Can the private sector deliver quality public education in Nigeria?

Nigeria is a fresh target of Bridge International, a global chain, whose schools have been shut down in Kenya and Uganda for violating their national laws.

Image: Wasi Daniju (via Flickr)

The greatest challenge facing Nigeria is rebuilding high-quality education for a future with jobs and opportunities for all its citizens. In 1973, a National Pledge guaranteed every child born from the end of the country’s civil war, compulsory free, quality primary education. It was later extended to encompass nine years basic schooling.

However, these promises have repeatedly been broken. In response, the private sector now promotes fee charging schools for elites, middle classes and the poor throughout Nigeria. The United Nations’ “Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on Quality Education” sets a target for free quality schooling for all children by 2030. Will the private sector support Nigeria’s historic promises?

Currently, about 18,000 private schools operate in Lagos, a 50% increase since 2011. This expansion of private schools has been supported by aid money. In 2014 the Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom paid £3.45 million to Bridge International Academies (BIA), a global chain of private education facilities which aims to deliver education services for the poor, facilitating their entry into  Lagos.


Public development assistance to for-profit schooling

Nigeria is just one of the targets of Bridge, whose facilities have been shut down in Kenya and Uganda for violating their national laws. Uganda’s high court recently determined that the Bridge set out to operate illegally, with blatant disregard for minimum standards required by law.


In Lagos, however, where an extensive private school sector has burgeoned since the 1980s, and where DFID is funding the DEEPEN (Developing Effective Private Education in Nigeria) program to support low cost private schools and advocate for less regulation, the climate may have been ripe for the BIA model.

Whether low cost private schools in general and BIA in particular support Nigeria’s historic promises on education require investigation. We recently completed a study which looked at public schools and low cost private schools, including BIA, in three Lagos neighborhoods.  

Whether low cost private schools in general and BIA in particular support Nigeria’s historic promises on education require investigation. We recently completed a study which looked at public schools and low cost private schools, including BIA, in three Lagos neighborhoods.  

Higher cost, harsher penalties


Our study found that in contrast to tuition-free state schools in Lagos, BIA charges range from 16,000-18,000 Naira (N) for new entrants and then around 11,000N per term for tuition at primary level, excluding uniform and other fees. A family in Lagos  reliant on one wage earner bringing home a minimum monthly wage would make 216,000N per year. The annual school fee for a single child attending a BIA school would thus represent 23% of such a family’s income, leaving scant resources for food, rent, clothing or transport. Further, a 2014 Lagos poverty report found that over 50% of people living in Lagos are unable to even feed themselves and their families due to lack of money.


This is much higher than the other private providers we spoke to, who were charging between 3,000N and 5,000 N per term. Non-payment of fees at BIA schools is also more harshly dealt with than in other low cost private schools. At BIA schools, non-paying children are separated from classmates and labelled as “NAIC” (Not Allowed In Class). They may not sit exams or take home report cards. Other low cost providers were more flexible, stating that in cases where parents had financial difficulties they extended credit and a flexible fee structure.


Our structured observations of children regarding uniforms, school bags, and whether or not children walked to school or were accompanied by an adult with transport (motorbike or car), showed children attending BIA schools are not the poorest in their neighborhoods.

In terms of education and training, teachers in state schools had the highest level of qualification. All had formal teaching qualifications and some form of in-service training.


BIA prides itself on employing teachers without recognized teaching qualifications and instead provides a three-week training course in BIA methods.


In other low cost private schools the situation is not much better. High school graduates with minimal training are employed. This goes against the Lagos State Minimum regulations which requires that all teachers in public and private schools have the requisite academic or professional qualifications.  


The hiring of unqualified teaching staff has an impact on teacher salaries. In public schools teacher salaries start at 52,000 N. For BIA schools, we were told that teachers earn just above the Lagos minimum wage (which is 18,000 NGN per month), are required to work long hours and are not allowed to join a trade union.  

In the state schools, we found teachers views on quality were associated with child centered teaching and learning. One head teacher said:

Quality education is all encompassing: quality teachers and right teaching method and willing students and government and parental support delivers quality education.

In the low cost private schools, and particularly at BIA, the definition of quality education stressed narrow learning outcomes, access to work and what parents were paying for.

Public school teachers were more aware of inequalities and poverty than those in private schools. They mentioned the need to provide free school meals to help children learn, whatever their background, and to think about the diversity of languages spoken (on the latter, in an average school in Lagos, at least four languages would be spoken). None of the BIA teachers interviewed mentioned poverty or had reflected on issues around inequalities.

In 2016, the Ministry of Education in Lagos State (each of Nigeria’s 36 states has its own education ministry) changed guidelines to include more flexible regulations to be applied to community/low income private schools “with a view to providing access to education for children living within the community and children of low income earners.”  The revised regulations require classrooms to be “spacious and not inimical to total growth,” but regulations do not require a particular culture of learning and teaching linking quality and equalities or support for the poorest. This suggests weakening oversight of quality. In state schools there was a strong sense of accountability to the Local Government Education Authority (LGEA) and regulations administered by the Lagos state government. Schools are regularly visited and audited. In the private schools, there was limited knowledge of accountability structures. Only occasional visits from a health inspector were mentioned. BIA teachers had a strong sense of responsiveness to fee paying parents whose children attended the school, but spoke less about education provision for all children in Lagos.  

Teachers in public schools in Nigeria are often derided for failing to provide quality education, but we found teachers in these schools more oriented towards quality and equality and more in tune with the vision outlined in national and local policy, and  the SDG 4 framework than those working in the expanding private sector. Our study highlights that private schools in Lagos are linked with reductions in aspects of quality and equalities -charging fees to poor children, employing teachers with inadequate qualifications and support. BIA and other low cost providers are providing education that is below the minimum standards with regard to teacher qualification required in Lagos State for quality education and, aid money to BIA is implicated in this.   

About the Author

Elaine Unterhalter is Professor of Education at University College London.

Jibrin Ibrahim is a senior fellow of the Center for Democracy and Development in Lagos, Nigeria.

Lynsey Robinson is based at the Institute of Education at the University College London.

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