Knowledge

Innovative Liberia decides to privatise primary education

The Liberian education minister George Kronnisanyon Werner has taken a bold step by introducing private players in providing primary education in the country. This experiment may provide rich results.

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In many ways Liberia may have taken an iconoclastic decision by entering into an agreement with private education providers to run its primary schools. However, every path breaking decision is always faced by an avalanche of outrage, scorn and outright opposition. 

It is truly laudatory for the Minister of Education, George Kronnisanyon Werner, to cut through the clutter and hit at the heart of the problem when he says that— 42% of primary age children are out of school. And most of those already enrolled are not receiving the quality of education they deserve and need. 

A logical counter to this initiative is brought about by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh. He has severely criticised the move saying “Provision of public education of good quality is a core function of the State. Abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education”, and “it is ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but it can find huge sums of money to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf”. 

These criticisms somehow ring true across the world. Firstly, there is an unyielding stance, almost unwelcoming of private providers in schooling systems. And secondly, there seems to be a direct correlation between the finances available with the government and the quality of the education being imparted.

Nowhere is it more apparent than in the case of primary education. Over the last decade, governments and NGOs have invested enormous sums into education systems with the aim of securing higher levels of access for children in poor countries. In the process the focus is lost on quality and learning outcomes. 

Still, in recent years a surprising phenomenon is gripping across the world, the mushrooming of private schools, especially in rural and semi-urban areas of low and middle-income countries. Even though the monthly expense of 5-7 USD seems expensive to parents, yet private school enrolments are increasing in absolute numbers IN countries such as India, Pakistan and Kenya. 

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This suggests that private providers may be doing something right. Empirically, they deliver learning outcomes that are as good, or slightly better than in public schools at comparatively lower per-capita costs. Of course, the absolute levels of learning in both types of schools seem poor; so, there isn’t much to choose from here. 

This is where the ‘partnership schools’ experiment will provide Liberia with an opportunity—to generate data, and make their own decisions based on clear, transparent decision criteria. The official statement says: “An independent body will be commissioned to evaluate the outcomes of the pilot program.”

Many critics are vehemently against Liberia partnering with Bridge International Academies (BIA), an American firm that is backed by investors such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). 

Engaging a single provider in such a large experiment is risky. But, at this point, it is not clear if Liberia will go that way. The authorities say they will run a competitive procurement process to identify partners. This may result in multiple partners and an opportunity to test out more than one approach. The ecosystem of private providers is a large one including the likes of BIA, which are large multinational chains, and then, there are the single-entrepreneur schools, community/NGO schools, church-run schools, etc.

One could argue that local private players are better rooted in the communities they work in and therefore, are more responsive and accountable. However, only a pilot run will prove it.

When Liberia decides to initiate a pilot of up to 120 schools (3% of the all public schools in the country), it is not abdicating its responsibility towards its children. The cathing criticism of Liberia that it is “outsourcing its entire education system” is wrong. As a country in the middle of a post-conflict recovery process, Liberia needed to innovate to revive its education sector. This is a bold gamble, and promises to be an interesting public policy experiment.

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