As we publish GSF’s report on Regulating non-state education, Policy and Research Associate Ross Duncan shares the top findings and implications from this work.
Non-state education actors account for a large share of global education providers, including 18% of primary and 26% secondary enrolments globally.1 Non-state enrolments can be particularly high in low-income urban settings, for example Nairobi (60%) and Kampala (84%).2 Given this scale, governments need to engage with the non-state sector to ensure that all children have access to quality education regardless of the type of school they attend.
Regulation is a key tool available to governments to achieve this. That’s why we’ve been investigating how regulatory systems function across low- and middle-income countries: how these systems are experienced by non-state actors, what works and what doesn’t, and – crucially – what can be improved.
This study explores the perspectives of non-state actors who serve low-income students across five countries: Colombia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Uganda. They include low-fee private schools, school networks, and schools operating within public-private partnerships.
Here’s what we learned.
1. Current regulations do not reflect the reality of operating environments.
Across all countries studied, school operators reported a disconnect between the regulatory requirements prescribed by government and the reality of operating schools. This is visible across areas including registration requirements, fee-setting, and teacher requirements.
This disconnect can mean that schools operate without registering. But by being unregistered, the result can be under-regulation. One unregistered low-fee private school owner in Pakistan was unable to describe any regulation that required their compliance. In some cases, this means that even basic requirements related to student safety are not met.
2. Regulations are not implemented consistently across all providers.
There are positive examples of systems that ensure regulations are implemented, such as a digitized education management information system (EMIS) in Nepal which provides real-time updates on the status of education to the ministry.
But regulation implementation varies across school types, with enforcement appearing strongest among public-private partnerships and weakest among low-fee private schools. Interviewees also reported differences in implementation between government and non-state schools, with registered non-state schools being monitored more closely than their public counterparts.
There were also insights into the reasons beyond low implementation. In four of five countries in the study, regulations are under-enforced due to lack of government capacity. In Uganda, a low-fee private school owner reported there were only two education officers present to regulate 700 private schools.
Selective enforcement of regulations can exist as a symptom of corruption and rent-seeking. In Pakistan, two of the three low-fee private school interviewees described having to provide bribes to register schools, while regulation in Lagos state was described as a means of rent-seeking, for example through the collection of high-rate TV and radio licenses.
3. Relationships between government and non-state schools vary.
Collaborative working relationships can exist between government and operators. However, there are also instances of poor relations which can create strained working relationships. The key insight here was the common call among operators for collaboration with governments:
“...government should not see private schools as competitors but partners who complement their efforts in provision of quality education. The private providers have been able to pilot innovations that take long for government to implement...” School network in Uganda
Of all interviewees, those in Colombia were most positive about their regulatory system. They reported that regulations focus on outcomes through school improvement goals, that there is clarity on reporting requirements, and that, on the whole, there is a communicative, open relationship with government.
All stakeholders have a role to play to improve regulation design and implementation
These insights shed new light on practitioner experiences, whilst building on the key findings from the GEM Report on Non-state Actors. This found that, while almost all countries regulate non-state schools in some form, “rules are often poorly designed or weakly implemented”3.
The study also reveals actions that can be taken to improve regulatory systems.
Design. Governments should ensure that regulations are based on realistic standards that are reasonably attainable for schools, given the level of financial and other resources available. This must include clear minimum standards covering areas such as child safety and non-discrimination. All schools should be registered and meet these basic standards on an ongoing basis as a condition of operating.
Investment. All stakeholders should work to increase government capacity for developing and implementing more effective regulation.
- Governments should invest more financial and human resources. This can include mobilizing existing capabilities among non-state operators to improve the implementation of regulations.
- Development funders and multilateral agencies should build government capacity to design and implement better regulatory frameworks for education, through provision of new technical and financial assistance.
- The World Bank, UNICEF, UNESCO, and the Global Partnership for Education should update and improve global guidance available to governments on effective regulation of non-state actors.
Compliance. Non-state actors should comply with regulations to the fullest extent possible - even when government enforcement is lacking. Regardless of the strength of government implementation mechanisms, operators should ensure they are meeting minimum standards, especially where these relate to child safety, non-discrimination, and learning outcomes.
Partnership. Regulatory interactions should emphasise partnership and collaboration. There is scope for increased dialogue between governments and operators, either by engaging operators directly, or by engaging intermediaries such as Private School Associations.
If the Sustainable Development Goals are to be met, regulation design and implementation must be improved to allow the non-state sector to support governments in the shared goal of delivering quality education to all children.
This study constitutes a background paper for a wider collaboration between GSF and UNESCO’s Education Policy Section. In this wider project, insights from school operators are combined with government official perspectives to produce a joint set of findings and implications. We look forward to sharing this paper in due course and engaging further with key stakeholders to understand how regulatory systems can be improved.
We are partnering with USAID’s Education Finance Network to chair a working group on ‘Enabling Regulation’. This brings together international stakeholders to explore the practical steps that can be taken to address key challenges and gaps in regulatory systems.
1 From the Concept note for the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM) 2021 on non-state actors, p.4.
2 From CapPlus’s Banking on Education report, p.1.
3 From the UNESCO GEM Report 2021/2, p.26. Joanna Härmä’s 2019 study on low-fee private schools in Abuja, Accra, and Kampala also concluded that under-resourced inspectorates and unrealistic regulations create systems which are “failing most school-going children”.