Nicholas Burnett, the Managing Director for Education at Results for Development Institute, leads the Center for Education Innovations.
I was in Ghana earlier this year, where as many as two-thirds of the children living in slum areas outside the capital of Accra are estimated to attend private schools, quite a few of which I visited. Though some think it unfortunate, the poor are increasingly enrolling in non-state schools in Africa and in South Asia, as they have for many decades in Latin America. These non-state schools include those run by non-government organizations and those owned and operated by private proprietors.
Why do I say some think it unfortunate? We believe far too many people come to the table with preconceived notions about what works and what doesn’t work in education, all too often based on labels such as “public” and “private,” and too rarely based on evidence and results. But, as we move toward 2015 with the Education for All and Millennium Development goals clearly not going to be met, in terms of either enrolment or quality, it is time to move beyond ideology and focus pragmatically on harnessing all parts of the education system and on what works in practice.
So Results for Development (R4D) has initiated the Center for Education Innovations (CEI) in order to illuminate this rapidly growing phenomenon. In doing this, we don’t mean to imply that non-state education is intrinsically better -- or worse -- than public sector education. We also don’t mean to imply that it’s flawless; indeed there is much that needs to be improved within the non-state education sector. But the global community needs to be pragmatic: the poor’s need for access to quality education in developing countries is so great that every resource must be used that has the potential to improve on the current situation. Remember that there are still some 61 million children of primary school age who can’t even go to school, missing out on their individual rights while their economies grow more slowly than they would if they were educated. Remember that far, far too many of those who do go to school don’t even become literate and numerate, and so fail to achieve their potential in their economies and as engaged citizens. Non-state schools aren’t all of the answer to these problems, of course, but they do have the potential to be an important part of the answer, in themselves and because they can generate innovations that can literally transform education if adopted more generally.
This pragmatism leads us to recognize that non-state education is rapidly growing, especially for poor children, and that it is here to stay; that systematic knowledge is urgently needed about it; and that it needs to be as effective as possible in meeting the needs of poor children and families. We also recognize that non-state education’s greater flexibility to try out new ideas is frequently, but of course not always, more likely to generate education innovations than are traditional public schools, and that these innovations are very often directly adaptable to the public sector. Our ultimate goal is to promote the uptake of these promising education and training models serving the poor, fostering practical solutions to current and future education challenges.
Many of these solutions already exist, but quality information on them not widely available. In Egypt, for example, Alashanek ya Balady, a program that started as a student association, works with private companies and public organizations to provide young people with the training and skills they need most to find work in the job market. In West Africa, the Ghana Reads program partners with technology innovators and government to enhance learning by providing rural schools and their teachers with low-cost digital libraries and with teaching coaches.