The UK’s support of the growth of private education through its development aid

October 2015

Private actors are playing an increasing role in education in a number of countries worldwide andin particular in developing countries. The growth of private schools, including the emergence and rapid expansion of so-called “low-fee” private schools that target relatively poor populations, has led to a de facto privatisation of education systems in these countries over the past 15 years. More recently, some school models, in particular for-profit low fee private schools are being actively supported by States.

While international human rights law recognises a role for private actors in education and the liberty of parents or guardians to choose the education of their choice for their children, this liberty should not be exercised in violation of human rights. Thus far, research on the human rights implications of the growth of private actors has demonstrated that in some instances this trend may have negative impacts on the right to education. Privatisation in education may create and further entrench inequalities to the detriment of the most marginalised groups and lead to segregation in communities while not delivering on quality education. In most cases, parents are forced to send their children to private schools due to the failure of the public education system. The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, UN human rights treaty bodies and the UN Human Rights Council have repeatedly raised concerns on these issues.

Against this background, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) has, in recent years,supported the expansion of private actors in education in a number of developing countries, including Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya. Theseare countries where specific research has been carried out and alternative reports already submitted to the Committee on the Right of the Child, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Committee on the Elimination of Discriminations Against Women, as well as to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In this context, while the UK remains one of the most important donors contributing to the implementation of the right to education worldwide, this report highlights the country’s increased support for the development of private education. In particular, this report examines the UK’s support to for-profit low-fee private schools, such as Bridge International Academies and Omega Schools. It questions the role and responsibilities of the UK in light of its extraterritorial obligations in relation to human rights.

The report finds that the UK’s policies in support ofprivate education through its development aid are problematic and that the country could be violating its extra-territorial obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in two regards:

  • Firstly, the UK’s support for for-profit, fee-charging private schools that do not reach the poorestis questioned in light of the UK’s obligations to fulfil the right to education, including the right to free quality education without discrimination;
  • Secondly, the UK’s responsibility is questioned in particular in relation to its own impact assessments that have been conducted on its policies of providing support to private schools and which have concluded that projects supporting private education providers are less likely to target the most marginalised, and that more research needs to be carried out on the impact of private schools in developing countries on, among other elements, the efficiency of “low-fee” private schools.
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