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Will covid-19 mean the end of low-fee private schools?

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What will the impact of covid-19 on low-fee private schools and preschools in low-and-middle-income countries be, and what can be done?

Covid-19 may lead to the permanent closure of millions of low-fee private schools and preschools globally. As low-fee private schools account for nearly 25% of all primary school enrolments in low-income countries, the number of children affected is likely to be staggering.

A recent survey in South Africa, for instance, estimated that 1.5 million preschool children were at risk. In Pakistan, low-fee private schools serve more than 40% of children in primary school, many millions more may be left without a school. As many of these schools charge much less than £20 each month, it is predominately poor families that will be affected.

What will happen to schools, teachers and children?

Temporary school closures have left families without schools, schools without incomes, and teachers without salaries. Even if schools can overcome their debt and convince their teachers to return, it is unclear whether they will be able to remain solvent when they reopen. Social distancing measures will mean fewer children in each classroom, and enrolments are likely to fall as families struggle to afford fees during the recession.

This will put pressure on the public school system. What will happen to public schools in Pakistan, for instance, as enrolments double within a few months? Or in Lebanon, where public schools currently only serve 30% of families? If public schools are unable to cope, then the progress made towards near universal primary enrollment is likely to be reversed, perhaps for the first time in modern history.

Can government help?

It may be enough for low-fee private schools to receive the same relief as any other small business. In Pakistan, the Private Schools Management Association (PSMA) has advocated for interest-free loans. In South Africa, a network of civil society organisations have recommended a grant for each preschool of about £1,800 split over six months. This would enable preschools to buy the necessary personal protection equipment (PPE) and pay teachers’ salaries as their enrollment numbers recover.

However, providing this support is unlikely to be straightforward. In many countries, the relationship between the state and low-fee private schools is complicated. These schools provide an essential service that the government is often unable to deliver themselves; for some, this means that low-fee private schools are both socially essential and politically contentious. Many low-fee private schools also operate with fewer inputs than is legally mandated, such as by using unqualified teachers or informal infrastructure – making it difficult for the state to support them.

There are also technical challenges to state-provided support. In South Africa, there are estimated to be twice as many ‘unregistered’ private preschools as those formally registered with the state. The majority of these unregistered preschools lack formal business registration. Although these preschools still participate in recognised associations, and so are not entirely off the map, ensuring that state relief reaches the right people will still be a challenge.

What can schools do?

Conversely, this may lead to a fundamental shift in how low-fee private schools operate. In order to accommodate smaller class-sizes, both private and public schools may split the day into two ‘shifts’ so that one group of children attend classes in the morning while the rest attend in the afternoon. Although this is already used in some countries (such as Lebanon), nearly doubling teachers’ workloads is unlikely to be feasible for many teachers. Some schools might also consider the feasibility of EdTech - Ilm Exchange in Pakistan, for instance, provides schools resources they can use to help children learn at home. However, accessibility remains a perpetual concern. The use of these resources by poor schools and families remain to be seen.

The future of low-fee private schools and preschools will be among the biggest questions over the next year – how they will survive, how they can be supported, and, failing all else, how the public school system can cope.

Oxford Policy Management is preparing a limited podcast series on the impact of Covid-19 on low-fee private schools and preschools, and what can be done. Our first episode will launch in August 2020.

This article was written before the recent catastrophic explosion in Beirut. Oxford Policy Management has an educational team based in the city, and our thoughts are with everyone affected during this devastating time.