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Life | School’s Out

Makoko is a shanty town on the lagoon of Lagos, West Africa’s biggest city. Space is precious, so Makoko stretches out into the lagoon, with many of the houses are built on stilts. It hardly looks the place, but new research reveals that parents here are prepared to pay to get their children educated. Children can go to the free state school. Or they can pay at one of these small, private schools. But they are extremely poor. Average income in Makoko is about fifty dollars a month. School fees can be ten dollars. So why are they prepared to pay? Research by a British team claims private schools in shanties and slums around the world are doing much better than state schools. Is this hype or reality?

Makoko is a shanty town on the edge of Lagos. Space is precious, so Makoko stretches out into the lagoon, with many of the houses are built on stilts. It hardly looks the place, but new research reveals that parents here are prepared to pay to get their children educated. At first sight, it’s a wonder there are any schools here at all. In Nigeria ninety per cent of people live on less than two dollars a day. According to UNICEF, less than half the children of primary school age get an education. But surprisingly the people of Makoko appear to have a choice. Children can go to the free state school. Or they can pay at one of these small, private schools.

shanty townBut they are extremely poor. Average income in Makoko is about fifty dollars a month. School fees can be ten dollars. So why are they prepared to pay? A fisherman explains: “In the public school they do not teach very well and even though we are very poor we prefer to send our children to private schools because we want our children trained for the future.”

The research into how and why these private schools emerged in such unlikely circumstances has been organised by Professor James Tooley, of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For the last five years he’s been studying private schools in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and in China and India.

“We are finding literally hundreds of schools in the areas that we’re looking at,” says Professor Tooley. “In every setting we’re found 65 to 70 per cent of schoolchildren from these poor areas are using private schools. That’s the vast majority of children are going to private schools like this one. Now what this means for the statistics is, if a government is saying – in Nigeria for example – fifty per cent of children of school age are not in school – the figure may be only 25 per cent, or even 20 per cent.”

Centre for International EducationThe idea that private, fee-paying schools will help provide education for all, flies right in the face of orthodox thinking. Professor Keith Lewin of the Centre for International Education, Sussex University says: “I don’t want to be seen to be undermining the efforts of truly altruistic people who operate not for profit and provide a service where government fails, because government certainly does fail. The question then really is whether the response to that is laissez faire, which is to say these people do what they do and hope they do it well and hope that there is a market which somehow regulates their behaviour. There’s no obvious incentive, to reach out to cash-poor rural areas, to reach out to HIV orphans. The private sector will not do this.”

Local school administrator Mary Iji says that parents are ill-informed: “They want to be seen as rich parents, caring parents, who take their children to fee-paying schools supposedly better, which are very poor in facilities, usually, because there is no way you can compare these poor ill-equipped private schools with government schools where all the teachers are qualified.” Also, many schools do not have toilets or fresh water and are in a poor state of repair. But Professor Tooley says the private schools are doing better, and he explains why: “They’ve got teachers who are very keen and dedicated and committed. We’ve got head teachers, proprietors who make sure the teachers work hard, we’ve got parents who pay their fees and so expect good quality from the schools.”

Staff at these private schools get only a quarter of the wages paid to teachers in the state or public schools. Many are not qualified. Many – like Lucky Egbowon – teach to earn the money to pay for their own university or college education. “I’m not teaching here because of the salary per se. My earnings are alright but the main reason I’m teaching here is just that I like teaching, number one. The second one point that is the great one is that when I teach I also learn, because when I give it out I am going to review it.”

RELATED LINKS

Read general information about Lagos State, and about the State Education Ministry. There’s more information at Lagos Online. The Guardian website includes a photojournal of Lagos by John Vidal, which includes many images of Makoko.

The World Bank has pages and links on Private Participation in Education.

Unicef’s background information on Nigeria includes education statistics. Achieving universal primary education is one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Read about this Goal on the website of the Millennium Campaign.

Visit the website of Newcastle University’s E.G.West Centre, of which Professor James Tooley is Director. Read an earlier report by Prof. Tooley on Private Schools for the Poor in India, and an account of his research project, Private Schools Serving the Educational Needs of the Poor. Tooley’s research on Nigeria has not yet been published, but he has recently given an account of his views in the Sunday Times of 26 June 2005.

Professor Lewin is Director of the Centre for International Education at the University of Sussex.

The John Templeton Foundation, which supported the making of this programme, offers support for innovative research, teaching, and public outreach programs illuminating processes of wealth creation that offer real practical solutions to poor people everywhere.

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