Inside Low Fee Private Schools
Today we take an inside look at Low Fee Private Schools. With me is Joanna Härmä who has recently published the book Low-Fee Private Schooling and Poverty in Developing Countries (Bloomsbury 2021)
Joanna Härmä is a writer and researcher on education and development. She also owns and operates a low fee private school in India. Joanna is a visiting research fellow at the Centre for International Education at the University of Sussex and a teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh.
Citation: Härmä, Joanna, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 238, podcast audio, May 3, 2021. https://freshedpodcast.com/harma/
Will Brehm 0:15
Joanna Härmä, welcome to FreshEd.
Joanna Härmä 1:19
Thanks, Will. Thanks for having me.
Will Brehm 1:20
So, when did you first open your school in India?
Joanna Härmä 1:24
Our school opened in July 2004 and it started with four grades of primary school and the pre-primary section. And since then, we’ve expanded right up through the senior secondary level. And before the pandemic, we had about 550 students.
Will Brehm 1:44
Wow! And where in India is it?
Joanna Härmä 1:45
It’s in western Uttar Pradesh in a remote, rural village. It’s actually a hamlet. It’s not even a real village. It’s where my husband’s family is from. So, it’s ancestral village and we built it on the family farm.
Will Brehm 2:05
Wow. And can I ask why you decided that you wanted to create such a school?
Joanna Härmä 2:10
Yeah. So, I had gone to India right after my master’s in International Human Rights Law and I was working at the Nobel laureate, Kailash Satyarthi’s NGO, the anti-child labor NGO. And that’s where I met my husband and we both just got increasingly interested in education because the whole point of the NGO was getting children out -well, the slogan was, “from exploitation to education”. So, we met a lot of child laborers and found that cost was still an issue for many, even with supposedly fee-free government schooling. So, we wanted to start a school that was completely free. So, I was in charge of the fundraising and we went from there. And that was what we did. So, it was originally completely free of cost until the point where the international financial crisis happened. And at that point, strangely, things have sort of improved in the local area. So, daily wage labor earnings had actually gone up while the rest of the world was in a downward spiral. And so, we lost a lot of monthly donations during that period. While people there were earning a bit more so we introduced some fees for people who could afford it and kept it free for the poorest. And so now it’s a sort of mixed model, partly charitable funding and some fees for the better-off people.
Will Brehm 3:50
Interesting! And in this hamlet, is there a government school?
Joanna Härmä 3:55
Not in the hamlet because it’s such a tiny place. So, there are government schools in all the surrounding villages. So, there would be absolutely no problem of access for people trying to send their child through government school but there isn’t a government school in that exact location.
Will Brehm 4:17
Hmm. Interesting. And so, after the global financial crisis, where you decided to introduce some fees, particularly to the more well-off students, does that mean that your school is considered a low-fee private school?
Joanna Härmä 4:32
Well, yeah. I think people in the area would pretty much view it that way. Because we’ve never charged fees that are anywhere near what a school that’s providing what we actually provide -what a normal school like that would charge. So, I think people in the local area, just view it that way because we’ve never actually sort of said that this is a charitable undertaking that’s funded from outside because of sort of local politics. You don’t really want to go shouting about that, how you’re bringing money in from outside. So, I think probably people there would consider it like any other lower fee private school. Yeah.
Will Brehm 5:20
Can you give us a sense of how widespread low-fee private schools are? I mean, if people in this hamlet just sort of assumed that your school was a low-fee private school, that sort of assumes that low-fee private schools are rather prevalent.
Joanna Härmä 5:36
Mm hmm. Yeah. They are everywhere. So, I did my PhD in the same area, and I surveyed schools in 13 villages all around this very hamlet. So, that was my doctoral research. And I went in really not expecting to find that much. And there were low-fee private schools everywhere, except for maybe one village out of the 13. And a couple of villages had two or even three low-fee private schools. But what has been -so it’s just absolutely everywhere. Even in this rural area. But what has been really interesting is how things have changed. So, within 18 months of me doing my doctoral research, I think it was something like a quarter of my study schools had closed down. So…
Will Brehm 6:33
Joanna Härmä 6:34
Yeah. You know, I don’t actually know. I never went back and tried to find out why that had happened. And so, at first, I guess the assumption would be that maybe the villages where there were two or three schools, that was just too many for that area to sort of support. But since then, things have just changed to the point where there are hardly any really low-fee private schools the way they were before. Now, most of the schools are of a sort of higher standard. Like you wouldn’t get the really, really ramshackle, poor infrastructure, like low-fee private schools, the way I found back in 2005-2006 when I did that research. Now, they’re much more sort of well-to-do and the real low-fee private schools are quite rare. So, you have to go to specific villages to find low-fee private schools but slightly better standard private schools are now everywhere.
Will Brehm 7:36
So, we could call these like “medium-fee private schools”?
Joanna Härmä 7:40
Yeah, yeah. So, now it’s definitely moving in that direction. The phenomenon is moving towards more medium-fee in this area. And you know, India is such a big country. So, the situation will vary in different parts of the states, and, of course, different parts of the country. But in this area, things have just moved up a notch.
Will Brehm 8:07
Is it because more people have more disposable income that they could afford higher fees in private school? Or does it have to do with private schools realizing that you can’t actually make that much money with low fees. And if you could charge higher fees, you can actually earn more money?
Joanna Härmä 8:26
Yeah, I think it’s because for some reasons, since the time we opened in 2004, the daily wage has gone up a lot. So, now you’re at the point where a daily wage laborer earns more than a private school teacher. Or a less experienced private school teacher. So, yeah, I would put it down to the increasing wages in the area.
Will Brehm 8:58
Yeah, right. And so, where are government schools in all of this, all of these low fee and medium fee schools that you’ve seen and seen change over time. Are there government schools in the same villages where you’ve worked and researched?
Joanna Härmä 9:14
Yes. Yeah, there are. Last winter, I actually went on some visits to some of the government schools that I had visited as part of my doctoral research, and they exist, there are teachers there, there are some children but nothing happens. Just like back when I did my research. There’s no teaching going on when you walk up, I think in one or two schools, the teachers outnumbered the students who were present. So, there’s just huge amounts of money being spent on government schoolteacher salaries for no teaching, basically going on, at least in this area. And it’s really just the poorest of the poor, and I guess people for whatever reason, who don’t value or see any real benefit in investing in their children’s education. It’s only those types of children who are sent there. So yeah.
Will Brehm 10:16
So, I mean, even a low-fee private school excludes some children who can’t afford even that low fee, and those children then can get picked up by the government schools?
Joanna Härmä 10:26
Yeah. That’s definitely the case. And that’s what I found in every single place where I have studied this phenomenon. So, I would say this sort of lower middle class, as local people regard low-fee private school clients, the usually lower middle class, go to those schools, and then the really poor go to government schools or no school at all. No schooling at all, is not really a thing in that area of India where we operate but definitely, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, there’s many children that just don’t go to any school at all, or government schools.
Will Brehm 11:07
So, these lower middle class families, how do they decide which low fee or medium fee private school to even go to? I mean, I would imagine there’s differences between these schools, because they’re all sort of operating independently in a way?
Joanna Härmä 11:22
Yes, yeah. There really are. There are differences. Every place where you find at least more than one of these schools, there will be stratification and sort of segmentation within this market of schools. So, one of the key things is proximity to home. So, I would say that that’s an enormous factor for many parents, and that is just international. That’s across the board. One of the biggest things that parents always cite is closeness to home, and quality. So, they talk about quality and proximity to home. And then of course, the fee level comes into that. So, what can they actually afford? So, all of these things are weighed up by the parents. And when they talk about quality, what they mean is what they can see. So, are the teachers there? Do they seem to be doing their job? Are they in the classroom in front of the students when they should be? And usually, you can sort of see into the school from the street. Either there’s no boundary wall or whatever, you can see through the windows. And then impressions from the community as well. So, people talk to other parents in the community and discuss the various schooling options. But this all implies that there’s like a choice. So, if you’re looking at rural areas, it would often be the case that there’s either no private school at all, or maybe one school in a village. So, then it’s really a case of can you afford the private school, or can you not afford it?
Will Brehm 13:12
Right. Very few people might even have a choice between multiple schools to select from.
Joanna Härmä 13:19
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s definitely very commonly the case in all of the major city locations that I have studied. The big cities in Sub Saharan Africa that I’ve studied, and now increasingly in this rural part of India that we operate in as well. But yeah, and then when there is a lot of choice, like in Lagos, where there are schools down every alleyway, there are other things that come in, like some schools would be owned by the pastor in a church and they sort of attract the people who go to that church to send their children to the pastor’s school. So, yeah. There are different affiliations that lead people to make a school choice and religion will be one of them. So, maybe Muslim parents might want to send children to a school owned by a Muslim. Even if it’s not, you know, expressly a Quranic school or anything like that. Just the affiliation, even castes in India. So, you’ll have a school that’s owned by your particular caste grouping, so you would feel more comfortable sending your child there. So, there are other affiliations and things that come into play as well.
Will Brehm 14:37
That’s an interesting sort of stratification that goes on with where you end up sending your children to school. So, can you tell me a little bit more about who owns some of these low-fee private schools. I mean, the school that you operate is maybe considered an NGO school or that’s sort of where it started. You gave some examples of some religious schools, that act as low-fee private schools. But who else is owning and operating low-fee private schools?
Joanna Härmä 15:05
Yeah. So, I think that the history going back, it really did start with a lot of religious organizations. So, you know, mission schools and such. My husband is my same age. So, 43. So, back in the 80s, and 90s, he was going to Christian mission schools in India. And then from I think about the 1990s, I would say that things started broadening out, both in India and the other place that I’ve studied the most, which is Nigeria. So, you would get just local community members just starting a school, I would say almost by accident. Like one of the people I know the best in, in Makoko in Lagos, he describes having started as sort of small, just tutorial group with children in the local area and parents liked it so much that they said, you know, why don’t you start a school and so it just went from there. So, a lot of the time, the older schools -so he started in the 1990s, and I would say that’s where this sort of low-fee private schooling phenomenon really started about that era. It just started with community members just seeing a need. So, government school systems hadn’t expanded enough at that point, or a lot of them still had fees into the early 2000s. So, there wasn’t even like a fee free option. So, a lot of the time it was people just in their own communities seeing a need and basically stepping in to fill that gap.
Will Brehm 16:47
Huh. Have there been any chains that have emerged? You know, low-fee school providers that operate multiple schools in multiple locations? Like seeing it more as a business rather than a community meeting a need?
Joanna Härmä 16:59
Yeah. Well, I haven’t found that much in the chain area. I think a lot of individuals who have started schools have found it quite challenging, quite difficult to manage. And it really is a very challenging thing to do well. And so, in a lot of the places I’ve studied this in, a person would start with pre-primary, and then add a grade every year. So, they might have started with a handful of children in pre-primary up through maybe primary one, primary two, and then add right the way up. And then the most common thing would be to start a separate secondary school where they would encourage families to transition through to their own secondary school, and that’s often on another site, because it’s partly just because it’s difficult to get enough land.
Will Brehm 17:55
Huh, interesting. And in the Indian context, are these types of schools legal? Is this allowed by the government?
Joanna Härmä 18:03
It is allowed, but you have to apply for registration. So, I’ve never studied this in a place where you are not required to register your private school and where there’s an application process that you have to go through. And it’s often quite difficult, quite challenging, quite demanding. So, a lot of schools start out unregistered. And then they go through the application process to gain registration or approval, as it’s called in some places. But at the same time, in some places, it’s so difficult that people just don’t even want to try because they know that the type of school that they’re running is just never going to meet the stringent regulations. So, especially like in places like Lagos, you’ll get people just basically flying under the radar for years and years and years and not even starting the process of application because they know that they’ll never succeed.
Will Brehm 19:10
What are some of the regulations that the government is asking these low-fee private schools to follow and meet?
Joanna Härmä 19:17
So, one of the big ones is land, land ownership. You have to own a fairly sizable piece of land. And then there are all kinds of requirements for where that land should be. So, that can be really, really tricky for somebody starting a school say in an urban slum, for example, in Lagos or Abuja. They would be required to be a certain distance away from certain things like filling stations or places where alcohol is served. And so, requirements like this, when you’re in a very dense urban slum, it’s almost impossible. So, a lot of such requirements basically have the effect of sort of outlawing any type of school opening there. So, you get this strange kind of catch 22. Then another problem is trying to find teachers who are fully qualified. In some places that’s really difficult and most of the time that is a requirement that teachers are qualified. In some countries, it’s not. Maybe there’s sometimes a requirement where at least one or two teachers has to be a fully qualified teacher. But yeah. Then there are many, many other requirements that are extremely challenging for schools to fulfill. I think one of them, the ones that I never saw fulfilled in a private school was in Nigeria, having a trained and qualified nurse on staff. I mean things like that just -you wouldn’t be able to run a low-fee private school with all the requirements fulfilled.
Will Brehm 21:06
Yeah, right. Are there requirements around the curriculum? Like having to follow any national curriculum?
Joanna Härmä 21:13
Yes, yeah. There usually is. It would usually be required that you follow the national curriculum, and with some exceptions for more elite private schools, like, say, the British International School or an American School or French School. And it’s a common question people ask about the curriculum, “What are these schools actually teaching”? That’s actually something that I don’t think really any school would particularly want to deviate from because they are trying to attract local parents who want their children to do well, in national exams at whatever level, these national exams actually start to take place or appear. So, there’s really no interest in not teaching the national curriculum. So, maybe there might be some exceptions but usually, they would just use the sort of standard textbooks that are available and follow that curriculum and try and prepare children for national exams at whatever level those kick in.
Will Brehm 22:14
So, one of the arguments for having sort of the private market in education is that this is a way to create innovation or better quality education. From your experience researching low-fee private schools in multiple countries, is there any truth in the ideas that they create innovation and are of better quality than say compared to government schools?
Joanna Härmä 22:41
Yeah, that’s been a really interesting one. I have never seen any innovation. I mean, when I think about innovation in education, I’m thinking about an interesting and different way of actually getting children to learn. And in these schools, there really isn’t any of that because they’re relying on teachers who very often are not very experienced, not very well qualified. And they’re basically just taking children through the curriculum as they find it in the textbooks. So, it’s very much teacher standing in front of a class, teacher focused, teacher centered teacher led, and very much reliant on the textbooks. And, you know, “chalk and talk”, as some people call it. Copying down from the blackboard. And this happens even in, I would say, sort of middle fee private schools, like ones that I’m thinking of in the area in India, that we operate in. Schools that are considered slightly more aspirational in the sort of small regional towns, they get their students to copy model answers off the board into their notebooks. And so, it’s basically just copying and memorizing. And that is something that parents who maybe don’t have that much experience of education themselves, they see their children’s notebooks and see that these answers have been very neatly copied off the board and they think that this is a good thing. And so, no, I don’t see low-fee private schools as an avenue to any kind of innovation in education. And I think if we get into the area of the chain schools and the internationally owned chain schools, most of the innovation that’s coming there is around management and things around the classroom, but not really things that are happening in terms of teaching and learning. So, yeah.
Will Brehm 24:46
So, when it comes to better quality, Is there any evidence that there is better quality education coming out of these low-fee private schools?
Joanna Härmä 24:55
The evidence on that is really mixed so far. So, some studies find that when the background of the children is taken into account -so you know, you’re basically trying to sort of control for or take into account the fact that the children are generally better off than children who are going to government schools. Some studies find that there is an additional private school effect. So, even the low-fee, private schools might be bringing a sort of value add or slightly higher levels of learning than government schools. Other studies have not found any effect of private schools in some places. And then in some studies, it’s been a bit sort of inconclusive. So, it looks very much like a lot of what’s happening is just a concentration of better resourced children, slightly wealthier children who have more support from their households, all clustered together in these low-fee private schools. And then on top of that, the teachers are generally present and teaching more than in government schools. So, they have that bit of advantage as well.
Will Brehm 26:10
Joanna Härmä 26:10
So, there is there is some evidence to suggest that they are doing that little bit better. But I always like to say that it’s really, really relative. So, if you’re taking the very low bar of almost no learning that happens in government schools in many places, then, if you find that private schools are facilitating that little bit more learning, still, you find yourself far and away below a bar of what we would put actual good quality education at. So, they’re still way below that bar.
Will Brehm 26:49
Hmm. And so, in your experience, and in your research, and working in schools, what are the major downsides of low-fee private schools or medium fee private schools?
Joanna Härmä 27:00
I would say that this inevitable stratification that takes place. So, you get a complete separation within a local area between the haves or you know, the almost haves or the slightly haves and the have nots. So, you will have all of the least able, least resourced, least supported children clustered together in government schools with teachers who then are even less motivated to try and help them to learn. So, yeah, I would say the stratification in local society, and then overall in the whole country. I mean, it’s just really leaving the poorest behind. But at the same time, I can’t bring myself to come down against these schools or against parents using them because who would want to sacrifice their child if they had any money to be able to send their child to a private school, when they see government teachers not doing anything? So, it’s a really difficult situation.
Will Brehm 28:11
Are there ways to improve the public system? To improve the government schools in a way that allows for equality? It sounds as if one of the big things you’re worried about is the inequality that these low-fee private schools produce. And not to say that government schools necessarily create equality? I mean, they also can reproduce inequality. But is there a movement in that direction towards some sort of alternative that strengthens the public system?
Joanna Härmä 28:40
Well, I would say that there are many people who call for that. I’ve written about that in my own writing. Yeah. There’s a slightly bizarre thing that goes on with people who are sort of pro-private schools who also acknowledge that they’re really still not that great quality. As I just said, they might be just ahead of the government schools but still nowhere near an objectively high standard of quality. A lot of them also say, well, these schools have to improve. But I’ve written, ever since I started writing about this, that there isn’t really any getting away from the need to improve some kind of fee free option. The government school system will still always be needed by the poorest if the international community is really serious about achieving education for all children. But as for how to do it, it’s extremely difficult to see a way when certain entrenched patterns of civil service behavior and functioning are just so difficult to budge. And in my book, I write about the example of the Delhi municipal government schools for the upper primary and secondary levels and how the government of Delhi has managed to really turn those schools around to the point where there are parents bringing children back to government schools. But you know, okay, Delhi is a massive city, but it’s still a relatively limited part of the country. And I think a lot of what’s gone on there has to do with the philosophy of the Aam Aadmi Party that is running the Delhi government. So, I write in my book about the cases that I could find where reform for public schooling happened as a result of decades, or many years, of work of really, really committed people. So, I don’t see that the kind of reform ideas that are suggested by a lot of international development consultants and people like that, I don’t see that there’s really any avenue to bring in a policy solution to government schooling turnaround. I think it has to come from within, and it’s going to be a slow road for many places. And while that’s happening, parents will continue to use low-fee private schools when they can afford to,
Will Brehm 31:25
In your research on how change might have happened within public schools. Did that end up making you change your activities and actions in the local community where you run the -I’ll call it a low-fee private school, for lack of a better word- but in a way are you engaged with sort of the local government to sort of try and engage and make changes in the public school system in that community?
Joanna Härmä 31:53
That was something that we actually started out hoping to do. That was absolutely something we intended. We didn’t want to just start a school just to serve a limited number of children. We had hoped to have interaction with the government system around the school. But as sad and defeatist as it may sound, you’ve quickly learned that that’s not something that can happen. So, the government schoolteachers are usually the best trained, and at least in some of the areas that I’ve studied this. So, they are probably best placed to be able to actually do something. But the way civil service operations go on, it just isn’t happening. And they wouldn’t want to interact, because you would basically be showing a judgment of what they’re doing or not doing. So, there isn’t really an avenue for that. And it’s really sad to say, but it’s just the way it is.
Will Brehm 33:02
It’s a really interesting insight from someone that is sort of very involved in a local community with the school and working in a hamlet with parents and children and sort of knows the local politics. Sort of getting away from more national level policy issues that you know, can or cannot happen, and may or may not have any effect. So, thinking about it from that very local level is quite an interesting insight. I mean, of course, now in India, there’s this awful uptick in COVID and it’s making news worldwide every day, it seems to be getting worse. What has happened in your school?
Joanna Härmä 33:37
So, we had been following the guidance that the in-person classes had been stopped for a long time now. We had been teaching online, so struggling with that. But that has been very much like what I’ve read from other countries as well. Even in the UK, where teachers have reported that again the least motivated, or the students who are the least able and probably the less well-off students have not really participated in the online classes. Because of course, again, it requires an internet enabled device, and a data connection and all this that a lot of these people didn’t have before. So, again, you’re getting this thing where the most motivated, the most able, the most well-resourced families are the ones going out and literally buying a smartphone for their child to continue with classes. And then it’s only just been very recently that we stopped classes all together. In fact, this very day is the first day that we haven’t run any online classes anymore because my husband has just been told by everyone that the teachers themselves are ill. So, they have fever there. So, we just had to -there’s no one left! They can’t even -I mean they were struggling up through yesterday to be doing classes online while feeling awful with fever and things. So, as of today, there’s no school left for us at the moment. So, where it will go from here. The situation is really really dire.
Will Brehm 35:25
I’m so sorry. I hope you and your husband and the school can work through this as well as everyone in India. I mean, it’s a terrible situation to read about.
Joanna Härmä 35:37
Will Brehm 35:37
Joanna Härmä, thank you so much for joining FreshEd today. It was a pleasure to talk and best of luck with your school and your research.
Joanna Härmä 35:45
Thank you so much Will. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks.
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