New study finds stronger evidence of the benefits of low-cost private schools in developing countries

A new study has found that private schools in developing countries offer better teaching and better learning outcomes than state-provided education.

The Role and Impact of Private Schools in Developing Countries, written by Professor James Tooley and David Longfield of Newcastle University, is a response to an April 2014 DFID-commissioned “rigorous literature review” on the same topic.

The paper is published by Pearson as part of a series of independent and open papers written by leading experts on a range of major educational questions.

The authors looked at the same 59 studies reviewed by the DFID-commissioned report, and found:

  • Strong evidence that private schools offer better teaching; better learning outcomes; and that the poor are able to afford school fees and costs.
  • Moderately positive evidence that private schools reach the poor in geographic terms; improve education for girls; and offer a lower cost of education delivery.
  • Moderately positive evidence that private schools are financially sustainable; that they are nearly as affordable as state schools; and that parents make informed choices based on quality.
  • Weak positive evidence that private schools are responsive to user demands; and accountable to parents’ expectations.

Professor James Tooley said:

“It is now widely accepted that low-cost private schools exist in large numbers across developing countries, in both poor urban and rural settings. However, the literature reveals a hugely polarised debate about the significance of low-cost private schools, their potential role and their impact.

“We have concluded that the previous review commissioned by DFID in this important area was not sufficiently rigorous, nor sufficiently objective. Overall, we found the 59 studies were more positive than the DFID-commissioned paper concluded. Nonetheless, we welcome the involvement of DFID and their desire to get an accurate and balanced summary of the research to date.

“None of this is to say, of course, that low-cost private schools are already solving all the educational problems of the poor; still many are excluded from education altogether, and standards can be further improved. But what the research analysed here shows clearly is that the entrepreneurs who run low-cost private schools are showing the way, having demonstrated the feasibility of bringing affordable quality education to the poor; it is up to others to come alongside them, to help ensure improved education for all.”

Pearson’s chief education adviser Sir Michael Barber said:

“This paper is as timely as it is powerful. It should be of interest to everyone who wants to see the educational opportunities of children in the developing world transformed. This is the key to prosperity, social justice and successful diverse societies. Indeed, it is the issue of our time.

“James Tooley and David Longfield’s work will help all those with influence make decisions informed by the evidence.”

The full paper is available at:

Pearson is commissioning a series of independent, open and practical publications containing new ideas and evidence about what works in education. The publications contribute to the global discussion about education and debate the big ‘unanswered’ questions in education by focusing on the following eight themes: Learning Science, Knowledge and Skills, Pedagogy and Educator Effectiveness, Measurement and Assessment, Digital and Adaptive Learning, Institutional Improvement, System Reform andInnovation, and Access for All.


About the authors

James Tooley is Professor of Education Policy and Director of the E. G. West Centre at Newcastle University. He is the author of The Beautiful Tree, a best-seller in India and winner of the 2010 Sir Antony Fisher Memorial Prize. This book built on his ground-breaking research on private education for the poor in India, China and Africa, for which he was awarded Gold Prize in the first IFC/Financial Times Private Sector Development Competition.

Following on from his research, Tooley has dedicated himself to creating and improving working models of innovative practice in low-cost private education, to help explore its potential to extend access and improve educational opportunities for the poor. He is actively involved in supporting groups of schools in India, Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. His first job was a mathematics school teacher in Zimbabwe.

His latest book is From Village School to Global Brand, a case study of a chain of schools originating in Lebanon in 1866, which now runs charter schools in America, public-private partnerships across the Middle East and a range of private schools.

David Longfield is a researcher in the E. G. West Centre, Newcastle University, where his research focuses on education in post-conflict countries including South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. He taught mathematics for fourteen years in South India, where he also held various senior management roles. He holds a degree from Cambridge University, and a PGCE and M.Ed. in International Development and Education from Newcastle University.

For more information

Brendan O’Grady

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Tom Steiner

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