Development Education

Can the expansion of private schooling in developing countries serve to improve access, efficiency, quality and equity in basic education? The case of primary education in South Sudan

Originally posted on June 21, 2021 @ 7:03 pm


The focus of this essay will be on the role of private actors in primary education in the Republic of South Sudan (South Sudan). This paper seeks to discuss how the expansion of private schooling, specifically the role of so-called low fee private schools, can serve to improve access, efficiency, quality, and equity to primary education in South Sudan, in the context of education for all (EFA). Low fee or cost private schools (LCPS) catering for basic education have grown in number in a variety of low-income contexts over recent years and data evaluating impact of these schools is agnostic. The concept of low-fee vs low-cost private schools is contentious (Day Ashley et al 2014), however in this essay I use the definition given by Verger et al(2018), “private schools that have been set up and owned by an individual or group of individuals for the purpose of making a profit and are supposed to be ‘affordable’ for low-income families” (pp 256). There continues to be debate about these institutions and the role they can play in development with one side claiming that they can improve access and quality and the other concerned with issues of equity. They may also not be the most efficient way of providing education for all. This essay aims to analyse the role that LCPS can play in the fragile state of South Sudan through the lenses of key economics of education principles. A fragile state can be defined as “lack[ing] political will and/or capacity to provide the basic functions needed for poverty reduction, development and to safeguard the security and human rights of their populations. (OECD 2007, page 2). A fragile state provides an interesting case study for these economic concepts because of the inherent lack of government capacity to regulate markets and an extreme scarcity of resources will make it challenging to implement a nationalized education system.

This essay is organised as follows: in the first three sections I present a discussion of the relevant economic theory and its application to low-income contexts before moving on in section four to review the application of these theories specifically in South Sudan. I argue that private schools are an important ally for low-income governments to expand access to education, but their role needs to be carefully planned to ensure issues of citizenship and developing social cohesion are considered, alongside issues of equity of access and quality. Private education gives flexibility to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of communities through consumer choice. Private education may help overcome geographic and structural difficulties through market competition.

Section 1: Human Capital Theory and Education Investment

The relationship between education and the economy was first recognized as early as Adam Smith (1776) but it was not until Shultz (1961) and Becker (1964) that it was first formalized through their human capital theory (HCT). This theory positioned education as a form of growth for an economy as opposed to a consumption and has been the major justification for the investment in education systems of developing nations by external donors. Notable in this regard is the World Bank that oversees the human capital project and produces the human capital index (World Bank 2021a).

HCT justifies individual and societal investment in education by assuming that human skills, knowledge, and their development through education are all directly linked to economic productivity. If we accept this assumption, it follows that by increasing the level of education that any individual has, we can raise the education level of the population on average and therefore increase the productivity of an economy and allow it to grow. Education can bring both monetary and non-monetary benefits to individuals and society which can be partially measured through the estimation of rates of return. Amongst policy makers working in low-income contexts, HCT has justified concerns about making quality education of all levels accessible to individuals within any developing country. Once we agree that investment in education is essential for the development of a low-income economy, we then must agree whether this investment is best realized through government spending or through private markets.

Orthodox, neo-classical economics views individuals and markets as superior to government and regulation (Alcott 2021, Chang 2011). This view argues that individuals and markets lead to improvements in quality, efficiency, and equity far superior to any provided by the government. This is because individuals are supposedly rational and assumed to hold a high degree of knowledge about what is best for them to maximise their utility. In this way, markets are thought to be more responsive and flexible to the needs of the individual as opposed to the government. This responsiveness is theoretically due to the accountability of the market. Those actors in the market who are not responsive to demands of the consumer will lose out. In this way the market reflects Darwinian principles of natural selection (ibid). In addition to this view, Public Choice Theory (Buchanan & Tullock 1962) suggests that all elements of government action are made by self-interested actors creating a principal-agent problem. Public Choice Theory argues that governments cannot really provide anything for society because parties and politicians are self-interested and following their own interests in pursuing policies. Thus, from this view, an ideal society is one where people can make as many decisions for themselves as possible through markets. Finally, if we accept that individual citizens reap the greatest benefits from investment in their education, then there is a case that they should be the ones to pay for it through private markets. According to neoliberal economic principles this use of private markets for education would have the added benefit of driving up quality.

Arguments that favour government production of education justify it for several reasons discussed in this essay. Firstly, education brings benefits or returns to wider society, not just the individual. These societal benefits of education are described as “externalities” (Oketch 2021a), “neighbourhood effects” (Friedman 1962) or “semi-public goods” (Sen 1999) and can be monetary as well as non-monetary. Non-monetary societal returns have been suggested to include reductions in fertility and mortality rates, the avoidance of natural disasters like famines, and greater democratic participation (Sen 1999). Secondly, it may be more efficient for the government to provide education because of deviations from the first best economy model (Barr 2020). Finally, government provision of education is justified because education is a fundamental human right, and governments are best placed to ensure all their citizens can access it.

Despite these theoretical considerations, in low-income contexts there may be many barriers to effective government provision of education. These are documented by Tooley (2009) and include reasons, like graft, unmotivated teachers, and language barriers between teachers and students in poly-lingual societies. Finance is often an issue for the governments of low-income countries with data from UNESCO showing that in Sub-Saharan Africa alone 16 countries spend less than the UNESCO recommended 4% of their GDP on education (UNESCO 2021). South Sudan ranks the lowest among East African countries, currently spending less than 1% of GDP on public education investment (UNICEF 2019). Further to these concerns, in a fragile state like South Sudan a top-down national education system may not be the most efficient way to organise the system, because inter-group and intra-group trust may be lacking after a civil war. An important final consideration is that different ethnic groups may have different linguistic needs which may reduce the efficiency of a national education system if it takes a one-size-fits all approach.

Section 2: Access and Quality through Choice and Competition

If education returns benefits to wider society, then ensuring access to quality education for all citizens is of consequence to the development of that society. This access can be provided through private markets or through government intervention. Even neoliberal writers who argued for free markets also argued for some government intervention in education. Writing in 1962, Milton Friedman referred to the societal non-monetary returns to education as “neighbourhood effects”. For Friedman these effects are one of two major reasons why government should intervene in education, the other being paternalistic care for irresponsible individuals (children). Friedman recognises that government intervention is important: “A stable and democratic society is impossible without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens and without widespread acceptance of some set of values. Education can contribute to both. In consequence, the gain from the education of a child accrues not only to the child or to his parents but also to other members of the society…” (Friedman 1962 pp 86). Even this simple recognition that education promotes a stable society is enough for us to consider the role that government should play in education.

            Ultimately however, Friedman (ibid) favours as large a role as possible in the market for private schools, and as limited role for government as possible. For Friedman the ability of users to exert choice through the marketplace, away from government intervention is the ultimate expression of democratic values and freedom. Friedman uses the word freedom to focus on freedom of choice and economic freedom primarily as opposed to wider freedoms expressed by writers like Sen (1999). Friedman suggests that general education for citizenship, literacy and numeracy should be government supported but what he terms “vocational training” should not be supported by the government because it renders most returns to the individual. For Friedman (1962) governments should limit themselves to ensuring access to basic education that provides a stable society through literacy and citizenship education. It is unclear what exactly he means by vocational training initially although he provides some clarity later with the reference to dentists and beauticians. Friedman argues that parents should not be forced to pay for education if they cannot afford it as their children are not an asset that they can rid themselves of unlike a car (or a flatscreen TV). He makes a good case for social responsibility and argues that one of the reasons family sizes can remain large is that people do not always take financial responsibility for the education of their children. Friedman (ibid) argues that government involvement in education should be limited to the imposition of minimum levels of education by law (to ensure basic and citizenship education) and the financing of primary and secondary education (through vouchers to allow market mechanisms to work). He argues against the nationalising of the education industry.

There are two major tensions highlighted in Friedman’s writing. Firstly, we value independence from government in education for a free-thinking society to exist, but we value government controls for citizenship education to ensure a stable society. Secondly, there is an apparent tension with HCT as Friedman claims that there are no externalities of vocational or professional training and that all benefit is accrued by the individual. He uses this argument to justify removing government funding for higher education. However, HCT argues that improving educational levels through tertiary education improves the growth of an economy generally and some authors argue that the returns to society from higher education are greater than those for primary or secondary (Patrinos 2016). I do not think Friedman’s assertions about vocational training are supported by evidence as more recent quantitative studies in the field fail to concur.

Friedman’s theories of economic organisation were developed in the context of a high income, stable, monolingual educated society, with a functioning government able to provide funding to education and are informed by a culture of liberalism. His proposals assume a market with no imperfections, discussed below. For now, I just want to highlight that most citizens cannot easily relocate and take their vouchers to whatever school they choose for their children.

 These assumptions mean that the application of Friedman’s thinking to low-income contexts some of which may be polylingual and unstable, with lower levels of education in the general population needs careful consideration. Härmä (2020) argues that even so called LCPS in low-income contexts can still be too expensive for many of the poorest children to attend. The fees are low to outside observers but not necessarily those members of the community that need access to education. If this is generally the case, then private schools may reduce access to education. For Härmä (ibid) because education is a basic human right, it cannot be left up to the private market in low-income contexts because many families would still be unable to enrol. Tooley (2009) argues that LCPS will sometimes increase access. Studying LCPS in Lagos, he found that many parents living in slums would send children to LCPS because the walk to a government school was too dangerous. Supporting this Pinnock (2013) found, despite the cost, that families use private schools because government schools are considered low quality, and other authors have found that LCPS increase access as they are found in areas where there are no government schools (Andrabi et al 2008). The case for LCPS increasing access in the absence of suitable government schools is very strong.

Section 3: Efficiency and Equity Considerations

While ensuring access to a quality education is important for development, resources (financial, human and material) are scarce and not equally available. The concepts of economic efficiency and equity help us consider how best to allocate and distribute those resources. Economic efficiency is concerned with the input of given resources into a system and the outputs achieved from those inputs. Equity is concerned with the distribution of those resources. In this section I will focus on the concepts of efficiency followed by equity in low-income contexts generally before applying them to the case of South Sudan in the next section.

Economic efficiency is concerned with the optimal allocation of scarce resources given peoples tastes (Barr 2020). Lockheed & Hanushek (1994) write that efficient systems are ones that obtain more outputs for given inputs or a comparable level of output for fewer inputs. In low-income contexts the most efficient system is one that will get more children into primary education for the same amount of funding. From this perspective, a country must be concerned with increasing access to education before considering quality. “For a country that does not have universal primary education, expanding exposure – almost regardless of quality considerations – is likely to be an appealing policy. But once general exposure, which can be justified on equity grounds, is reached, educational policies switch from purely quantity to considerations of differential quality.” (ibid). In other words, the primary focus of the education system, at least at first, in a developing country must be concerned with getting “general exposure” or as many children enrolled in school as possible. Once steps to achieve this are underway then concerns with quality become more important. Therefore, in terms of the allocation of scarce financial resources, we should aim to maximise the number of children enrolled in school for every dollar spent.

This maximisation of education is described as productive efficiency and as discussed by Oketch (2021a), is only one part of the economic efficiency concept. The second part is allocative efficiency which is concerned with how well resources are allocated across communities. And the final part is pareto efficiency which occurs when it is impossible to make one party better off without making someone worse off. In society we want to maximise pareto efficiency to ensure that the economy is as efficient as possible. In terms of the free-market, trades are efficient only when they better one party without compromising another party. A totally efficient economy is maximised when as many efficient trades as possible are made. For education this means ensuring that the production and allocation of education resources to one sector of society does not make another sector disadvantaged. It is not efficient to educate some at the expense of others.

When the market economy delivers an outcome that does not maximise efficiency in this sense there is a market failure. In the prior section we examined arguments in favour of a free market in education, where private providers can compete in the market and consumers can choose which provider to use. This could improve access and quality even in low-income contexts according to Tooley (2009). We will now consider whether it is economically efficient to rely on private markets considering market failure. Market failure would mean that a society does not reap the maximum social returns to investment in education.

Education markets can fail for a variety of reasons. One of these is information failure. Oketch (2021a) and Lockheed and Hanushek (1994) claim that poor illiterate parents are unable to choose a quality school, that these families may not be able to discern a quality educational product from another. “illiterate parents in developing countries are likely to send their children to schools having few material resources and poorly educated teachers” (Lockheed & Hanushek 1994). However, I think this characterization is weak. Tooley (2009) makes a compelling case that parents can tell when their children are learning nothing, citing this as a reason for parents choosing LCPS over government schools. It could also be argued that educated wealthy parents fail to make a good choice in schools as they can be swayed by marketing and fads, or their own experiences of schooling. The point is that parents may not always know what works, but they can tell when their children are making progress. They know when their child is learning to read, write and use numbers. It could be argued that in the education marketplace it is very hard to gain this information until your child attends a school. Since moving is school is not necessarily as easy as Friedman (1962) assumes and the results of which can have negative impacts on learning (Hattie 2008). Informational failures can occur in education markets even if multiple school providers exist in a community. Parents cannot always simply put their children in another school. Schools are often selected based on proximity to home, as Tooley (2009) shows in his work in Lagos and families are restricted by distance, dangers and transport making free choice in the market problematic.

Another reason for market failures in education markets is credit failure. This means that not all consumers can access the funds needed to access private schooling for their children. This could be particularly important in low-income contexts where the choice to send a child to school can mean a loss of income for the family. Parents have no collateral to gain credit and are unable to borrow money against the latent future earnings of their child. This may restrict their ability to from gain access to schooling from private providers.

Externalities, information, and credit failures are imperfections in the market. Taken together they are all examples of deviations from what Barr (2020) describes as the model of the first best economy: an idealised model state under which the market can allocate resources efficiently. Imperfections in the market move us to the model of the second-best economy which justifies some form of government intervention in the form of: Regulation; Finance; Production; Income Transfers (taxation). The choice of which will depend on context.

Equity, or the distribution of resources, is another reason for government intervention (Oketch 2021b). Equity is the fairness with which resources are distributed between individuals or groups. Here the government redistributes resources, shifting resources from some groups to others. This is needed to achieve pareto-efficiency. In this sense, equity can be seen as a form of efficiency. For example, if education is paid for entirely through private markets without government intervention, then those whose parents earn the most will get the most by accident of birth. This would be inefficient as discussed above but also not equitable. Thus, efficiency in this case this would mean ensuring that the access to quality education is evenly distributed.

In low-income contexts, EFA in primary education has been shown to increases access in terms of enrolment but reduce quality as more children place increased strain on the capacity of teachers to teach. The outcome of this is that more children are educated but to a lower quality (Inoue & Oketch, 2008). Specifically, EFA has increased equity but reduced efficiency and quality in Malawi (Inoue & Oketch, 2008). This highlights the need to consider equity of procedure and distribution, as well as efficiency when it comes to government provision of primary education in South Sudan.

When considering the scarcity of finance, we may have a trade-off between equity and efficiency. Cunha and Heckman (2007) note how there is a trade-off for the timing of investment in education. In terms of primary education in low-income contexts, where there may be polylingual ethnically diverse groups, there may be a trade-off between the distribution of access to education for different groups and the efficiency of providing access to education to those groups. Private markets funded by government vouchers may help to alleviate this problem.

Section 4: South Sudan

So far, we have discussed the key economic principles and their application to low-income contexts. I now move on to apply these concepts to South Sudan. Totally landlocked, South Sudan is a sub-Saharan African state that borders Sudan to the North, Ethiopia to the East, Uganda, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the South and the Central African Republic to the West. It was announced as the world’s newest country in 2011 but the birth of South Sudan has been difficult. Within two years, the country was plunged into its own civil war, after tribal groups, once united against the central government of Sudan, fought each other for control of the new country. This internal war lasted from 2013 until 2020 and left 400,000 dead (Checchi et al 2018). South Sudan is composed of 10 states, 60 indigenous ethnic groups and 80 linguistic partitions (UN 2021) and this diversity and distrust amongst groups has been a key driver of conflict. In addition to this recent endemic ethnic conflict, the country poses some extremely challenging terrain and suffers from flooding and a lack of infrastructure, and which leaves almost 60% of the country inaccessible for much of the year. 82% of the 11 million population is defined as living in poverty and the gross national income (GNI) is around 1090 USD (World Bank 2021b). All these factors have contributed to South Sudan been classified as a fragile state. In 2020 South Sudan ranked 3rd on the Fragile States Index with a composite score of 110 out of 120 across the indicators (Fragile States Index 2021).

South Sudan suffers from an unusually severe educational situation (Global Partnership for Education 2012) with an adult literacy rate of around 27% and enrolment rates of 73% for primary and 11% for Secondary (World Bank 2021b). Resources for schools are stretched with learning materials and trained teachers being in short supply. This unique mix of challenges: lack of trust between ethnic groups and conflict, poor infrastructure, lack of material and human resources, linguistic, cultural, and geographic diversity, and limited finances present severe problems for a national government in South Sudan in the top-down implementation of a public school system.

The role of the government in South Sudan to achieve EFA is currently limited by the reasons outlined above. In this scenario it may be helpful to consider the role that providers of private education may play in helping citizens of South Sudan achieve equitable access to quality education that is efficient in terms of the allocation of scarce financial resources. The ideal state is to have a fully funded government primary education system that caters for the needs of all communities. However, at present there is a significant challenge to developing this system. Below I offer some suggestions on ways to achieve this, starting with supported private schooling that can be slowly replaced by government schooling over time.

In terms of education markets in South Sudan, there are several major concerns which need to be considered. Firstly, linguistic diversity which provides a challenge of access to the curriculum and thus quality of learning. Secondly, recent conflict which has left many children out of school (UN 2021), and thirdly lack of shared citizenship means that many different ethnic groups do not identify with each other’s common values of what it means to be a South Sudanese citizen. Education can be a powerful force for developing a national identity (Bereketeab 2020) and an understanding amongst divergent groups of shared South Sudanese cultural values, while different cultural identities can be also be respected. It may well be that private education markets within communities provide an initial solution to this problem as they provide an alternative to state-controlled top-down government-imposed education for all, which may be distrusted by some groups. Private actors providing education within communities may be more trusted, especially if the providers are managed by individuals from the community as they may offer an alternative to any apparent government agenda. Mechanisms should be put in place to support the development of education markets in areas of linguistic and cultural diversity, but government support as capacity grows will be essential to ensure that all children are able to access these opportunities.

One mechanism could be a voucher scheme funded by the government or NGOs helping families access schools in their local area. This would need to be backed up by incentives for families to send their children to school. Some families may lose income with their children attending school or they may not trust the individuals providing the schooling following on from events in the recent conflict. Parents will need to feel secure in entrusting their children to other adults. Providing the education will not be enough to overcome these barriers until trust is built and the benefits of education can be widely felt.

Another mechanism could be micro finance loans used to help entrepreneurs start schools in their local communities where none currently exist. This added to incentives for parents to let their children attend school and vouchers to support the costs of schooling could be combined to kick start education projects specific to the needs of diverse communities. These mechanisms could be regulated by the loan providers to prevent monopolisation of the education market which would create further imperfections.

A second benefit here is that there is the potential for children to be educated in their mother tongue at least at primary level. Learning in one’s mother tongue is essential in the early years of education (Taylor-Leech 2013) because without this provision children struggle to access the curriculum and make learning gains. This can mean that children who cannot access the learning can quickly fall behind children who can, and these learning losses will only be compounded with time. Studies like Young Lives have shown that many children in low-income contexts have learning levels below the grade they are currently enrolled in. This learning gap will get larger with time (Oketch et al 2020).

Private markets could improve access both in terms of enrolment, if it allows communities to overcome distrust and encourage families to enrol in schools, and in terms of linguistic access to curriculum if teaching can be delivered in students mother tongue. This would also improve the quality of learning, as more children would be able to make learning gains by accessing the curriculum more easily. In larger communities consumer choice and competition should allow for the maintenance of quality as consumers should be able to go elsewhere. Finally, private schools do not have to be for profit, they can be run as socially motivated schools (Pal & Saha, 2019), this could bring the costs of attendance down further, although there may be less incentives to establish schools in the first place. Education is important for securing citizenship values, but the challenge remains of uniting diverse groups. Anderson’s (2016) study of nationalism suggests that one way to achieve this could be through centrally administered higher education institutions that allow individuals who have been schooled in their own communities to meet and together develop a shared understanding of what it means to be South Sudanese, like the model adopted in Eritrea (Bereketeab 2020).


This essay set out to answer the question: can the expansion of private schooling in South Sudan serve to improve access, efficiency, quality, and equity in basic education? It is argued that it can, at least initially. While the government is currently unable to provide access to education, private markets should be encouraged for the societal returns of education to be realised. These returns to creating a stable society based on common shared values need to be prioritised.

Properly supported through vouchers and loans, families can make choices in the marketplace which will award some level of quality to the education received. The challenge is to ensure efficiency and equity. As the government becomes financially solvent and stable it can begin the process of producing education and replace the private markets. Clearly, as described above, in South Sudan we have a scarcity not just of schools as resources for learning but also finance to fund education. It may be more efficient to simply finance as opposed to build schools and supply teachers who may not speak the same language as the communities they serve. There will be high costs of production in terms of the materials needed to build schools and train teachers needed in different languages which will reduce the rate of return. These principles of productive efficiency would suggest that encouraging grass roots education initiatives in communities would get maximum education output for inputs.

If productive efficiency can be improved and consumption of education is improved, then we also improve allocative efficiency. This system would be a pareto improvement because all individuals would have a better chance of accessing education. A government-imposed system with a single national language as the method of instruction may advantage some groups over others, this would not be a pareto improvement, quite the opposite.

To avoid market imperfections and market failures the government would need to ensure that all schools are accessible and help parents financially to place their children in school. This can be done through vouchers for families and encouraging entrepreneurship to set up community schools. These do not need to be run for profit. Private schooling can overcome both issues if embedded in communities and provided by members of those communities. Private schooling does not need to be exclusive if the government can find methods to finance for all.


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