© Ayuda en Acción
María Balarin
15 May 2015

Low-fee private schools are a growing phenomenon in many low and middle-income countries. Their emergence usually takes place in the context of a default privatisation processes which, though often aided by generous legislation, are not the product of government design but a more bottom-up response to the unavailability or perceived inadequacy of public education services, especially in such countries’ poorest areas.

Hailed by some as an area of hope and greater opportunities for the poor (Tooley and Dixon 2005a, b), questions have been raised about the regulatory environments in which low-fee private schools operate, and about the extent to which such schools might be trading on the dreams and hopes of the poor without really offering much in exchange (Robertson and Dale 2013).

A case study of de facto privatisation and the rise of low-fee private schools in Peru provides insights into the complexities of this sub-sector of private education (Balarin 2015). Peruvian low-fee private schools have emerged, en masse, in the past decade against the backdrop of a legal decree passed in 1998, which sought to promote private investment in education by reducing legislative constraints for opening private schools, allowing private schools to operate for-profit and offering generous tax credits to investors. This led to a surge in the supply of private schools, which since 2004, when the country entered a decade of strong and steady economic growth, has been met with an equally important growth in demand for private schooling. Private school enrolments have gone from 13 percent in 1998 to 26 percent in 2014. In the city of Lima, which holds almost one third of the country’s population and approximately half of all enrolments in basic education, private school enrolments are now at 50 percent, up from 29 percent in 2004 (Cuenca 2013). Evidence shows that the trend is well established in most major cities in the country.

In Peru, the growth of private education has taken place in the context of a process of decentralisation, through which executive capacities have been devolved to newly created regional administrations whose administrative capacities are still weak. In this process, regulatory functions with regard to private schools have almost disappeared. Licenses for new schools are granted by local authorities which do not perform any regular supervisory role with regard to private schools, nor collect any regular data that could facilitate their regulation or the development of knowledge about this growing school sector.

Evidence from other studies shows that Peru is one of the Latin American countries with the greatest degree of school segregation and where, consequently, students socio-economic characteristics are most strongly correlated with their educational achievement (Benavides, León, and Etesse 2014). Research also shows that the school system is deeply stratified, with schools catering for very distinct populations on the basis of their residential location and purchasing capacity. These trends are marked in both the public and private sectors, but the range of stratification is greater in the latter, where supply is often beyond the reach of the state’s regulatory control.

Poor families who choose to send their children to low-fee private schools navigate the school market with no public funding and very little information to enable and support their choices. Driven less by an ideological preference for the private, or by the status concerns that often drive the choices of middle and upper class families, poor families’ choice of private schools derives from very practical concerns about service availability in their areas, student-teacher ratios and the lower risk of sending their children to a small school near their home where they can keep an eye on them. Families are also concerned about the quality of teaching and learning, but their parameters for judging quality are often weak or even misguided. It is when faced with problems such as their inability to pay or the lack of responsiveness from schools that are often run as family businesses – employing unqualified staff or incurring in inadequate practices – that families realise the potential (or real) implications of sending their children to a low-fee school: the likelihood of their children having to interrupt their schooling trajectories and the lack of protection from inadequate or abusive practices.

That their choice of school will provide their children with the opportunities these families hope for seems unlikely in a context where low fee private schools operate under such loose regulation and standards. Such a claim has further support from the Peruvian national assessments, which have shown that children in private schools operating in areas with high concentrations of poverty tend to have similar, and in many cases worse, results than those in public schools operating in those same areas.

Beyond this, however, lie the implications for citizenship and social justice of an unregulated school market that separates children from different socio-economic groups in entirely different schools, with the negative consequences this tends to have for the children from the poorest backgrounds.


María Balarin obtained a PhD in Education Policy from the University of Bath in 2006, with a thesis titled: ‘Radical Discontinuity: a study of the role of education in the Peruvian state and of the institutions and cultures of policy making in education’. Before this she obtained an MA in Psychoanalytic Studies from the University of Essex, and a BA in Philosophy from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

Between 2006 and 2011 she was a postdoctoral fellow and then a Lecturer at the Department of Education of the University of Bath, where she was affiliated to the Globalization and Education Policy research area and taught courses in sociology and philosophy of education, education policy and qualitative research methods. During this time, she was also Director of Studies of the MA in Education Programme, for which she created an education policy strand.

Since 2011 she has been an Associate Researcher in GRADE, where her work focuses on the analysis and evaluation of education and social policies, especially from qualitative and mixed methods perspectives. Recently, her studies have focused on the process of default privatisation of Peruvian education, as well as on gender issues and on the analysis of processes of production, circulation and use of social research knowledge in Peru.


Balarin, M. 2015. “The default privatization of Peruvian education and the rise of low-fee private schools: better or worse opportunities for the poor? .” CIES, Washington D.C.

Benavides, Martín, Juan León, and Manuel Etesse. 2014. Desigualdades educativas y segregación en el sistema educativo peruano. Una mirada comparativa de las pruebas PISA 2000 y 2009. In Avances de Investigación. Lima: GRADE.

Cuenca, Ricardo. 2013. “La escuela pública en Lima Metropolitana.¿ Una institución en extinción?” Revista Peruana de Investigación Educativa (5):73-98.

Robertson, S, and R Dale. 2013. “The social justice implications of privatisation in education governance frameworks: a relational account.” Oxford Review of Education 39 (4):426-445.

Tooley, James, and Pauline Dixon. 2005a. “Is private education good for the poor.” Cato Institute. Washington DC.

Tooley, James, and Pauline Dixon. 2005b. Private education is good for the poor: A study of private schools serving the poor in low-income countries: Cato Institute Washington, DC.


This blog originally appeared on NORRAG NEWSBite and has been reposted with the kind consent of NORRAG. 

This blog is based on an article in the forthcoming issue of NORRAG NEWS on ‘Financing Education & Skills’, due out in May 2015 at


Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.