School buildning in Kenya

The marketization of education divides private and public school teachers


In the Global South, primary education has been marketized in recent years through a boom of schools that are non-governmental and charge relatively low or no tuition fees. New research shows that the different conditions in and the competition between private and public schools seem to lead to a schism between teachers in the different schools. They share to some extent an identity as teachers, but often have negative images of each other, with teachers in LFP schools as cheating and public sector teachers as lazy.

Photo of Sara Falkensjö
Sara Falkensjö

Low-fee private schools (LFP schools) have existed in the past, but in the last 20 years there has been a significant increase of these schools, especially in low-income areas. Central to education, both private and public, are the teachers. But what does it mean to be a teacher in this new educational landscape? Sara Falkensjö, who in November 2023, completed her PhD in Human Geography at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg, has researched and analyzed primary school teachers' needs, challenges and agency in relation to the marketization of education in low-income areas in Kenya.

Teachers are frequently used in the debate for and against LFP schools, although often in relatively simplified terms, such as that teachers in LFP schools are exploited through insecure employment and low pay, or that publicly employed teachers are disengaged and perform worse than teachers at LFP schools.

- The results in my dissertation, above all confirm previous results that show that private teachers have significantly worse employment conditions and that public school teachers have very large classes, but also points to shared challenges, such as more fleeting relationships with pupils due to a higher degree of mobility of pupils between schools.

Secure employment important - but not at any cost

The study also shows several things that may seem a given to us in developed countries. For example, it is important for teachers to have a secure livelihood and to do a good job for the future of their students and society. That the teachers have such interests is, however, important to understand in relation to how their needs are challenged in the marketing process in different ways in different schools. And how the teachers, within their narrow scope of action, often navigate challenges by prioritizing needs.

- A high priority need is to keep one's job, even if it is a poorly paid LFP-school job. For LFP school teachers, this mean acting in accordance with LFP schools' guidelines and goals. This often means achieving high test results, to be able to use in the marketing of the school, even if it means that the teachers had to teach very narrowly to the tests.

In a larger chain of LFP schools, the teachers have scripts, which they have to follow exactly in lessons. One surprising thing that emerged during Sara's interviews, however, was that all LFP school teachers, who worked at a large LFP school chain departed from this, despite the risk of having their pay cut or being fired. One young woman expressed that she did not want to teach like a robot when she was a professional, trained teacher and one who knew her students in the classroom.



Strives for professionalism

Another important finding was that although the publicly employed teachers have a more secure employment and less pressure to 'deliver', their sense of professionalism and ability are negatively affected in the competition and comparisons between schools.

The fact that Kenyan teachers these days start their careers by "waiting" about ten years in private schools before they succeed in getting a more attractive permanent public employment affects both individual teachers and perhaps also the status of the profession.

- I hope that the teachers’ union in Kenya will consider how they can incorporate the experiences of private and public employed teachers, to improve the situation of teachers throughout their careers. For example, perhaps arguments against LFP schools/state schools should be based less on passive images of teachers and rather focus on what the teachers' different conditions for teaching and acting in specific ways look like.

An incipient schism between private and publicly employed teachers

The biggest new insight is that the division, different circumstances and competition between private and public-employed teachers seem to lead to a schism between private and public-employed teachers. They share, to some extent, an identity as teachers, but in the interviews, they also often reproduced negative images of each other similar to those seen in the literature, with LFP school teachers as cheating and public sector teachers as lazy. These risks leading to a teaching body that overlooks its shared interests and challenges and thus the opportunity to improve the situation of teachers and education more generally.

Overall, teachers want to do a good job, but the context means that they are forced to prioritize and cannot always act in accordance with both their need for pay and their professional assessment of what good education is. They want to be held accountable and that demands are placed on them, but this needed to happen in a professional way, where they could develop as teachers, and their difficult situations with a lack of resources and students' socio-economic background needed to be considered.

- My results indicate that there is much to be gained from treating teachers in the Global South as professional workers, by both giving them the conditions to do their work and holding them accountable.

Sara Falkensjö, PhD in Human Geography on Friday 17 November 2023, at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg.

How the research was conducted
The research was conducted through qualitative interviews with Kenyan teachers in government and private schools in two low-income areas: an urban informal settlement in Nairobi and a rural community about three hours from Nairobi.

Title of the dissertation and link
Teachers in the marketisation of education - A labour geography perspective on the expansion of low-fee priovate primary schooling in Kenya.