The role and impact of private schools in developing countries

Department for International Development

February - July 2013

Principal Investigator
Dr Laura Day Ashley

Telephone +44 (0)121 414 4827

This Department for International Development (DFID) funded rigorous review assesses the evidence on the role and impact of private schools in developing countries. It aims to provide a systematic stock take of recent evidence and to identify critical research gaps to inform future research programme development. Findings will be of interest to the international education community, development agencies and donors, policymakers and researchers.


The review set out to answer the following research question: Can private schools improve education in developing countries?

To answer this research question a conceptual framework was devised comprising a number of key hypotheses and assumptions underlying the private schools policy debate. Testable assumptions grouped under the thematic fields of supply, demand and enabling environment were interrogated through the review. 59 high and medium quality studies published in the past five years and focusing on DFID priority countries (mostly in South Asia and Africa) were included in the review following a comprehensive search process. Rigorous measures were implemented and regularly reviewed by an advisory panel to ensure a transparent and balanced approach to assessing and synthesising the evidence. Bodies of evidence supporting, refuting or neutral in relation to testable assumptions were rated strong, medium and weak. Most assumptions were weakly evidenced indicating the need for caution in terms of policy and the need for more targeted research.

Key Findings

Key findings include the following: 

  • The true extent and diversity of private schools in developing countries is unknown due to a lack of data. Most of what is known about private schools is based on limited knowledge of registered private schools. 
  • The review’s strongest findings show that private schools have better teaching than government schools in terms of higher teacher presence, teaching activity and teaching approaches more conducive to improved learning outcomes. 
  • The review provides moderate strength evidence that private school pupils achieve better outcomes than government school pupils but this finding is qualified by an ambiguity about the true size of the private school effect since most studies did not account for home background differences of pupils. 
  • Moderate evidence shows that private schools have lower costs of education delivery than government schools but this raises concerns since lower costs are often due to lower teacher salaries. 
  • The review highlights that states are constrained by a lack of capacity, legitimacy and knowledge of the private school sector to implement effective policy frameworks (moderate strength evidence). 
  • Girls are less likely than boys to be enrolled in private schools (moderate strength evidence). 
  • The assumptions relating to equity (social and economic background) are weakly evidenced. There is a small but consistent body of evidence that private schools are more expensive but findings on whether private schools geographically reach the poor and whether the poor are able to pay school fees are ambiguous. 
  • Finally there was very little (weak) evidence to support/ refute the often claimed assertions that private schools are more accountable to users than government schools, or that they introduce market competition, driving up standards across the education system.

Download the full report

A further DFID-funded review of the role of non-state schools (religious and charitable) is currently underway with a synthesis report of the two reviews: private schools and non-state schools to follow.