results.
Higher teaching effort: The one area where evidence does appear to put private education above public is in the effort put into teaching. There is evidence of higher average efforts by teachers and responsiveness by parents in private schools in developing countries, even if they are more likely to hire teachers who lack teacher training and experience higher teacher turnover. Comparisons between public and private schools in some developing countries suggest private schools have lower teacher absenteeism, cater more to parent demands and have lower pupil/teacher ratios.
Overall, the evidence as to whether private schools provide a better quality of education is inconclusive. However, the perception that private schools provide higher quality education can have long run consequences on the education system. It may stigmatise public schools, and undermine reform efforts, abetting their further decline. The growth of private provision can end up undermining government provision since public schools must increasingly serve children whose parents are either unable or unwilling to pay for education. This should give serious pause for thought to governments that are considering a greater role for private provision, and multilateral agencies that are investing in corporate backed chains of private schools.
One of the key recommendations to emerge from the 2015 GMR is that education should be free. We know that public schools are often not free most of the time, so it is hard to argue that private schooling alone is impeding the right to 'free' education. However, we have just signed up to a new agenda that boldly aims at a truly aspirational vision for education in the future, including that it should be free. Surely no one would want to shrug off this hope so soon.