Private schools in Ethiopia

Disclaimer

The chapters in the article – Introduction, Public Schools, Teaching Profession – are the result of several interviews, online research, and own observations between December 2019 and January 2020. During that time I was assigned an evaluation project as interim country director for a private institution in Addis Ababa. Also, please note that the information provided in the last chapters – Discussion and Recommendation – is based on personal perception and, hence, the opinion of the author.

Abstract

Albeit spending of about a quarter of the annual, public budget, Ethiopia’s educational system remains incoherent. Particularly in rural areas, where learning outcome is lower than in comparable LDCs. Funds are mainly spent in construction and infrastructure, which resulted in almost 100% enrollment rates. However, on the flip-side, drop-outs as early as grade 2 are the highest in all over Africa. Partly, perhaps, as Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that has not been colonized. While positive, has the educational system developed much later than in other countries across the continent. Nevertheless, over the past 10 years’ improvements have been made and the Ministry of Education seems to have realized that there is an educational crisis. This paper evaluates the role private schools can have to overcome the struggles Ethiopia’s educational system faces.

Introduction

The educational system of Ethiopia has seen huge investments by the government and supported by various international organizations in recent years. The World Bank-funded General Education Quality Improvement Program (GEQIP) grants $500 million per year to the Government of Ethiopia in support of its continued efforts to improve the provision of quality education nationwide.  

Generally, the program targets quality of teaching and learning conditions in more than 40,000 public primary and secondary schools across the country. However, while access to schooling has been hitting the 100% -mark, key challenges, including inequitable access to education opportunities for females and other vulnerable groups, especially in remote areas, remain. Also, Ethiopia’s investment in teachers’ training has not translated to improvements in quality and effectiveness. In fact, the outcome of education has been stagnating for 15 years. The establishment of private schools seeks to overcome those challenges, yet this paper claims that they need to be profit oriented to succeed, without excluding low-income communities. Also, almost all are found in urban areas, particularly in Addis Ababa, while most of Ethiopia’s population live in rural parts of the country.  

Some schools have attempted to run on a non-for-profit model, targeting marginalized children to allow them access to private-level education. This paper, however, questions whether the learning outcome is in fact higher compared to public or for-profit private schools. It also wants to shed some light on the limitations of relying on foreign direct investment or aid and without access to governmental spending or programs. Finally, as those institutions can only be found in urban areas, it needs to be asked, if those institutions do in fact help to overcome Ethiopia’s educational crisis, which is most severe and evident in rural areas. 

The RISE program – research of improving systems of education – examines whether national education reforms are working (see https://www.riseprogramme.org/countries/ethiopia). The program is co-funded by the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) and the Ministry of Education. It is a 5-years project based on an accountability cohesion framework and asking if Ethiopia’s educational system is coherent or not. Launched in 2018, it focuses on the government’s flagship program – the GEQIP – and advises the Ministry of Education to adopt changes along the way and up until it’s conclusion in 2022. 

Preliminary findings prove that Ethiopia’s educational system is consistent to access but not to outcome. Students do not get the required learning that is requested by the (labor) market. Despite the GEQIP being 10 years’ old, and seeing enormous investments, improvements are stagnating. However, the Ministry of Education seems to understand that there is a learning crisis and is open to suggestions to improve learning outcome. Nevertheless, progress is slow and, hence, the establishment of private schools might constitute a solution. 

Public schools

The government has been spending about 25% of its budget on education. While the second highest in any African country, educational improvements have been limited. Whilst, enrollment rates are at almost 100%, graduation numbers are among the lowest, worldwide. Though, the government have created so called model schools, which oftentimes have had better performance results than private ones. 

Education is free of charge for students from grade 1 to 10. Also, there has been an adaptation of the law to fully subsidize schooling up to grade 12, that has not yet been ratified by the central government. Not covered are uniforms and teaching material, which oftentimes makes it difficult for people from marginalized backgrounds to have access to education. Some NGOs bridge such gap by giving out scholarships and government schools in Addis Ababa have been providing uniforms as well as running feeding programs. 

Therefore, considering the quality of education, at least among the better public schools, and with regards to the free-of-charge services, some governmental schools are on-par with private institutions. However, counselling is only available from grade 9 to 12, although some public schools have assigned therapists by themselves, but they are very limited in number. Similarly, governmental schools have no community programs or engage in social work. Apart from a few in major urban areas, who form committees to deal with absent students and potential dropouts by addressing parents or guardians directly. 

The major advantage of governmental schools is their access to enough land space. However, they are also required to admit everyone, which results in classroom sizes ranging between 50 to 60 students. The teacher / student interaction is very limited, sometimes not even allowing to check homework or even grade exams properly. In fact, and even though the governmental has issued strict criteria for schools, given the sizes of public schools and the admittance of everyone, those are oftentimes overlooked. 

Teaching Profession

The management of public schools is generally very loose. For instance, school principals are not empowered to fire any staff. In fact, teachers are barely laid-off, except in exceptional bad cases or following severe misconduct, like theft or abuse. As a result, teacher absenteeism is very common and, hence, further impairing the quality of education. 

Governmental schools offer professional development programs to improve the level of education, though the utilization remains limited, and focuses on subject-level matter. As a result, subject skills are comparable across private and public school. In fact, while English teaching might naturally be poor among the latter ones in rural areas (i.e. limited exposure), they oftentimes outperform the latter ones in math. In addition, most public schools run two months summer school programs, in which teachers can develop from a diploma-level to a degree-level educator; within 5 years. Further, some schools offer in-school support systems (mentoring programs), which are, however, poorly utilized but would be most important for novice teachers.  

Generally, the teaching profession is perceived with caution and its social status is very low. Though, this might be true all over the world, the ones becoming teachers in Ethiopia are usually the ones with the lowest scores. Such poor performance during school years, might, psychologically, be part of the reason why most teachers are unwilling to develop professionally. Partly, as well, because pay raises are slim and career development paths limited, which might make training efforts appear like a waste of time and energy.  

The Japanese government co-funds a Teacher’ Professional Identity program to increase the social status and recruitment patterns of teachers, because the reputation is mostly due to the recruitment system. Not many teachers fulfil the minimum requirements set by the government. The program seeks to make teaching a life choice, advocates for its positive social impact and tries to cultivate the teaching profession early on.  

Finally, the Ethiopian government has endorsed a road-map that includes incentive packages for teachers, though it has not yet been ratified. Among the suggestions are ideas including free transportation, which is already the case in Addis Ababa; housing subsidizes or granting farmland in rural areas; and a pension scheme that suggests paying the full salary after retirement to encourage staying in the profession for longer.

Discussion

Firstly, private institution will remain a strong player in the educational system of Ethiopia. However, governmental schools are catching up. Therefore, private institutions need first to decide what makes them different; deriving some form of a unique selling proposition (USP) within their target community. Perhaps, a differentiation could be a focus on life skill education, particularly if marginalized communities are in scope. In fact, subject-level education seems less important for students, who will return to a community, where job opportunities are scarce. Private schools have the option to add further topics to the curriculum, after school programs, clubs, and engage in partnerships with organizations who may offer such. 

Secondly, the optimal number of staff members need to be evaluated. Whilst private schools might consider smaller class sizes to have educational benefits, resulting in more teachers in comparison to governmental schools, the management team should be slim to remain agile. However, even with regards to the former, research suggests that small class sizes do not necessarily equate in higher quality education. In fact, in subjects level matters such as math, size seems not to matter too much (cf. performance of public schools), while it seems to make a difference in social sciences or arts-based topics. So, probably in each topic where the teacher / student interaction is more significant.  

Thirdly, private schools’ communal engagement appeared to be the strongest differentiator of them all. Governmental schools offer barely any services to the community, while, however, pastoral care is understood as the main driver for quality education. It is an inclusive function within a schooling system, engaging and involving staff, students, and parents. 

Fourthly, public schools have access to land, a massive governmental budget, international aid, and are more attractive to recruit teachers. Private schools, in turn, face higher costs and governmental scrutiny. Therefore, most of them are, and should be, profit oriented. While some charge tuition fees, others attract funding from individual donors (e.g., adoptive parents make up for 50% of the budget of the German Church School). Though, as hitherto discussed, the educational crisis is most severe in rural areas and among low-income families, private schools have stayed away from those regions given scarce income sources. Also, the government has been focusing on approving education in the countryside and improvements can be assumed. 

Finally, the incoherence of Ethiopia’s educational system might as well constitute a chance; an opportunity to introduce new learning methodologies and paradigms. Particularly private schools are well-suited to focus on technology or break-up with the teacher-dominated educational approach. For instance, a form of liberal education from grade 9 onward, having the learner decide themselves what they want to learn might be more suitable for private schools that are active in marginalized communities.

Recommendation

The following recommends an action plan for the establishment or relaunch of private institutions in Ethiopia in four dimensions: educations, staffing, communal programs, and funding. The list is not meant to be complete or in enough detail to be used as work-break-down structure. 

Focus on life-skill education 

  • Evaluate and establish partnerships
  • Integrate life-skill education into curricula 
  • Involve the entire community in the creation of new programs 
  • Establish a monitoring and evaluation system  

Assess minimal and optimal staffing needs 

  • Detail staff needs; their roles, responsibilities, and utilization of skills
  • Derive an optimal, minimized structure for the organization 
  • Re-assign roles and responsibilities 
  • Manage human resources 

Create additional community programs 

  • Assess communal needs
  • Closely involve the community by the establishment of programs 
  • Establish a feedback loop to allow for continuous improvements 
  • Establish a monitoring and evaluation system 

Establish a self-sustainable and profitable social enterprise 

  • Evaluate potential profit-generating activities  
  • Evaluate potential funding structures 
  • Discuss tuition and scholarship models 
  • Evaluate external funding opportunities