Affordability of Private Schools: Exploration of a Conundrum and Towards a Definition of ‘Low-Cost’

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About James Tooley

James Tooley


The affordability of private education is a contentious issue. While the extent of ‘low-cost’ private schooling is widely accepted, there is no agreement on what ‘low-cost’ means in this context and how this relates to affordability for poor families. This paper addresses the lacuna in the literature by defining ‘low-cost’ in relation to what poor families could afford if they were to send all their children to school while restricting their expenditure on schooling to a fixed proportion of their total family expenditure. This approach links the definition of ‘low-cost’ to internationally accepted poverty lines. Two examples from recent research in South Sudan and Liberia illustrate the flexibility of the new method. The paper also addresses the ‘conundrum’ in the research literature, which suggests low-cost private schools are unaffordable for poorest families, when the same literature typically shows some of the poorest using these schools.

Introduction and context

It is now widely accepted that low-cost private schools exist in large numbers across developing countries, in both poor urban and rural settings. From tentative initial reports (e.g. Tooley, 2000a, 2000b) the now burgeoning literature on low-cost private schools includes several major books (e.g. Dixon, 2013; Macpherson, Robertson, & Walford, 2014; Srivastava, 2013; Srivastava & Walford, 2007; Tooley, 2009) and a recent literature review commissioned by the British Department for International Development (DFID) (Day Ashley et al., 2014; see also Tooley & Longfield, 2015).

However, the literature reveals a hugely polarised debate about the significance of low- cost private schools. One of the important areas contested concerns affordability. Some who argue that low-cost private schools might be a key part of any solution for education for the poor (e.g. Dixon, 2013; Tooley, 2009) need to show that there are private schools that are affordable to the poor and poorest—otherwise the phenomenon has no relevance to discussions of social justice or equality of opportunity. Conversely, critics of this position regard the low-cost private schools as irrelevant to these discussions, in part based on their lack of affordability (Day Ashley et al., 2014).

Part of the problem in the literature is that there is no agreed definition of what it means to be ‘low-cost’. For instance, the DFID-commissioned literature review, noting the difficulties in definition, settled on schools engaged in ‘delivery of education to poorer sections of society’, which were clearly ‘non-elite’ (Day Ashley et al., 2014, pp. 1, 5). While this approach is unsatisfactory, it does raise the possibility of basing a definition on what the ‘poorer sections of society’ (e.g. those on accepted poverty lines) could afford. Section 4 outlines this contribution, focused on the research question: is it possible to construct a workable definition of ‘low-cost’ private schooling based on accepted definitions of poverty? The result is a comparatively simple approach, making it widely accessible and easy to use.

First, as motivation for engaging in this discussion, we explore a confusion that appears commonplace in the literature, as illustrated in the recent DFID-commissioned literature review. It finds: ‘The evidence on whether the poor are able to pay private school fees is ambiguous. Most is neutral, some is negative but there is no positive evidence’ (Day Ashley et al., 2014, p. 27, emphasis added). evidence used to support this claim includes Härmä (2009) and Akaguri (2014): Härmä’s research in rural uttar Pradesh, India shows that ‘the average household income required’ to send a child to a low-cost private school ‘for an average-sized family in the poorest quintile is 30 percent for unrecognised and 25.6 percent for recognised’ low-cost private schools (Day Ashley et al., 2014, p. 29). Similarly, Akaguri (2014) shows that ‘enrolment of just one child’ in a low-cost private school ‘by a household in the poorest quintile would require about a third (29.8 percent) of its income’ (Day Ashley et al., 2014, p. 29). If poor parents do indeed have to spend around 30% of their household income to educate one child in a low-cost private school, then such schools are clearly unaffordable.

However, the same literature in fact does show significant minorities of the poorest are using low-cost private schools. For instance, Härmä’s research shows ‘10 percent of children from the poorest quintile … accessing private schools’ (Day Ashley et al., 2014, p. 28). Akaguri also recognised that ‘… some poor households enrol their children in LFPS …’ (2014, p. 158) and he conducted interviews with some parents from the lowest income quintile who sent their children to these schools.

This suggests a ‘conundrum’ present in the literature: low-cost private schools are reported as unaffordable by the poorest, but significant minorities of the poorest are using them. Section 3 of this paper explores possible reasons behind this conundrum. The research question here is: how can studies that conclude that private schools are unaffordable to the poor find significant proportions of the poor accessing private schools?

In support, Section 2 summarises findings from the literature on affordability. The issue of ‘other costs’ of schooling is addressed in Section 3. After outlining the new approach to defining ‘low-cost’ private schooling in Section 4, Section 5 gives examples from South Sudan and Liberia, contrasting the two methods. Finally, Section 6 draws conclusions and points to further research that could usefully illuminate this issue further.

Throughout we define ‘total fees’ as all the miscellaneous fees and levies that are charged by the schools, e.g. for exams, parent–teacher association, development/building as well as tuition. We are also interested in ‘other costs’ of education, which we define to include the costs for uniforms, books, stationery, transport, lunch, and so on. When commentators write about affordability there is a mixture of focus on these two areas. We discuss both aspects in what follows.

Affordability of private education: a brief literature review

Recent research literature suggests four propositions on affordability:

  1. some of the poorest families are sending their children to private schools;
  2. some of the poorest who would like to send their children to private schools are not, for financial reasons;
  3. moving up wealth or income quintiles brings increasing proportions using private schools, in part for financial reasons; and
  4. when wealthier parents send their children to private school, they tend to spend more per child than the poorer families.

First, Heyneman and Stern (2014) report that 10% of the poorest households in Pakistan enrol their children in private schools, the same figure as for the poorest quintile of villagers from poor uP villages (Härmä & Rose, 2012).

The recent DFID-commissioned review did not report any studies that found no pupils from lowest income quintiles in private school (Day Ashley et al., 2014). For instance, Kremer and Muralidharan (2008) are reported as finding that ‘while private schools mainly cater to the better off in rural areas, many children within them come from the more disadvantaged backgrounds’ (Day Ashley et al., 2014, p. 28). All the evidence of the review indicates that some of the poor and the poorest are sending their children to low-cost private schools.

Second, various studies looking at parental preferences have reported that some parents would like to send their children to a private school but cannot afford to do so:

even those parents who enrol their children in government schools display their helplessness in not being able to afford to send their children to private schools, since they cannot afford the latter. (Singh & Sarkar, 2012, p. 11)

A study from rural uttar Pradesh, India, showed 94.4% of parents indicated that they preferred private over government school, although only 41% of the sample were actually sending their children to private school; the study indicates that parents were not sending their children to private school for financial reasons (Härmä, 2011). In Lagos, 17% of households reported that school costs prevented them from sending all of their children to private schools (Härmä, 2013).

Third, studies have found that the more wealthy are more likely to send their children to private school. In rural uttar Pradesh, Härmä (2009) found 10% of the lowest quintile of income in the villages sent their children to private school compared to 70% of the highest quintile. Other studies have shown wealth to be a significant variable in predicting private school attendance, with the wealthier households more likely to choose private schools (Akaguri, 2014; goyal & Pandey, 2009; Härmä, 2010; Woodhead, Frost, & James, 2013).

Lastly the better off spend more per child (on average) than the poor when sending a child to private school (Foko, Tiyab, & Husson, 2012; Tilak, 2002). Akaguri points out that ‘spending on private education rises substantially with income’ (2014, p. 143) and Lewin (2007) reports that, even as a proportion of their income, the poorest spend less on education than those on middle income.

The conundrum of affordability in the literature

We return to the conundrum stated at the end of Section 1: evidence shows some significant minority of the poorest families are using low-cost private schools, yet the same evidence is also used to show that private schools are unaffordable by the poorest.

It seems to us that this conundrum might be occurring because researchers focus on answering one question while a related but different question is actually the key to the discussion.

Researchers appear to be asking the question ‘Can the poorest families afford the average fees (or costs) that are incurred by those who send their children to private schools?’. However, the question that is surely key to the debate is, ‘Are there private schools that are financially accessible to the poor and the poorest?’.Asking the first question may not be the most useful approach to answering the second question: whether a child from a poor family attends a low-cost private school depends on the family’s answer to the second question not the economic calculations of a researcher. The following discussion illuminates the point.

A characteristic of the low-cost private sector is typically a large variation in fees between private schools. Here are some examples from the recent literature.

  • From India, Härmä (2009) found a mean fee of Rs. 39 per month in the private schools in her study in rural uttar Pradesh. However, the actual fees ranged from Rs. 27 to Rs. 60—and this was in only 16 low-cost private schools all serving poor villages. That is, the fees at the lowest cost school were less than half those at the most expensive, and were nearly one third less than the mean fee charged.
  • From Kenya, Ohba’s (2013) study found a mean (annual) fee of KeS 2861 (grade 1) in 12 private schools in the slum of Kibera. The actual fees ranged from KeS 615 to KeS 6150. In this case the fee at the lowest cost school was one tenth of that at the most expensive one and about one fifth of the mean fee.
  • From Pakistan, Andrabi, Das, and Khwaja (2008) report a median (annual) fee of Rs. 751 in rural private schools, with an interquartile range of Rs. 638. This indicates that only half the private schools are in a band of Rs. 638 around the median, i.e. only half have fees between about Rs. 432 and Rs. 1070, with a quarter less than the lower figure and a quarter more than the higher one.

It is also worth noting that the spread of fees can be much greater (see Aslam, 2009)1 and that the variation between private schools is much larger than any variation of fees and levies in different government schools (Akaguri, 2014, p. 142).

This huge range in fees in private schools suggests that using only averages is not likely to help understand the affordability of private schools to those at the extremes of the expenditure range. The poor are likely to look for a school that is affordable to them, which may have fees which are a fraction of the average school fee.

In passing it should also be noted that there is often flexibility in terms of actual fees paid by poor parents: Härmä finds that ‘parents and headteachers reported a “three for the price of two” policy on the monthly tuition fee across all LFPs’ (Härmä, 2009, p. 163). Srivastava (2008) brings in additional useful insights:

effectively, the school-set tuition fees acted as guide prices and represented the maximum amount that a case study school could charge. Many parents employed the ‘fee-bargaining strategy’ and negotiated a lower amount …, thus not paying the full fees. Furthermore, fee concessions for families with multiple children enrolled or those that could not afford the set fee were internally instituted by owners. (p. 454)

This shows that the headline fees given by private schools should be taken as ‘upper bounds’ rather than as the fees paid by all parents. The average fees of low-cost private schools are therefore likely to be considerably more than the fees the poorest pay.

Fieldwork generally provides the data for researchers to study the additional costs. These studies often find that there are differences between the mean costs of identical items such as food, extra tuition, uniform, and transport paid by parents with children at private and public schools (Akaguri, 2014; Tilak, 2002; Tooley & Longfield, 2014). This creates another problem.

The assumption seems to be that these ‘other costs’ are fixed, that is, when a poor family sends their child to a private school they have no control over these costs and have to pay the same as the average of those who presently send their children to that type of school. This, however, will probably not be the case: it is well-known that the more wealthy tend to spend more on education costs than the poorest (Foko et al., 2012; Tilak, 2002).

To illustrate this, Table 1 shows an early example, taken from Tilak (2002, p. 38). The figures given are all averages (means) of the actual costs per year disclosed by families (we include government and private [unaided] schools only, i.e. exclude private aided schools).

The typical approach in the literature would be to draw the conclusion that the cost to a household of sending a child to private school is‘nearly three times higher’(Tilak, 2002, p. 21) than the cost of the government school.

This is certainly true as a summary of what the researched average families in the different management types spent on schooling. However, it need not tell us about what a poor family presently using a government school would spend if instead they chose a private school.

For example, families would not need to spend more than they presently do on extra tuition (‘private coaching’); indeed, if they were choosing private school because they felt teaching there was better, they may well consider spending less. Similarly with regard to transport—the finding that the families surveyed spent 12 times more, on average, on transport if they went to private than government school will not be relevant to a poor family choosing a private school. Transport costs can probably be eliminated as the low-cost private schools are generally in the areas where the poor live, allowing children to walk (Tooley, 2009).

One would not expect poor families to spend anything on board and lodging (though some parents with children in private school clearly do) as the families will choose a local school. Finally, even in terms of the category ‘books, stationery, and uniforms’, the poor may be able to source cheaper alternatives or take advantage of the flexibility offered by private schools on purchasing items such as uniform, an advantage of private schools noted in the research (Ohba, 2013; Srivastava, 2008).

Finally if the variation in the school fees is the most conservative of the studies noted above, where the lowest was nearly one third less than the mean fee charged (Härmä, 2009), this would suggest that a family in this context would be able to find a school charging around Rs. 214.

These considerations suggest that there may be a more realistic view of how a poor family could view total costs, and this is found in Table 2 by comparing the ‘gov’t1’ and the different private columns.

Overall it would mean a family choosing a private school would probably be able to do so at about 1.5 times the cost of the government school. While still more expensive, this may not seem such a large premium if there are other benefits of private school—as most literature attests (see Day Ashley et al., 2014; Tooley & Longfield, 2015), particularly in terms of the quality of education received.

A similar analysis of data from ghana (using Akaguri, 2014) shows that sending a child to government school may amount to fully 77% of the total costs of sending a child to private school (Tooley, 2013a; Tooley & Longfield, 2015).

This kind of analysis illustrates that sending children to low-cost private schools may not cost as much as or create such a large price premium for poor families as inspection of average school fees would indicate.

An alternative method, including a definition of low-cost private schools

The ‘traditional’ approach in the literature starts with average school fees and checks affordability against average household income. In contrast to this, our proposed model starts with household consumption or expenditure2 information to explore what fees would be affordable to families with these expenditures. In this way it defines low-cost private schools according to internationally accepted poverty definitions and so aims to fill a lacuna in the literature and in our understanding of low-cost private schools.

The proposed method is as follows.

  1. Poverty Line. Start with a poverty line, e.g. the internationally accepted $1.25 or $2 per person per day poverty lines3 (2005, purchasing power parity [PPP]), or a national or local poverty line.
  2. Convert to local currency and bring up to date. The $1.25 and $2 poverty lines need to be converted to the local currency (using PPP conversion rates) and, as they are for 2005, they need to be brought up to date using the country’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures.
  3. Consider a typical family. Calculate the total annual expenditure of typical families on this poverty line. This will be for the average size family using national or regional data or the specific household size data found from local studies.
  4. Find ‘maximum amount’ for total school fees. Specify some percentage (x%) of that annual expenditure that a family on that poverty line can spend on their children’s ‘total fees’. This gives us the ‘maximum amount’ that families on the poverty line can afford for school fees. (Below, we initially use 10%, then 5%, inspired by discussion in Lewin [2007]. The key is that this figure can be adjusted higher or lower as more is known about what families on the extremes can afford.)
  5. Calculate maximum annual total school fees. Divide the ‘maximum amount’ by the number of school-aged children in the family, using national or regional figures for number of children in average family, or data derived from local surveys. This gives the maximum annual per child school fees affordable to families on the poverty line if the family uses the percentage of their expenditure on school fees indicated in
  6. Specify affordability. using these calculations, we can define affordability: for instance, for families on the $1.25 poverty line, we can specify schools that charge less than the fee derived in (5) as ‘very-low-cost’, while the $2 poverty line gives ‘low-cost’ schools.

To clarify some of these calculations, further details for the first three steps are as follows: the poverty lines, e.g. the $1.25 PPP at 2005 rates, is a per person per day expenditure or ‘consumption’ amount at purchasing power parity (Ravallion, Chen, & Sangraula, 2008). The purchasing power parity (PPP) ‘conversion factor is the number of units of a country’s cur- rency required to buy the same amounts of goods and services in the domestic market as u.S. dollar would buy in the united States’ (World Bank, 2014).

Different goods and services have different PPP conversion rates and the World Bank gives extensive PPP conversion tables so we can use a conversion for individual household consumption rather than an aggregated figure (World Bank, 2008). Some conversion figures for $1 PPP are shown in Table 3.

using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures for the country this $1.25 converted figure from 2005 can be brought up to date, using the formula below, where CPI20xx is the Consumer Price Index for the year 20xx (united nations Statistics Division, 2014). Some relevant CPI data are also given in Table 3.

$1.25 × (2005 PPP exchangerate) × ( CPI20XX )

To illustrate the process, we have calculated the fee levels for those on different poverty lines from two recent studies, in Juba (South Sudan) and the slums of Monrovia (Liberia). We then show how the definitions help our understanding of the educational options for the poor and poorest.

The study in Juba, South Sudan, involved a team of trained researchers comprehensively combing the whole city to locate all schools, of all management types. The team conducted interviews with school managers, and made observations around the schools, to collect extensive information including ownership/management type, fees and levies charged, and numbers of classes and pupils—including physically counting the pupils present (Longfield & Tooley, 2013). As well as government schools, the research identified private schools run by private proprietors, non-government organisations (ngOs), communities, churches and mosques, and an unusual type called Teacher Trade union (TTu) schools, apparently run by teachers as a private enterprise but using government school facilities out of school hours (see Longfield & Tooley, 2013, p. 3).

The study in Monrovia, Liberia (Tooley & Longfield, 2014) similarly trained a large team of researchers to comb the seven major slums of urban Monrovia (data collected during 2012). During the survey, detailed information about fees and all other levies was collected from the schools, and the school management type and number of pupils etc. were ascertained from interviews with the principals and visits to the classes. In addition a household survey of nearly 2000 families was conducted in one of these slums (data collected during 2013). In this survey, information about the school enrolment of the children as well as the total costs of schooling was obtained.

Calculation of fee levels in Juba, South Sudan

For Juba we started with the $2.00 poverty line and the national poverty line (defined in 2009 at 72.9 SDg4 per person per month [South Sudan national Bureau of Statistics, 2012]). However, as 36% of the population of Juba County live below the national poverty line a third set of figures were calculated based on the average consumption (of SDg 39 per person per month) for those living below the national poverty line5 (Southern Sudan Centre for Census Statistics and evaluation, 2010). These calculations enabled us to define three categories of school as, respectively, ‘Low-cost’, ‘very-low-cost’ and ‘ultra-low-cost’ schools. (We also defined ‘Medium’ and ‘High’ cost schools using a $4.00 consumption line.)

Various studies suggest different sizes and proportions of children in the households in South Sudan (see Longfield & Tooley, 2013, for discussion) but all appear to show that there are less than four school-aged children out of 10 household members. Table 4 shows the fee calculations and boundaries for a household of 10 with four school-aged children, based on the different poverty lines.

In summary, schools in Juba that have total fees below SSP 240 per year are understood to be affordable to the average family on or above the lowest poverty line, those charging SSP 450 are accessible to the average family on the national poverty line. Schools charging fees below SSP 690 are accessible to those on the $2 international poverty line, with SSP 1370 forming the boundary between the medium and high cost schools.

Calculation of fee levels in Monrovia

For Liberia, the international $1.25 and $2 lines were the starting point. The fee levels are derived using the following information. The 2005 PPP exchange rate for ‘individual consumption expenditure by households’(World Bank, 2008) is uS$0.51 per $1.00.6 The historical exchange rate for the uS to Liberian dollar (xe, 2013) for 2005 is an average of 48 LRD per uS$1.7 The local Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures8 are 156.436 for 2005 and 298.803 for 2012. These figures give the various poverty lines at 2012 prices, as in the second column of Table 5.

The average household size is reported to be 5.1 for Liberia (4.8 for Montserrado County) in 2008 (Liberia Institute of Statistics and geo-information Services [LISgIS], 2008). Meanwhile, UNESCO statistics for the country suggest that out of five persons, there will be 0.8 infants, 1.7 school children (aged 5–18), and 2.5 adults (unicef, 2013). using these figures (i.e. taking the household size as five with two school-aged children) to do the calculations shows that an average family on or above the $1.25 poverty line can afford annual total school fees of LDR 5330 per child, while a family on or above the $2 poverty line can afford annual total school fees of LDR 8530 per child.

Research conducted in Juba and Monrovia where data on the fees and levies were obtained at the different schools allows genuine assessments of affordability now that the affordable fee levels have been defined. We look at this in Section 5.

Examples comparing the new and ‘traditional’ methods

Continuing to investigate the examples in Juba, South Sudan and Monrovia, Liberia allows us to contrast the new method with that commonly employed in the literature as outlined in Section 3 above.

South Sudan

Using the Juba data, having defined the fee levels, we can examine how many schools of the different management types (including government schools) fit into these. For the 124 schools for which we obtained data, we found nearly one fifth of both private proprietor and church schools in the ultra-low-cost category (19.4% and 18.2%, respectively). That is, almost one-fifth of the private proprietor private schools are affordable to the ‘poorest of the poor’ families. not surprisingly, all except one of the government schools are also ultra- low-cost, in terms of any fees or levies charged. In addition, 41.7% of the private proprietor schools are affordable to the very poor—those on the $1.25 equivalent poverty line, while an additional 19.4% were affordable to those still often defined as poor—those on the $2 poverty line (see Table 6).

Although we don’t have expenditure quintiles for South Sudan, we can use the in-country poverty lines as approximations to compare this with the ‘traditional’ method. As 36% of the population of Juba County is below the SSP 72.9 level, this level corresponds roughly to the top of the second quintile (Q2). The SSP 39 figure is the mean for those below that, so it may approximate roughly to the first quintile (Q1).

From data collected for Longfield and Tooley (2013), the average fee at a private proprietor school is calculated to be SSP 479.7 per annum. For the poorest families (those on SSP 39 per month), we have already calculated that 10% of their family expenditure would allow SSP 240 per annum per child (Table 4) for their school fees. The mean private proprietor total school fees (SSP 479.7) are twice this amount indicating that sending their children to the average private school would use about 20% of the family income.

Hence, the ‘traditional’ approach to affordability found in the literature would show that private proprietor (for-profit) schools were not affordable to those on this lowest poverty line, but our alternative method shows that while the ‘average cost’ private proprietor school is not affordable to them, one fifth of the actual schools are affordable.

Monrovia, Liberia

Turning to the Monrovia, Liberia data (Tooley & Longfield, 2014), we first show how the new method gives a result comparable to the ‘traditional’ approach, but then look at total costs to provide additional understanding of the affordability of low-cost private schools.

The mean total fees at a private school in the school survey ranged from LDR 4047 for Primary 1 to LDR 4659 for Primary 6 (Tooley & Longfield, 2014). This suggests that for an average family on or above the $1.25 poverty line (calculated as able to afford up to LDR 5330 per child) the average low-cost school fee would be affordable. As all the schools are in the designated slums this is not altogether surprising.

Different school types had different ranges of fees; disaggregating by management type (Table 7), we see 77.6% of for-profit proprietor schools are very-low-cost, and a further 16.1% are low-cost. Indeed, proprietor schools make up 58.8% of all the very-low-cost schools. Both the government schools, in terms of fees and levies, are very-low-cost.

School fees and school costs

These two examples (South Sudan and Liberia) have assumed that families can use a maximum of 10% of their total expenditure on total school fees for all their children. However, suppose, again inspired by the discussion in Lewin (2007), all educational costs (including fees, books, uniforms, stationery, tuition, transport, lunch, etc.) are included in the 10% of total family expenditure. Our proposed method allows us to easily adjust the calculations to deal with this alternative.

For Liberia, household survey research in Doe Community (Tooley & Longfield, 2014) collected the relevant information. It found that roughly equal amounts were spent by parents on total school fees and total other costs including lunch. This finding indicates that ‘other costs’ are a large proportion of the total, but it is not dissimilar to the results of other studies: Foko et al. (2012) found fees in private primary schools ranging in value from 46.6% of the total direct educational costs incurred by families (Madagascar) to 80.5% (Mauritania), with an average of 62.1%. Data from Lagos put the figure for total private school fees at between 46% and 62% (depending on the fee level) of the total direct educational costs to the family, including private tuition (data collected in study for Tooley, 2013b).

If the 10% of total family expenditure for education is to include both total fees and all other costs, then the fees should not account for more than about 5% of family expenditure. This new figure of 5% has been put into the calculations in Table 8.

using these figures, we can again see how the ‘traditional’ method of calculation of affordability would give a completely different result from our new method.

using the ‘traditional’ method, the average total fees (LDR 4047 for Primary 1 to LDR 4659 for Primary 6) are now clearly unaffordable to those on the $1.25 poverty line (who can afford LDR 2660). Indeed, they are only just affordable by families on the $2 poverty line. However as there are 90 schools (out of 399 for which we have the full information) charging fees less than LDR 2660 (the new ‘very-low-cost’ bracket) we can see around one quarter of private schools in the survey were in fact affordable to the poorest families when allocating 10% of expenditure to cover all the costs associated with schooling.9

Again, while the ‘traditional’ approach showed the unaffordability of private schools to families on the poverty line, our new approach establishes that there are 90 private schools that are in fact affordable to such families.

Conclusions and future directions

Studies comparing average private school fees to average household expenditure show that unsupportable proportions of total family expenditure would be needed to send the children to low-cost private school and hence that low-cost private schools are unaffordable to the poorest. However, the same studies tend to show that some significant proportions of the poorest are in fact using low-cost private schools.

Our proposed method solves this conundrum. It starts from what, on average, poor families on accepted poverty lines could afford to spend on private school fees for all of their children, and uses this to show what an affordable private school would cost. In doing so, it allows us to arrive at a scientific method for defining what a ‘low-cost’ (and ‘very-low-cost’) private school is—a school affordable to an average family on or above the poverty line, using a given proportion of their expenditure to send all of their school-aged children to such private schools. given these fee levels, we are then able to see how many private schools are affordable to poor families. Two examples using recent research findings from South Sudan and Liberia show how this new approach fits the evidence about the use of private schools by the poor much better than the ‘traditional’ approach. It helps us arrive at a better understanding of the affordability of low-cost private schools to the poorest families.

Further research is needed in at least the following three areas to strengthen the application of this model.

  1. What is the correct figure to specify as the maximum percentage of family expenditure to use for school fees? (We first used 10% then 5%.) Further research is needed to explore what percentage is in fact affordable and whether this figure should be different for families on different poverty levels. As income falls the proportion that a family needs to spend on food rises leaving a smaller percentage for other goods and services (Donkoh, Alhassan, & Nkegbe, 2014; Foko et al., 2012). Therefore the ability to access schooling may fall sharply for the families below some level as their expenditure falls and the proportion available for education also falls (Lewin, 2007).
  2. In the example from Liberia, we examine the relationship between total school fees and total other costs to parents. Further research is required to explore this relationship, and whether it varies as families are (relatively) richer or poorer and schools relative more or less expensive.
  3. Research is required to explore how educational standards vary in relationship with schooling costs. The categorisation of schools according to their fee level provides a simple starting point to explore the value-for-money offered by schools with different fee levels and management types.

With data obtained through studies in these major areas and with the model appropriately adapted, our understanding of the affordability of low-cost private schools would deepen and enable policy proposals to be more firmly based on evidence.


  1. The highest fee private schools were reported as costing 32 times more than the lowest fee schools.
  2. We are informed by the following here: ‘Whenever possible, consumption is preferred to income for measuring poverty. When consumption data are not available, income is used. Income is generally more difficult to measure accurately, and consumption accords better with the idea of the standard of living than income, which can vary over time even if the standard of living does not. nevertheless, consumption data are not always available, and when they are not there is little choice but to use income’ (united nations Statistics Division, 2014).
  3. The World Bank sets a global poverty line of $1.25 PPP per day in 2005 as the extreme poverty line which represents the poverty line typical of the world’s poorest countries. The $2 a day poverty line (in 2005 PPP $) is the median (average) poverty line for all developing countries.
  4. At South Sudan’s independence, the currency was changed from Sudan Pounds (SDg) to South Sudan Pounds (SSP) at par, so 1SDg became 1SSP.
  5. Part of the power of this method is that the starting point can be one of the international poverty lines, a national poverty line, or actual consumption figures of (poor) families from local household surveys.
  6. The US dollar as well as the Liberian dollar is legal tender in Liberia.
  7. The Liberian dollar started the year at 47 per uS$ and ended it at 49 per uS$, having peaked at 50 per uS$ (xe, 2013).
  8. CPI figures from International Monetary Fund (2012).
  9. While it is not clear what the income levels are in the slum, the household survey found that 21% of the children aged between 5 and 14 were not in school and only 8% travelled out of the slum to a government school. Seventy-one percent of the children in the slum attended low-cost private schools, suggesting that most families are finding private schools which are affordable to them (Tooley & Longfield, 2014).

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


This work was supported by John Templeton Foundation [grant number 20842].

Notes on contributors

James Tooley is currently working in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, UK.

David Longfield is currently working in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, UK.


David Longfield


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