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A lesson in bias on private schools

The ‘rigorous review’ for DFID of private education in poor countries is anything but

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

What’s wrong with low-cost education in poor countries? Quite a lot, you might think, if you read a new report from the Department for International Development. Low-cost private schools serve around 70 per cent of children in poor urban areas and nearly a third of rural children too. But the issue raises controversy among academics and experts, not least because it goes against 65 years of development dogma that the only way to help the poor is through government education, with big dollops of aid thrown in. Every aid agency and government has gone along with that. The only fly in the ointment is that poor parents disagree, which is why low-cost private schools are burgeoning wherever you look.

To its credit, DFID has recognised that if the poor are choosing private education in huge numbers, it would be worth finding out what research says about them. So it commissioned what they called a ‘Rigorous Literature Review’: researchers selected the best papers written about private schools in developing countries and review this literature ‘rigorously’ to come up with the truth.

Given all this, you’d reasonably expect if you were to read the resulting report — written by academics at top universities like Birmingham, UCL (Institute of Education) and Cambridge — that if it reported, say, that private schools are unfair to girls, that would be because the literature said so. Unfortunately, it’s not like that at all. Time after time, it reports one thing when the literature in fact says precisely the opposite, or is at best much more nuanced.

A typical example is a piece of research from Tanzania, which the rigorous review cites as showing ‘a smaller proportion of girls than boys enrolling in private schools’. That suggests the private schools are unfair to girls. However, if you go to the research paper, you find the data shows 77 per cent of the pupils in the private schools are girls — in other words, private schools are very fair to girls; if they’re unfair to anyone, it’s to boys.


What’s going on here? It appears that the academics, prejudiced as most development experts are against private education (except of course when it comes to their own offspring, but that’s another issue), brought their preconceptions to their work. There is a paragraph in the Tanzanian research article which talks about schools being unfair to girls, and this is the one victoriously grabbed for the report. Unfortunately, the paragraph refers to what is happening in the government schools. Never mind, the important point is to rub it in how bad the private schools are, and a paragraph about unfairness to girls is just the ticket.

Or another example: a piece of research from Kenya is used to show that private primary schools are lower-quality than government primary schools, because fewer children from them transfer to government secondary schools. If you look at the evidence in the paper, you’ll see this time that the simple fact is indeed true. But the research article from Kenya explicitly says that this is because the government has created a quota system to prevent too many children from private primary schools going on to government secondary schools — because private primaries are of higher quality than government ones.

Here’s the strange logic that the rigorous review team puts before us: private primaries are worse than government primaries because they send fewer children to secondary school, because the government won’t allow the private primaries to send more children to secondary school, because private primaries are better than government primaries.

There are numerous examples like this, research from countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa which clearly shows the beneficial impact of private education being held up to show the opposite.

Perhaps my favourite example is where they cite one of my research articles looking at private schools in the slums of Kenya. The rigorous review team says that my paper showed how parents were wary of sending their children to private schools because they might close down at any time ‘on the whim of an individual’. In fact my article illuminates how parents were moving their children from public to private schools, showing among other things their belief in the stability, not fragility, of the private schools chosen. But doesn’t the quote about the whim of an individual suggest the opposite? It does. And it didn’t come from my article. Here’s a little technique for academics frustrated by research that doesn’t show what you want it to show: simply make up a quote which says what you want, and pretend it came from the article in question.

DFID is to be congratulated on its bravery in at least wanting to explore this issue, which cuts against the grain of those in the development industry. It’s just a shame that those entrusted to review the literature seem determined to make the evidence fit their prejudices rather than let us know what the situation truly is. What this says about standards in educational research I’ll leave for readers to judge.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

James Tooley is professor of education policy at Newcastle University, and co-author of The Role and Impact of Private Schools in Developing Countries.

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  • Teacher

    If anyone really wants to help schools in Tanzania or other places in Africa then the small but very effective charity, ‘School Aid’, does what it says on the tin and sends books and equipment to African schools. It has a big effect from a small budget.

  • tjamesjones

    thanks – as a supporter of a private school in east africa, this rings true. Pity the technocrats are more concerned with ideology than making a difference.

  • Is there to be no accountability for this academic fraud, or at least a naming of names?

  • Perdita

    Thank goodness for Professor Tooley and all the good work he’s doing. The bias in Academia shames them. Keep going Sir!

  • misomiso

    Its articles like this one that make the Spectator the best political magazine out there.

    If only you weren’t all Pro Europeans !

  • Oscar Mysterious

    In a related article – a brief introduction to the benefits of charter schools: http://bit.ly/1pF5JYo

  • Barrie Craven

    This is a great piece of work from James Tooley and David Longfield which must have taken many long hours in the making. Well done and I hope we hear more from Prof. Tooley.

  • David Archer

    I wish we could have a neutral voice on these issues but sadly James Tooley has a serious conflict of interest (which he fails to mention) as an equity investor in a chain of private schools in Ghana – from which he could make substantial personal profit. Those profits would be significantly enhanced if he won the argument for public money to subsidise such schools.

    • v_3

      Well done on outing James Tooley, An educator with schools in Ghana researching (presumably published in a peer-reviewed article) on schools in Kenya.

      You do know that they are two different countries in different regions of the continent?

      Why don’t you rather get hold of the DFID report he critiques and the primary reports he alleges it misquotes and prove him wrong, instead of launching an ad hominem attack? That’ll show him up, good and proper. Or will it?

      What this article did not cover is the role of religious schools. (Would they be considered private?) My guess is that they are a third category, with vary varying results, virtues and abuses.

    • Freddythreepwood

      Whether he has a conflict of interest or not does not change the breathtaking dishonesty of the ‘rigorous report’. Don’t we all wish for a neutral voice – but plain honesty would do in the meantime. And we are hardly likely to get it from people who think profit is a dirty word.

    • soysauce1

      I’d have thought the chances of any significant profit are many decades hence, just because someone has a financial stake does not mean their integrity is automatically compromised your comments reveal more of your own mindset than of James Tooley, next you will suggest that Cadbury and Rowntree provided housing schools and health to their staff just to make money…the tradition of philanthropy is well established ever heard of BIll Gates…?

  • v_3

    What this article is really about is “How well educated are the education academics?”

    How capable are they of either comprehending and/or reporting honestly what they read? I suspect it is more of the latter, given the known prejudices and predispositions of many British academics and other “public intellectuals”.

  • Ivan Ewan

    Sociologists – amirite?

  • JohnCrichton89

    The article arises from a flawed premise. It’s not about what we can do for them, but, what they can do for themselves.
    This molly coddling and spoon feeding is part of the problem, it is removing them from the precipice of societal development that warrants change. When the ‘black death’ was ravaging Europe, we learned from it.
    We built sanitation systems.

    When there wasn’t enough food, we developed new irrigation techniques and other such things……… whenever ‘developing countries’ come up with a problem over empathetic idiots strip them of any self determination by spoon feeding them. Soon their populations will be beyond our help. their countries/demographics have explosive birthrates and we can’t support them forever.

    • Bonkim

      Stop overseas aid – failed and failing societies should bite the dust. Social organisation is the key to development and all societies have to find their own solutions to their problems.

      • Hogspace

        Let Darwin have his way. Indeed. It’s the natural order.

  • Liberty

    Socialists hate private schools because socialists regard education [run by themselves] as the crucial means of brainwashing people into the socialist mindset. The fact that they work better is a very, very big problem for them so socialists try to close them at every opportunity.

  • REPay

    I am sure this is a piece of research we will not be hearing featured on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed!

  • PaulineMRose

    As one of the authors of the Rigorous Review, I would encourage readers of this page to get a balanced perspective by reading the Rigorous Review itself. The authors take allegations of bias seriously and so, on receipt of James Tooley’s response last year prepared a detailed response. More information on the Report and our reply are available here: http://www.ukfiet.org/2015/what-we-know-and-dont-know-about-the-impact-of-private-schooling-in-developing-countries/

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