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Do Low-Cost Private Schools Really Deliver High-Quality Education in Lagos, Nigeria?

July 2, 2018

SDG 4 outlines a vision for free quality schooling, but it is a challenging goal to achieve given the continued growth of private schools across the globe. EQUIPPPS believes that there is a strong need for investigation into the ability and effectiveness of low-cost private schools to meet this objective. To this end, our researchers recently completed a comparative study of state and private primary schools in Lagos, Nigeria’s financial, commercial and industrial hub.


Before discussing our study, I would like to give a brief overview of the geographical and educational context. Lagos is a city famous for its entrepreneurial spirit where education has become a major commercial endeavour. Currently, about 18,000 private schools operate in Lagos, a 50% increase since 2011 courtesy of foreign aid spending. In 2014 UK AID paid £3.45 million to Bridge International Academies (BIA), a global chain of private schools that aims to ‘deliver great schools and high quality education’ for the poor. This grant facilitated the chain’s entry into Lagos, which has elicited considerable controversy. Elsewhere on the continent, BIA has received allegations regarding the legality of its operations in Kenya and Uganda. It has also experienced accusations that its schools in Liberia deliver lesser educational outcomes than their public counterparts[1].

However, Lagos is a completely different educational setting. Since the 1980s, an extensive private school sector has burgeoned in the city. What’s more, DFID has funded the DEEPEN (Developing Effective Private Education in Nigeria) programme to support low cost private schools, and extensively lobbied the local government for less regulation. As a result, the existing educational climate may favour the expansion of BIA’s educational model.

Our study looked at public schools and low cost private schools, including BIA, in three Lagos neighbourhoods. It revealed differing approaches to payment, delivering quality instruction, and tackling broader social inequalities.

Differences in fees among schools

Unsurprisingly, the public schools surveyed demonstrated a strong commitment to delivering free and fair education. In all three neighbourhoods, none of the public schools required attendance fees. What’s more, parents in all areas, who identified as ‘very poor’, stressed the importance of free education.  For example, one parent noted that she would have home schooled her child if the school had asked her to pay. In all three locations, teachers said they used their own money to buy books and stationery for pupils.

On the other hand, BIA schools charged high attendance fees and deployed draconian tactics to punish non-complying parents. Over our study, we received reports, which stated that BIA schools charged term fees ranging from 9,000 N per term to 12,000 N. As a result, annual fees in the three areas would be between 27,000 and 36,000 N. The schools also expected prompt payment of fees.

Our research also discovered that parents’ failure to pay fees punctually would have terrible consequences for their children. Under the ‘Not Allowed in Class’ (NAIC) policy, children of non-compliant parents would be forced to study in separate classrooms from their peers. Unsurprisingly, teachers and parents explained that this brutal tactic was used to pressure parents to pay.  What’s more, schools deployed other bullying tactics to punish late-paying parents, with their children being denied report cards and the right to sit exams. Moreover, there were no reports of debt forgiveness in any of the private schools.

Quality education

We also discovered diverging attitudes to educational attainment across the different schools. In the public schools, head teachers and teachers stressed that high-quality instruction should be ‘child-centred’. In this model, teachers need to ensure that successful lessons require children of all abilities to understand and master content. Similarly, child-centred teachers use varied learning strategies to cater to different students’ needs. As one head teacher explained, “Quality education is all encompassing. Quality teachers, the right teaching methods, willing students and governmental and parental support deliver quality education”.

These teachers also demonstrated an excellent understanding of educational inclusion, a key component in policy and academic definitions of ‘quality education’. (Inclusive education stipulates that all students should be able to learn and participate in classes). Public school teachers and heads of departments reported that they frequently changed the classroom layout and language of instruction to ensure that all their students prospered during instruction. They would also work closely with parents to help support children.

BIA school and low cost private school teachers had different perceptions of ‘quality instruction’ compared to their public school peers. They argued that quality instruction was a result of technological input and teachers’ actions rather than a focus on addressing different children’s needs.  During our discussions, teachers also emphasised achieving outcomes such as good reading and writing scores and impressive exam results.

Unlike public schools, we found that low-cost private schools lacked a systematic approach to educational inclusion, apart from some ad-hoc measures. BIA school teachers did often not acknowledge the need to engage with these issues.

Tackling structural inequalities through schools

Moreover, public school teachers demonstrated a greater understanding of inequality and poverty compared to private school counterparts. They argued that schools should provide free meals to help children learn, regardless of social background. Public school teachers also stressed that instruction needed to consider linguistic diversity among students. None of the BIA teachers interviewed addressed the impact of poverty or other forms of inequality on education.

Our small study highlights the exclusionary nature of low-cost private schools and for-profit chains such as Bridge International Academies. We found that low-cost private schools, and Bridge International Academies in particular, are not engaging with inequalities in and around education. In some cases, these schools are actually helping to perpetuate deeper structural inequalities. Only the public schools had at least some level of engagement with these issues and as such is contributing to free and quality education.

There is an urgent need to address issues around quality instruction and equality in low cost private schools. If we are serious about achieving SDG 4, we must ensure that all schools can  provide high-quality and inclusive education to their students.

Lynsey Robinson is currently Co-Ordinator for EQUIPPPS. She undertook a Masters in Education, Gender and International Development at UCL’s Institute of Education, and completed a six week internship at LIDC.

The study referred to is entitled ‘Quality and Equalities: A comparative study of public and low cost private schools in Lagos’. The research was conducted by Elaine Unterhalter, Centre for Education and International Development, UCL Institute of Education, Jibrin Ibrahim, Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja, Nigeria. Research Assistants: Lynsey Robinson Grace Nweke, Department of Special Education, University of Ibadan, Nigeria Olabanke Lawson, UCL Institute of Education Abayomi Awelewa. 

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