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The Global Impact of Low-Cost Private Schools: Lessons and Insights for MicroSchools

This blog post was generated from the following video interview of Dr. James Tooley, author of The Beautiful Tree:

Education is one of the most critical pillars in the development of any society. However, the complexities and challenges of delivering quality education are numerous, particularly in underserved areas. I was once on a flight that was delayed for hours because the pilot noticed a strange noise. After extensive checks, the airline discovered they needed a new pilot, not a new engine. This experience taught me an essential lesson: to resolve an issue effectively, you must correctly identify the source of the problem. This principle is also pertinent when addressing the challenges in public education.

A Shift in Perspective

A Tree in Zimbabwe
A tree in Zimbabwe; Image Credits: by Benjamin Van Der Merwe - Unsplash (not actual photo)

Initially, like many others, I believed state involvement was crucial in education. My views started to change during my tenure as a teacher in Zimbabwe, where I initially went to support a Marxist-Leninist regime. Over time, my experiences, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, convinced me otherwise. The state involvement in education appeared more detrimental than beneficial, pushing me to advocate for private alternatives.

Malala's True Story

A renowned example in the discourse of public versus private education is Malala Yousafzai. Often portrayed as a champion of public education, the reality is different. Malala was actually on her way to a low-cost private school founded by her entrepreneur father when she was attacked by the Taliban. This school was one of around 400 in the SWAT Valley of Pakistan, charging approximately $100 to $150 per year. This revelation challenges the narrative that public education is the only pathway to quality learning.

Discovering Low-Cost Private Schools

Hyderabad Slums

My journey into the world of low-cost private schools began in Hyderabad, South Central India. During a day off, I wandered into the old city slums and discovered a network of private schools charging around $1 per month. These schools served the poorest Muslim communities and thrived because the government schools in the area were failing. Parents frequently mentioned that "in government schools, our children are abandoned."

Gulf of Kutch and Fishermen's Villages

In my travels to the Gulf of Kutch in India, I encountered similar sentiments. Government schools were ineffective, with teachers frequently absent. One father shared that his son in Grade 5 had only learned to write the number one. Another horrifying story involved a father who was arrested for complaining about teachers' neglect.

Makoko, Lagos

In Makoko, a slum in Lagos, Nigeria, I found 32 low-cost private schools. Despite the harsh conditions, these schools were fulfilling an educational need that government schools were failing to meet. I witnessed a public school where the only teacher was asleep, leaving children to teach themselves.

Kibera Slum, Kenya

The Kibera slum in Kenya, one of the most famous slums globally, was home to over 100 private schools. This phenomenon extends across Kenya, revealing the extensive reach and adaptability of private education in underserved areas.

Rural Ghana and China

In rural Ghana's Bociano fishing village and the Gar District, the majority of children attended private schools. Similarly, even in the remote villages of Gansu Province, China, I discovered 576 low-cost private schools in the mountains.

Criticism and Further Exploration

Critics argued that my research mainly focused on semi-disadvantaged populations. To counter this, I extended my research to conflict-affected states in Africa, including South Sudan, Somalia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. In South Sudan, amidst the civil war, I found schools in some of the most dangerous areas, providing education where the government could not reach.

Key Findings

Ubiquity and Reach

Low-cost private schools are ubiquitous in underserved areas. For instance, in Lagos's poorer regions, 70% of children attend private schools. Even in war-torn areas like Juba, South Sudan, private schools are prevalent and continue to function.

Post-Conflict Growth

In post-conflict regions, private schools serve as a "peace dividend," emerging quickly to fill educational gaps left by government institutions. In Sierra Leone, the growth in education after the civil war was primarily driven by private institutions.

Academic Performance

Research consistently shows that children in low-cost private schools outperform those in government schools on standardized tests in subjects like math and English. This performance is significant even after adjusting for parental income and background.

Gender Parity

Contrary to the belief that these schools might favor boys, private schools often maintain or even exceed gender parity. For example, in Lagos, more girls than boys attend private schools.

Entrepreneurial Ventures

School desks in a classroom
Image Credits: Eric McLean - Unsplash (not actual photo)

Given these insights, I felt compelled to take action beyond research. I co-founded Omega Schools in Ghana, which grew to 40 schools with 20,000 students in just five years. We also created associations to advocate for low-cost private schools, like AFED (Association of Formidable Education Development) in Nigeria and initiatives in the Punjab region to combat regulatory overreach.

Honduras Initiative

In Honduras, inspired by the potential of low-cost private schools, we opened a pilot school in a dangerous barrio. The experience demonstrated that even in perilous environments, committed leaders could establish and sustain educational institutions.

Relevance for England and the United States

Feasibility Studies

To explore the feasibility of low-cost private schools in developed nations, I commissioned research through MBA students from Wharton Business School. They concluded that low-cost private schools could be viable in the United States, with costs ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 annually.

A Pilot School in England

Inspired by these findings, I decided to open a low-cost private school in Newcastle, England. Despite significant resistance from teacher unions and bureaucratic delays, the school eventually opened with fees of £52 per week. Today, it serves 100 students and has proven financially sustainable, receiving glowing reviews from parents.

Microschools in the United States

The rise of microschools in the United States is a promising development that mirrors the global trend of low-cost private education. Microschools provide a more personalized and flexible approach to learning and have the potential to fill gaps left by traditional public education. The global success of low-cost private schools offers valuable lessons for the growth and sustainability of microschools.

Community Involvement

Parent and teacher meeting
Image Credits: By Monica Melton - Unsplash (not actual photo)

One of the critical success factors for private schools in developing countries has been strong community involvement. This is equally applicable in the U.S., where microschools can thrive with parental and community support. Engaging local communities in the planning and operation of microschools can ensure they meet specific local needs and garner broader acceptance.


The global phenomenon of low-cost private schools offers valuable lessons for improving education, even in developed countries. These schools have proven that quality education can be affordable and effective, even in the most challenging environments. As the microschool movement gains momentum in the United States, adopting insights from these global examples can help create a more equitable and effective educational landscape. The time is ripe for a revolution in education, one that embraces innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit to serve all children better.

By correctly identifying the source of the problem, as my delayed flight experience taught me, we can implement effective solutions that truly address the educational needs of our time.

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