State Must Limit Involvement in Private Education

Last year, Addis Abeba’s Education Bureau enacted a new directive to regulate how private schools conduct their business in the delivery of education. The directive touched on critical issues that have been a source of contention between parents, the private schools and the government, including tuition fees, types of text books and students’ grade promotion policies, among others.

An independent agency under the Bureau has been established to oversee the implementation of the directive. The agency has so far closed down some private schools and issued warnings to several others, which have failed to meet minimum curricular standards. In addition to regulating private schools to assess if they have proper laboratories, libraries, classrooms, qualified teachers and textbooks, the Bureau has also set up a legislative code on the types of services private schools can provide and charge for.

Ethiopia has made some impressive gains in the delivery of primary, secondary and higher education to its citizens over the past few years. This achievement, particularly at the primary level, has come about through the active participation of private schools. This is more evident in urban centres such as Addis Abeba. In the capital alone, there are no less than 1,500 private schools. This is significantly larger than the 300 or so public schools in the city. An estimated 200,000 students are enrolled in Addis Abeba’s private schools, highlighting the scope these institutions have in the delivery of education.

Though the government’s responsibility to intervene in education, a basic social service critical to building nations, is not refutable (it is in fact needed), the nature and scope of the intervention should be redefined.

One aspect of the government’s intervention that needs rethinking is its control over additional books that private schools make available to their students. Notwithstanding the impressive progress registered in improving the quality of textbooks provided by the state, restricting private schools from providing their students with additional, high quality text books and charging for it will only undermine the role private schools play in delivering education to the community and cast a dark shadow over efforts to improve the quality of education in the country.

If private schools meet minimum standards of the curriculum, they should have the freedom to provide supplementary reference teaching materials, for which they should be paid duly. The government’s policy that such materials should be made available free of charge is inconsiderate of the amount of investment and effort that goes into acquiring these materials.

Having made those textbooks available, however, private schools should not make it mandatory for their students to acquire them, but rather they should be purchased on a voluntary basis. This is so not to put too much of a burden on parents who might be overstretched in their budgets.

The question of government intervention being totally banned from the school system is not the issue here. Rather, the need to acquire an intervention mechanism that can clearly address the peculiarities of the social sector, where private schools are engaged in providing a crucial social service for the community, is.

Such a mechanism, tailored specifically to businesses engaged in social services, rather than businesses strictly in the commercial sector, should only focus on monitoring and evaluating whether minimum standards are met or not. The government’s primary aim in this case is to ensure that all the components of the curriculum are implemented in the country’s school systems. It should not toil in the command economy-esque tendency of setting prices for services private schools render.

Beyond meeting those standards, schools should be afforded the freedom to include additional teaching content, cognisant of the learning abilities of students, and incorporate various other teaching materials. One of the great benefits of having private schools is to enhance the quality of education, which can only be achieved through the innovative approaches that private schools employ. Such innovative approaches are rarely included in government programmes and they usually bear additional costs.

The issue of cost brings forth a crucial feature that the government’s intervention in the sector often undermines. In a bid to stay competitive and deliver an outstanding service to their customers, private schools make hefty investments. Various, often expensive, expenses, such as salaries, rent, textbooks and other supplementary materials, push the price of the service ever higher.

On top of the costs private schools shoulder, they are essentially businesses established to maximise profit. Though engaged in providing a critical social service, such schools aim at making profit. Government’s attempts to put a cap on tuition fees through various bureaucratic manoeuvres hinders the business profitability objective of the private schools. This will have a negative long term consequence in the sector, not just in lowering the quality of education, but also in hampering employment opportunities, reducing public revenue in the form of taxes and restricting innovation and competition. Students will have fewer choices of schools to go to.

Fear that a lack of government intervention in capping school fees charged by private schools will lead to a never ending tuition hike, turning the sector into an exploitative practice, can only be addressed by a competitive market. Basic supply and demand economic principles should be the guidelines setting prices.

The state should welcome the innovative approaches that private schools introduce and encourage their role in the delivery of education, where its capacity may be limited. Moreover, it should focus its regulatory task on making sure the curriculum is implemented. How schools choose to teach using the curriculum and the supplementary materials they choose to employ and the fees they charge should be left for their consideration adhering to market principles.

Published on Jul 26,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 847]



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