Pearson to fund '$3 a month' private schools

The education giant Pearson will today launch a $15m (£10m) fund that will invest in low-cost private schools in Africa and Asia, offering lessons for as little as $3 a month per pupil.

Tony Blair's former education adviser Sir Michael Barber is chairing Pearson's for-profit Affordable Learning Fund, which is aimed at helping some of the world's poorest people. He told The Independent it was possible to provide high-quality, low-cost private education at scale for as little as "three, four, five dollars a month" per child in some of these emerging markets.

"Low-cost private schools are cheaper than government schools but often get significantly better results – sometimes twice as good," said Sir Michael, who was appointed as Pearson's chief education adviser in May 2011.

He said private schools already play an important role in some developing countries and there was a recognition that "you can't just have a strategy that depends on the government sector".

As many as 70 per cent of kids are already educated privately in parts of Pakistan such as Karachi.

"Parents are desperate to get their kids into education and feel governments aren't giving them the quality and consistency they want," added Sir Michael, noting that "on any given day, 20-25 per cent of teachers don't turn up" in some government schools in India.

The Pearson fund's first investment will be in Omega Schools, a private chain in Ghana, which has been developed by the local entrepreneur Ken Donkoh and James Tooley, professor of education policy at Newcastle University in England.

Sir Michael stressed that the fund is focused on helping poor families rather than a burgeoning middle class.

He dismissed suggestions that Pearson's investment looked relatively small. "$15m to get started actually goes a long way in this field."

The fund will co-invest in both existing and new schools and will look to provide support services such as teacher training. "We have hope and reason to believe that some other investors will follow our lead," he said.

Pearson, which owns the Financial Times and the book publisher Penguin, generates 80 per cent of operating profits from education, and describes itself as the world's leading learning company.

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