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Do Private Schools Provide a Better Quality of Education? Beyond the Private – Public Divide. A literature review 1981-2022

Les écoles privées offrent-elles une meilleure qualité d'enseignement ? Au-delà du clivage entre le privé et le public. Une revue de la littérature 1981-2022
Barbara Daviet
p. 33-58


La théorie néolibérale affirme que les écoles privées dispensent un enseignement de meilleure qualité que les écoles publiques, justifiant ainsi l’implication croissante des acteurs non étatiques dans l’éducation au cours des dernières décennies. Cet article se concentre sur l’enseignement primaire et secondaire dans le but d’éclairer l’argumentaire néolibéral. Il présente tout d’abord le débat théorique sur la qualité de l’éducation et l’impact des écoles privées sur celle-ci. Puis, il passe en revue les preuves empiriques de l’impact différentiel des secteurs privé et public de l’éducation sur la qualité. Il aborde ensuite le débat sur les écoles publiques et privées sous un angle différent, en évaluant les deux principales caractéristiques des écoles privées, à savoir l’autonomie de gestion et l’orientation vers le marché. Enfin, il propose de recadrer le débat en dépassant le clivage public-privé.

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  • 1 After decades of state intervention in Western economies following the 1929 Great Depression, the d (...)
  • 2 Source: UIS Database. This database relies on school censuses or surveys provided by each country. (...)

1The privatisation of education is a multidimensional process that began to spread worldwide in the 1980s in the wake of the neoliberal counter-revolution1. Over recent decades, one of the most important trends has been the growing number of a wide variety of private schools: that is, schools that are managed by non-state actors, whether independent or funded by the state., including community schools, faith-based schools, for-profit schools ranging from elite schools to low-fee private schools, and schools run by NGOs or by philanthropic, pedagogical or philosophical movements. This trend is most evident at the primary level. The secondary school enrolment rate in private schools rose from 19.2% to 27.5% worldwide between 2000 and 2020, but the primary school enrolment rate in private schools increased from 10.1% to 18.9%, with the strongest growth in North Africa (from 4.6% to 9%), Central and Southern Asia (from 18% to 36.8%) and East Asia and the Pacific (from 4.4% to 10.7%)2. UIS estimates show an especially dramatic increase in the private share in primary enrolment in a wide range of countries between 2000 and 2020: for example, from 4.7% to 17.8% in Morocco, from 6.6% to 25.4% in Nepal and from 16.1% to 45.1% in India.

  • 3 OECD (2012b). “The long-term economic advantage to individuals with a tertiary education is about t (...)

2There are several driving forces behind this trend, notably demand and the state provision of education, the emergence of civil societies and the spread of neoliberal ideology. In a competitive knowledge-based economy with growing unemployment rates among young people, education is a key factor for social and economic inclusion and for access to high-paying jobs3. Together with the Education for All and Millennium Development Goals frameworks, the resulting growth in demand for education has contributed to a need for an expanding provision of education across the world. In addition, the growth in living standards has fuelled a differentiated demand for schools that cater to needs that are not met by public schools.

  • 4 UNESCO, EFA (2015). “In many contexts, parental preferences have increased demand for private schoo (...)

3This growing, diversified demand has put increasing pressure on financial budgets in a period of financial crisis, especially in countries where state finances and tax systems do not function efficiently. In a number of developing countries, the ensuing financial constraints have resulted in a lack of public provision in education as well as in the decline of learning conditions in public schools due to a reduction in per-pupil public expenditure. The subsequent increase in the perception that public schools provide a poor quality of education4 has prompted a demand for private schooling that along with the shortage of the public provision of education has opened up opportunities for non-state actors, mainly from civil society and the business sector.

  • 5 The education sector is considered to be a new emerging market and an untapped new opportunity. In (...)

4The involvement of civil society in education has been encouraged by an increasing demand for a voice in public affairs (UNESCO, 2015). At the same time, the influence of neoliberal ideology has grown among policy-makers and in some global aid agencies. On the assumption that the private sector will raise the quality of education and be more effective in ensuring education for all, national governments and international organisations such as the World Bank have promoted the participation of the private sector in education and the liberalization of education markets. This latter trend, together with globalization, has paved the way for business involvement in the education sector5.

  • 6 Another essential issue relating to the development of private schools is social justice.

5The increasing involvement of non-state actors in education, and more particularly of for-profit actors, along with its neoliberal justification in terms of a rise in the quality of education, has fuelled controversial debates on whether or not private schools provide better-quality education than public schools6.

6This paper focuses on primary and secondary education, and seeks to inform the debate on whether or not private schools provide a better quality of education. Following remarks on the methodology used, it presents the theoretical debate on education quality and on the impact of private schools on it. It then reviews the empirical evidence on the different effects of the private and public education sectors on quality. Thirdly, it looks at the public-private school debate through a different lens, assessing the two core characteristics of private schools, management autonomy and market orientation. Finally, it finds that comparing private and public sector outcomes and assessing the core characteristics of private schools leads to inconclusive results, and proposes that the debate should be reframed by moving beyond the public-private divide.

Methodological remarks

7The discussion in this article on the differential impacts of private and public schools on education quality is based on a review of the international literature. The sources used here are scientific papers issued after 1981, when the debate first began. These papers relate to the United States, where the debate has been particularly intense, to other developed countries and to developing countries, where private schooling has become a crucial issue. The body of research reviewed adopts a large range of perspectives that rely on a variety of sampling strategies and different kinds of data, including longitudinal or cross-sectional data, household survey data, standardized tests and grade retention. What they all have in common is a quantitative approach based on various mathematical models, including regression analysis, hierarchical linear modelling, data envelopment analysis and propensity score matching. One limitation of these papers lies in the issue of controlling the selection bias and taking into account the potential bias due to the existence of unobserved confounding factors. Another is the sensitivity of the results to the models: according to the model adopted, the correlations observed between variables (for example, private enrolment and learning outcomes) can be significant or insignificant. Furthermore, the results are sensitive to the specifications of the models. A slight modification in the model’s parameters, such as the weighting of selected variables, can sometimes reverse the conclusions of the research. As we will see, these limitations contribute to the questions being raised about the very terms of the debate.

Theoretical Debates on Education Quality and the Impact of Private Schools on Quality

8The neoliberal approach to quality draws on the human capital theory, a utilitarian view that regards human beings principally as tools of economic competitiveness and growth (Becker, 1964). A high-performing school is one that provides a quality education in the sense of knowledge and skills that foster its students’ future productivity. From this perspective, quality is generally equated with academic performance and assessed by using test scores.

9The neoliberal assumption that the involvement of the private sector will raise the quality of education is grounded in neoclassical economic theory. This theory views families and/or students as consumers and education as an individual private good, a commodity in which rational individuals invest in order to increase their future productivity and income. This view (Friedman, 1962) holds that a rise in education quality is the result of market mechanisms, which foster competition between schools, and families’ choices, which are modelled as being rationally driven by quality. A choice of schools provides incentives for school improvement, since private schools have management autonomy and are thus able to compete with each other by addressing families’ demands for quality.

10The neoliberal rationale is a controversial one. Its opponents argue not only that private schools threaten equity and social cohesion, but also that they do not provide a better quality of education, as the market mechanisms that are believed to foster quality are subject to failure. There is no perfect, complete set of information on the education market, and education quality has many dimensions, which families value differently. The choices families make are therefore often driven by considerations other than academic performance, such as ethical orientation, reputation (Bell, 2009) and above all a school’s socioeconomic and ethnic composition (Lacireno-Pacquet & Brantley, 2008). When taken together, these preferences give schools little incentive to improve their quality.

  • 7 School effectiveness refers to the degree to which a school is successful at producing high levels (...)

11In addition, the neoliberal approach to the quality of education is challenged by those who question its underlying assumption that the economy is an analytically separate realm of society that can be understood through a framework that focuses on purely economic factors with no consideration for political, social and cultural factors. The humanistic approach to education, on the other hand, goes beyond the strictly utilitarian vision of education, and takes its cultural, social, economic, ethical and civic dimensions into consideration (UNESCO, 2015). From this perspective, education is a public, not a private, good and should be provided by the state because of the social benefits it generates. Quality entails more than cognitive skills: it also includes non-cognitive skills such as creativity, critical thinking and teamwork, as well as the values of respect for life and human dignity that are required for social harmony. Similarly, multidimensional social interaction perspectives on education quality seek to transcend the instrumental and technical-rational vision of quality, adopting a wider societal approach that takes into account a range of dimensions of quality and the dynamics of interaction between various stakeholders (Tawil et al., 2011). The 2007 UNESCO Santiago model, for instance, proposes five dimensions of the quality of education: effectiveness7, efficiency, equity, pertinence and relevance with regard to societal concerns as well as to the daily conditions of learners and their families and communities (Tawil et al., 2011). By questioning the approach to the quality of education that underlies neoliberal theory, these alternative concepts challenge the conclusions drawn from this theory that private schools provide a better quality of education than public schools.

A Review of the Empirical Evidence on the Impact of Private Schools on Quality

  • 8 These standardized tests include the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Sch (...)

12The debate on the differential quality of education provided by private and public schools, which began in developed countries, appears in a different light in developing countries, where underinvestment in the public education sector by many states and the subsequent poor quality of public schools have given rise to a myriad of low-fee private schools whose capacity to bridge the provision gap in the public sector is at issue. Most of the studies that have been carried out to inform this debate adopt a narrow definition of education quality (as opposed to the multidimensional perspectives on education quality mentioned above), assessing it by means of test scores. In this body of research, quality of education is generally equated with school performance, school effectiveness and student achievement; a school that provides a good quality of education is an effective school, that performs well, that fosters student learning and that stimulates student achievement. In this paper, therefore, these expressions are used without distinction8.

The Impact of Private Schools on Quality in Developed Countries

  • 9 Some studies use a broader approach to education quality that notably entails non-cognitive skills. (...)

13The debate on the different effects of private and public schools was launched in the United States by analyses of the “High School and Beyond” data by Coleman and colleagues, first on cross-national data (Coleman, Hoffer & Kilgore, 1982) and then on longitudinal data collected from the same national sample of high school students (Coleman, Hoffer & Kilgore, 1987). A significant part of the public-private school debate initially focused on the relative effects of Catholic schooling, mainly because Catholic schools were the largest and most homogeneous group of schools in the private sector, and were therefore relatively well represented in national datasets. Most of the studies were quantitative, and relied on statistical models to assess the quality of different types of school, and generally equated quality with student score outcomes on standardized tests in mathematics and reading9.

14In both studies, Coleman and his colleagues concluded that even after controlling for differences in family characteristics, Catholic school students scored significantly higher than public school students on standardized tests in mathematics, reading and vocabulary. They appeared to be particularly effective with minority students. In the United States, in line with Coleman’s pioneering studies, a broad trend of research has concluded that private schools, particularly Catholic schools, yield better outcomes than public schools (Goldberger & Cain, 1982; Greeley, 1982; Carbonaro & Covay, 2010). More recently, Jeynes (2012) found from a meta-analysis including 90 studies on the effects of religious private schools, charter schools and public schools on student outcomes that attending a private religious school was associated with the highest level of academic achievement among the three school types, even after adjusting for socioeconomic status.

15Coleman’s findings on the specific benefit of Catholic schooling for minorities and disadvantaged U.S. pupils are also confirmed by a large number of studies (Greeley, 1982; Hoffer, 1986; Figlio & Stone, 1997; Peterson & Llaudet, 2007), some of which find the benefits of Catholic schooling to be greatest in urban areas (Evans & Schwab, 1995; Neal, 1997; Grogger & Neal, 2000).

16A number of studies in various countries also confirm these findings. In a review of European evidence of the relative effectiveness of public and religious schools, Dronkers (2004) concludes that in Belgium, France, Hungary, the Netherlands and Scotland there are clear differences in school success and cognitive outcomes in favour of religious schools compared with public schools. In Chile, McEvan (2001), comparing the Spanish and mathematics achievement of eighth-grade pupils in six types of public and private school, confirms the advantage of Catholic schools. While there is no important difference in achievement between public and non-religious voucher schools, he finds that Catholic voucher schools have a small advantage over most public schools once student and peer attributes are controlled for.

17The evidence in favour of private schools appears to be quite strong, even though it depends on the types of school, with the best academic performances to be found in Catholic schools. However, these findings have been challenged by a large number of researchers, who attribute them to selection bias. The average socioeconomic background of students who attend private schools is generally higher than that of those attending public schools, which may explain their higher achievement levels. The higher social class intake of private schools also produces an advantage known as the compositional effect. Furthermore, even if we know a good deal about students’ background and academic aptitude, the mere fact that their parents spend time and resources to enrol their child in a private school may be related to distinctive attributes such as involvement or expectations that are conducive to higher educational achievement. It remains unclear, therefore, whether the models describe actual differences between types of school or simply differences in the socioeconomic characteristics of the students attending them.

18Many American, Australian and European researchers find that when they include a wide range of controls for selection bias, the presumed superiority of Catholic or private schools vanishes (Kirjavainen & Loikkanen, 1998; Jepsen, 2003; Gibbons & Silva, 2011). According to the OECD (2011), students in public schools in a similar socioeconomic context as private schools tend to perform equally well in PISA assessments as students who attend private schools. Similarly, countries with a larger share of private schools do not perform better in PISA assessments.

19Other researchers, after controlling for demographic characteristics of private school students, find a public school advantage over private schools in the United States (Lubienski & Lubienski, 2006; Braun et al., 2006; Carbonaro & Covay 2006). These findings on the benefits of public schools are confirmed by a large number of recent studies, mostly undertaken in the United States and Australia, that focus on primary schools. According to these studies, non-religious or Catholic primary schools have either a negative or no impact on pupils’ outcomes (Jepsen, 2003; Reardon et al., 2009; Elder & Jepsen, 2013; Carbonaro, 2006; Nghiem et al., 2015). In some of them, the effect depends upon the type of private school being considered. Lubienski et al. (2008), for instance, find a negative effect of Catholic schooling but an insignificant effect of other types of private schooling on 5th grade maths test scores in the United States. Azimi, et al. (2022) find that private primary schools outperform public schools with respect to test scores, but that school effectiveness varies substantially across private schools, and Catholic schools are no more successful than public schools. Moreover, one-third of private schools are not as effective as the average public school.

20As for the differential impact of private schools on disadvantaged students’ outcomes, some recent studies challenge the previous findings. Neither Carbonaro (2006) nor Reardon et al. (2009) find any evidence that either Catholic or other private schools in the United States have differential effects compared with public schools on maths skill development across student populations or locations.

21Where a broader definition of quality than test scores is used, the research yields even more inconclusive results. For example, after correcting for selection bias, Sander (1997) finds that in the United States, rural Catholic high schools have a positive effect on mathematics test scores but no effect on graduation rates or the odds of going on to college. More recently, Dronkers, Baumert & Schwippert (2002) conclude that in Germany, pupils at religious secondary schools achieve higher intelligence scores than their public school counterparts but do not have higher learning results in mathematics and the natural sciences. In the United States, Elder & Jepsen (2013) find sizable negative effects of Catholic primary school attendance on 5th and 8th grade maths test scores but no statistically significant effects of school type on reading scores or behavioural or non-cognitive outcomes.

22To sum up, even though a large number of studies suggest that private schools enjoy an advantage with regard to education quality, especially for disadvantaged students, the debate has not been settled, as many other studies reach opposite conclusions. The findings also vary across local settings. According to a study on charter school performance in 16 American States, for instance, 17% of charter schools outperformed local public schools, 46% did not have different results and 37% significantly underperformed compared with local public schools (Miron & Applegate, 2009). The findings also vary across research methods. For instance, studies based on a fixed effects methodology generally find an insignificant or negative impact of private schools on student achievement, while randomized field trial studies often find large and positive impacts of private schools.

The Impact of Private Schools on Quality in Developing Countries

  • 10 While UNESCO recommends an allocation of 6 % of GNP for education (UNESCO, EFA. 2013), 25 countries (...)

23The debate on the different effects of private and public schools initially focused on developed countries, but it has expanded to developing countries, with an emphasis on low-fee private schools. Given the substantial underinvestment10 in the public education sector by many states and the subsequent poor quality of public schools, private schools can be expected to provide a better quality of education. However, the evidence is mixed. The methodological problems encountered in studies undertaken in developed countries are further complicated by a lack of data on the true extent and diverse nature of private schools, as a large number of them are unregistered.

24As is the case in developed countries, the findings are contradictory. In many countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, low-fee private schools are found to outperform government schools in test scores (Jimenez et al., 1991; Andrabi et al., 2009; Bold et al., 2013). In India, several researchers find a significant positive private school impact on standardized test scores (Muralidharan & Kremer, 2006; Pal, 2010; French & Kingdon, 2010), while others find a small private school advantage (Goyal, 2009; Muralidharan & Sundararaman, 2013; Kumar et al., 2021) but at a substantially lower per-student cost.

25Conversely, several studies in India question the breadth and robustness of the private school advantage (Goyal & Pandey, 2009; Johnson & Bowles, 2010; Chudgar & Quin, 2012), showing that low-fee private schools do not always perform better than their government school counterparts. Singh (2013) finds that the raw differences in test scores between Indian children in private and government schools are substantially in favour of private school students in rural, but not urban, areas. Likewise, Chudgar & Quin (2012) find a larger private school advantage in rural than urban areas across India.

26Moreover, Singh (2013) concludes that much of the variation between school sectors seems to be a reflection of greater home investment and higher socioeconomic background. Similarly, Ashley et al. (2014) conclude, based on 21 studies, that “pupils attending private school tend to achieve better learning outcomes than pupils in state schools. However, it is important to note that most studies did not adequately account for social background differences of pupils, making it difficult to ascertain whether the achievement advantage may be attributed to the private schools or the social background of pupils.”

27Furthermore, where low-fee private schools yield better learning outcomes, it does not mean they are better per se: often, their students face far fewer disadvantages than students in government schools (UNESCO, EFA, 2013) due to substantial underinvestment by the state in the education sector as well as lower salaries in private schools, which enable them to hire more teachers and keep the pupil/teacher ratios low, unlike in public schools. Besides, the private school effect is often calculated relative to extremely low achievement levels in state schools, so that a possible advantage does not hint at the education quality in these schools, where many pupils barely reach expected competency levels.

28Overall, the academic literature on private and public performance in developed and developing countries published over more than three decades, although abundant, has not settled the debate clearly. The inconclusive nature of the research might be explained by a large number of factors, including the context dependency of the results, the difficulty with untangling the many variables involved, many of which are unobservable, the high sensitivity of models to the variables used, and more importantly, the lack of homogeneity in both education sectors. Ashley et al. (2014), for example, consider that given the heterogeneity of private schools across the developing world, the findings are difficult to interpret conclusively or generalise: there are examples of high- and under-performing schools in both sectors.

29Given the heterogeneity of the private sector and the inconclusive nature of any direct comparison between private and public schools with regard to quality, assessing the effects of the common characteristics of private schools on the quality of education may be a valuable alternative approach when it comes to evaluating whether or not private schools provide a better quality of education than public schools.

Assessing the Core Characteristics of Private Schools with Regard to Quality

  • 11 This dependence is strongest with for-profit schools. Yet, non for-profit schools also depend upon (...)

30Because they are heterogeneous, private schools can only be characterised by a few overall common features, namely their management autonomy and dependence on market mechanisms (the need to attract and retain pupils in order to survive11). Assessing these two features may be an effective approach to determining whether or not private schools provide a better quality of education than public schools in spite of the heterogeneity of the private sector.

Does School Autonomy Improve Education Quality?

31Autonomy consists in devolving greater control over the management of a school to its head teacher. It is a core feature of private schools, and many researchers, such as Chubb & Moe (1993), consider it to be the most influential factor in terms of education quality because it is easy for principals of autonomous schools to respond to the preferences expressed by families, which are considered to be driven by quality. To what extent is this assumption validated by empirical evidence?

32A substantial body of research known as school-based management (SBM) has developed over the past twenty years, focusing on the impact of school autonomy on pupils’ outcomes. After examining 83 empirical studies of school-based management, Leithwood & Menzies (1998) conclude that “the effects of SBM on students are just as likely to be negative as positive”. Similarly, Whitty et al. (1998) find that the characteristics of schools that foster achievement are not found more often in autonomous schools.

33This poor evidence has to do with the fact that SBM is an excessively all-embracing concept. Autonomy has many dimensions, one of them being areas of competency. These principally entail pedagogical organisation, staff management and the management of financial resources. In addition, according to a large body of research, the effects of autonomy on student outcomes vary depending on the area of competency examined.

34In Europe, autonomy appears to be positively related to better outcomes with respect to the recruitment of teachers (Woessmann, 2003) as well as the definition of curricula (OECD, 2013) and the choice of textbooks, provided that these decisions are taken collectively. In contrast, greater responsibility when it comes to defining teacher salaries (Fuchs & Woessmann, 2004) and managing resources appears to be negatively related to a school’s academic performance. However, the impact of autonomy on school academic performance depends closely on an interplay of factors, both internal and external.

35The relationship between school autonomy and academic performance is affected by whether there is a culture of collaboration between teachers and principals in the management of a school. In systems where teacher participation in school management is low, an average student who attends a school with greater autonomy in the allocation of resources tends to score lower in mathematics than a student who attends a school with less autonomy. This relationship is reversed in school systems where teacher participation in school management is high (OECD, 2013).

36The relationship between school autonomy and learning outcomes also interacts with the accountability arrangements of school systems. Schools with more autonomy to define and develop curricula tend to perform better than schools with less autonomy where the school system provides centralised exams that set clear objectives for what students are expected to learn (Woessmann, 2003), and uses accountability arrangements such as sharing information on the results of external examinations and assessments (OECD, 2013). These findings remain true in Latin America, as evidenced in Murillo’s (2007) analyses of 98 schools in 9 countries in the region. Similarly, Wohlstetter et al. (1997) find that the immediate external infrastructure is essential to school effectiveness: information, accountability and control systems enable schools to become self-improving entities that are better able to manage themselves effectively.

37Finally, the Swedish case shows that autonomy can only improve a school’s academic performance if there is a match between the responsibilities and capacities of local actors in terms of organisation, leadership and know-how (Blanchenay et al., 2014). In the 1990s, Sweden introduced a series of reforms into its education system, such as devolving responsibilities for primary and secondary education to local actors, encouraging the establishment of independent schools and fostering school choice. In 2012-2013, over 18% of primary schools and 62% of secondary schools were independent, compared to an education system that had been built almost exclusively around public schools until the 1990s. In the public sector, schools were given extensive autonomy to shape teaching content, materials and methods in order to reach the centrally-established objectives. In 2011, 47% of the decisions in lower public secondary education were taken at a school level, 35.5% at a municipal level and only 17.5% at a central level. This wide-ranging reform resulted in a steep decline in Sweden’s PISA scores between 2000 and 2012. One of the reasons for this decline is that many responsibilities have been shifted to local actors without being accompanied by corresponding levels of support for capacity-building.

38To sum up, autonomy has many dimensions, among which are areas of competency, and its effects on student outcomes depend on the area of competency being examined, as well as an interplay of internal and external factors. Autonomy does not in itself result in better student outcomes; it only works in a context of collaboration and accountability. This conclusion challenges the assumption that private schools are superior to public schools with respect to quality because of their greater autonomy.

Does Market Orientation Improve Education Quality?

  • 12 According to neoliberal rationale, families will exit low-performing private schools, thus prompti (...)

39One assumption underlying the advocacy of market-dependent private schools is that they will be prompted to provide better-quality education because family choices will increase incentives for schools to attract and retain students. However, parents do not always choose the best-performing school in their neighbourhood. Jacobs (2013) finds that in Washington D.C., the main determinant of parental choice is the proximity of a school. In research conducted in Santiago, Chile, only one in four parents chose the school with the best performance (Elacqua, 2009). Additionally, as compositional features are more visible than a school’s academic performance, parents use the socioeconomic or ethnic composition of the student body as indicators of school quality, often taking the view that schools that cater to pupils from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are better. As for the likelihood that parents will desert low-performing schools and thus contribute to the regulation of quality12, this is not corroborated by research such as Howell’s (2006), who finds that over 70% of parents whose child attends an underperforming school around Boston give the school a B, or even an A grade.

40With regard to the supply side, Levacic (2004) finds discrepancies between structural and subjective measures of competition in the United Kingdom: structural measures of competition – that is, the assessed degree of competition – are not related to improved educational performance, but the degree of competition perceived by the school principals is. This suggests that competition may have a positive impact on school improvement provided that incentives are perceived by the principals (OECD, 2012a). Furthermore, Wylie (2006) finds that in New Zealand, the level of competition experienced is related to the social composition of schools, with schools “in the middle” of local hierarchies experiencing the most competition. Belfield & Levin (2002) find that competition may need to exceed a certain threshold in order to bring about an effect. Competition between schools may therefore only have an effect in highly-concentrated markets such as urban areas.

41In London, a broader choice of primary schools was not found to be related to student performance (Gibbons et al., 2008), and neither was more competition among schools. Conversely, in the Netherlands, competition among primary schools was found to have a positive, albeit small, effect on student achievement (Noailly & alii., 2009). Finally, a cross-country analysis suggests that academic performance is unrelated to whether or not schools have to compete for students (PISA, 2014). It also finds the relationship between school choice and student performance to be weak. Within school systems, there is no performance difference between schools that compete with other schools for students and those that do not, after taking into account students’ socioeconomic status (PISA, 2014).

42Finally, a large body of research indicates that the impact of market mechanisms on student achievement is unstable across research methods, learning areas and categories of student. These mixed results suggest that education markets are essentially local and depend heavily on context. Their impact is related to other policies that affect parental choice behaviour, as well as actions taken by schools.

43These results support the conclusion that as with autonomy, market orientation does not in itself result in better outcomes, but depends heavily on a broader context, notably institutional. This conclusion challenges the assumption that private schools are superior to public schools because of the effectiveness they gain from market-based competition.

44Overall, the results of this approach, which consists in assessing the effects of private schools’ shared characteristics on education quality, autonomy and market orientation, are not much clearer than the direct comparison between school sectors. This inconclusiveness invites a reframing of the private-public issue with regard to education quality.

Reframing the Debate on the Differential Impact of Private Schools on the Quality of Education

45A comparison of the private and public sectors’ outcomes or an assessment of the core characteristics of private schools in order to determine the differential academic performance of public and private schools leads to inconclusive results. This challenges the very terms of the debate on whether or not private schools provide a better quality of education. It invites us to move beyond the private-public divide and to consider the factors that are most conducive to student achievement. The next step is to assess whether or not the factors identified as being conducive to student achievement are distributed unilaterally in either the public or the private sector. This will allow us to verify the validity of the assumption that the private-public divide is not relevant to the quality of education.

Moving beyond the Private-Public Divide

46The central issue relating to the quality of education may not be the differences between public and private schools, because the differences within the private and public sectors are clearer than those between them, and because factors that are closely connected to the learning process have more impact on pupil outcomes than those relating to school management.

47Firstly, a number of researchers find the differences within the private and public sectors to be more marked than those between the sectors. Baker et al. (1996) find considerable organisational variations among different types of U.S. private school and some significant similarities between public schools and some types of private school. For instance, compared to other private schools, Catholic schools often have more similarities with public schools.

48The uncertain boundaries between private and public schools are being further blurred by the reforms being implemented throughout the world to foster competition in education systems, including for public schools. School choice has become prevalent across OECD countries, and it is increasing by means of changing catchment areas in the public sector, establishing criteria for schools to select their students or making them more flexible and autonomous (Musset, 2012).

49Public schools are also tending to have a growing level of autonomy. Since the early 1980s, more decision-making responsibility and accountability have been devolved to school principals, and schools have become increasingly responsible for their curricula, as well as for managing their financial and material resources and staff. On a spectrum ranging from the ideal type of centralised bureaucracy at one end to the ideal type of exclusively market-based regulation at the other, private and public schools are distributed in between, with degrees of autonomy and/or market orientation that vary according to context. It is not unlikely that certain private schools have less autonomy or are less market-oriented than certain public ones.

50Secondly, asking the question of whether or not private schools perform better academically than public schools implies that the type of management (private versus public) is more important than classroom processes for learning. However, it is not the school structures themselves that teach children, and Wang et al. (1993) find that factors that are closely connected to the learning process have more impact on pupil outcomes than more remote factors such as the organisation and the management of the school.

51The crucial question may therefore not be whether private schools are more effective than public schools with regard to quality, and the distinction between public and private may not be the most relevant approach to the quality of education. Instead, the central issue may be to identify factors, such as the types of teaching and organisation, that are most conducive to learning.

Factors Conducive to Student Achievement

52The factors that are most conducive to learning, and thus to student achievement have been listed by researchers who have found a private school advantage and tried to explain it, as well as by the ‘school effectiveness research’ trend, which investigates the features of schools that make them more effective – that is, more likely to foster students’ academic outcomes.

53Most researchers assessing the differential impact of private and public schools on quality of education rely on quantitative models and establish correlations rather than causalities. However, some identify or presume factors that foster the quality of education. In their pioneering work, Coleman et al. (1982) attribute the greater effectiveness of Catholic schools to two series of factors: the values they hold and the school climate and sense of community. Subsequent research underlines a number of common features. Bryck et al. (1993) consider that curriculum, school ethos, peer interactions, pedagogy and a sense of community are responsible for the effectiveness of Catholic schools, whereas Goddard et al. (2000) and Bryk & Schneider (2002) find that strong relationships and shared beliefs within a school community can enhance teaching and learning. Lubienski et al. (2008) establish that the factors that are consistently associated with higher achievement include smaller class sizes, school climate, certain teacher practices and teacher certification.

54These results can be further enhanced by a large body of literature on school effectiveness, the findings from which converge on certain basic conclusions relating to the features of schools that are associated with better student outcomes. The so-called “five-factor model” (Edmonds, 1979), which was mainly developed out of empirical research on elementary schools, comprises sound educational leadership, a favourable school climate, achievement-oriented teachers with high expectations, considerable evaluative potential in the school and a high-quality curriculum.

55This set of factors can be clustered around two all-encompassing elements: school climate and teacher and teaching quality. If these factors that foster pupils’ achievement appear not to be distributed unilaterally across the public or private sector, it will confirm that the public-private divide is not relevant with regard to education quality.

Distribution of Factors Conducive to Students’ Achievement in the Private and Public Sectors

56The factors relating to school climate and to teacher and teaching quality, which have been identified as most conducive to students’ achievement, are to be found either in the private or in the public sector, according to which specific factor is being studied.

  • 13 Organ (1988) originally coined the term organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) and defined them (...)

57As regards school climate, many researchers, such as Phillips (1997), distinguish between the climate they call “academic press”, which is characterised by a quest for academic excellence, frequent evaluations of achievement and a demanding curriculum, and the communitarian climate, which emphasises social cohesion and is characterised by shared values and activities, a warm staff atmosphere, collaboration and collegial and democratic governance. Bryk et al. (1993) find from their longitudinal study of the Chicago school reforms that schools that make a difference work as professional communities of teachers. With regard to school climate, and more specifically to communitarian climate, the divide may lie less between private and public sectors than between types of rationality (Weber, 1921), namely instrumental rationality, which can be found in both public and private schools, and value-oriented rationality, which is mostly found in certain types of private school, such as religious schools, community schools or schools founded by philanthropical, philosophical or pedagogical movements. This may explain contradictory findings on school climate in studies where the public and private sectors are examined at an aggregate level. While Royal (1996) finds that U.S. private school teachers experience a stronger sense of community than their public school counterparts, Garg et al. (2006) find that in Indian public schools, the climate was better than in private schools and that teachers exhibited higher levels of organisational citizenship behaviours (OCBs)13 than those working in private schools.

58As for teacher and teaching quality, many private schools have similar pedagogical orientations to public schools, notably in many state-financed religious schools and for-profit schools. Levin (2002), for example, finds no substantial innovation in instruction by for-profit educational management organisations.

59In many private, especially low-fee, schools, the teachers have fewer qualifications and less experience, and receive lower salaries than teachers in public schools. High salaries are correlated with higher education quality: high-performing countries tend to pay teachers more relative to their per capita GDP (OECD, 2013), whereas lower salaries result in high teacher turnover in private schools, which is detrimental to student achievement (Ronfeld et al., 2013). Similarly, teacher qualifications – whether measured by content knowledge, experience, or training and credentials – are strongly related to student achievement.

60In contrast, teacher attendance and involvement tend to be higher in private than in public schools. This may be partially explained by the fact that public schools cater to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, which results in differences in school discipline and teachers’ working conditions, as well as different levels of parent and student assertiveness. One leading explanation for this public-private difference is the greater accountability to parents, greater teacher accountability to employers, more supervision and mentoring of new teachers and freedom to dismiss teachers for poor performance in private schools. Consequently, some researchers (Singh & Sarkar, 2012) claim that a robust and transparent teacher management system grounded on performance-based incentives must be implemented into the public sector, while others argue that these conditions of greater accountability must be balanced by support mechanisms such as supervision, and by mentoring and training programmes for teachers.

61To summarise, the research shows that the factors that foster pupils’ achievement are not distributed unilaterally across the public or private sector: a communitarian school climate and high teacher attendance and involvement are more likely to be found in private schools, while in public schools, teachers are better paid, better qualified and more experienced. This tends to confirm the need to move beyond the private-public divide with regard to education quality.


62The academic literature on the relative quality provided by private and public schools is inconclusive. The conclusions reached by the research depend on the specifications of the model adopted, and a slight change in the weighting of the selected variables can reverse the outcomes achieved. In addition, the private school advantage often disappears once student and peer attributes are controlled for. As regards the core characteristics of private schools – management autonomy and market orientation – they do not necessarily improve education quality. The relationship between school autonomy and pupils’ learning outcomes is affected by a series of factors, such as the degree of collaboration between teachers and principals and the accountability arrangements of school systems. The impact of market mechanisms on student achievement is unstable across research methods, learning areas and categories of students. As for the capacity to provide conditions that are conducive to education quality, it is not distributed exclusively within one school sector. Furthermore, there is no strict determinism between school types and the capacity to foster conditions that are conducive to education quality, especially since the boundaries between the sectors become increasingly blurred, and certain operating modes may be transposed across sectors.

63The crucial question, therefore, is not whether schools are public or private but rather what operating and organisational modes are to be implemented as the most conducive to educational quality. It is necessary to move beyond a polemical focus on the private or public provision of education and to concentrate on the questions of quality and equity, and the role the state plays in ensuring them.

64As education systems are complex systems characterised by multi-dimensionality, non-linearity and interconnectedness, the state needs to provide a systemic long-term strategic vision, as well as a coherent framework with an enforcement mechanism for national goals. To be a guarantor of the quality of education, the state must set a national accountability system, such as qualification standards that apply to all schools, national exams and a core curriculum (part of which may be defined locally). The state must also bolster accountability systems in public schools. However, this accountability framework can only be effective if schools are provided with guidance on setting priorities and have the tools, incentives and capacity to use data and feedback to improve their practice, as well as the internal culture to implement collaborative decision-making.

  • 14 There is large body of literature related to this issue, notably Giband & alii. (2020), Body & Lang (...)

65That said, the public-private divide, which is secondary to the quality of education, is crucial when it comes to equity. A large body of literature shows that equity, which is an essential dimension of education that is often overlooked by the proponents of private schools, is largely undermined by private sector development, whether in primary, secondary or tertiary education14. Therefore, decisions concerning the private sector and how extensive it is must be made in the light of the issue of equity and social cohesion.

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1 After decades of state intervention in Western economies following the 1929 Great Depression, the dominant paradigm in economics shifted from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism in the early eighties. This shift is famously associated with the economic policies introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom in 1979 and by Ronald Reagan in the United States. In 1980 It is generally referred to as the “neoliberal counter-revolution”, the “liberal revolution” or the “conservative counter-revolution”.

2 Source: UIS Database. This database relies on school censuses or surveys provided by each country. The percentage of private enrolment is the total number of students enrolled in institutions that are not operated by a public authority but controlled and managed by a private body such as a non-governmental organisation, a religious body, a special interest group, a foundation or a business enterprise. The limitation of this definition is that in countries where private institutions are substantially subsidised or aided by the government, the distinction between private and public educational institutions may be less clear-cut. The fact that some religious or private schools are neither registered with the government nor follow the national curriculum may also result in their not being included in official statistics.

3 OECD (2012b). “The long-term economic advantage to individuals with a tertiary education is about twice as large as the advantage for people with an upper secondary education as their highest educational level, on average across OECD countries.” Feinstein et al. (2004): “Education boosts individuals’ productivity and wages. A year of extra schooling increases earnings by around 5-10 per cent.” In Tanzania, Mtey & al. (2013) establish a link between education and poverty reduction while in the United Kingdom, Sabates (2008) finds important health benefits from adult learning.

4 UNESCO, EFA (2015). “In many contexts, parental preferences have increased demand for private schools. This may be due to perceptions of their higher quality, closer proximity to the household and the connotation of higher social status” (Joshi, 2014).

5 The education sector is considered to be a new emerging market and an untapped new opportunity. In 2011, for instance, the top 20 education multinationals were worth a combined $36 billion.

6 Another essential issue relating to the development of private schools is social justice.

7 School effectiveness refers to the degree to which a school is successful at producing high levels of student achievement, whereas efficiency is the relationship between how much progress pupils make at the school and how much income the school receives.

8 These standardized tests include the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Scholastic

Aptitude Test (SAT) in the United States, and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which

is conducted worldwide by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

9 Some studies use a broader approach to education quality that notably entails non-cognitive skills. However, multidimensional social interaction approaches to quality are not considered, given the numerous methodological challenges they pose.

10 While UNESCO recommends an allocation of 6 % of GNP for education (UNESCO, EFA. 2013), 25 countries spent less than 3 % of GNP on education in 2010 (UNESCO, EFA, 2013) and 21 developing countries spent more on the military than on education (UNESCO, 2011). In South Asia, Srivastava (2014) finds a steady decline in the already low levels of education expenditure in Bangladesh post-2007, Pakistan post-2008, and Sri Lanka post-2009, with average public expenditures around 2 % of GDP. From 2000 to 2010, India’s public expenditure has decreased from 4.2 to 3.2 % of GDP despite a macro-economic growth of 4 to 5 % a year. Srivastava further argues that international agencies and domestic governments (including India’s) use the argument of scarce resources to mobilize increased action from private non-state actors in elementary education.

11 This dependence is strongest with for-profit schools. Yet, non for-profit schools also depend upon market mechanisms, be it directly, through the schooling fees they charge to families, or indirectly when they are funded by the state according to the number of pupils. Schools run by NGO or philanthropic movements and financed by donors may to a large extent be considered an exception to this market dependence.

12 According to neoliberal rationale, families will exit low-performing private schools, thus prompting them to improve the quality of education they provide in order to retain their pupils and to survive.

13 Organ (1988) originally coined the term organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) and defined them as: “individual behavior that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system, and that in the aggregate promotes the effective functioning of the organization.”

14 There is large body of literature related to this issue, notably Giband & alii. (2020), Body & Lange (2022), Bergeron (2022), Joshi (2020), Kosunen & alii. (2020) for primary and secondary education, Gérard (2023) for tertiary education.

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Barbara Daviet, « Do Private Schools Provide a Better Quality of Education? Beyond the Private – Public Divide. A literature review 1981-2022 »Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs [En ligne], 22 | 2023, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2023, consulté le 27 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Barbara Daviet

PhD candidate, Université Paris Cité, Centre Population et Développement (CEPED).

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