Delivering quality and scale of early learning in Jordan: What role for the private sector?

Published: 11 December 2019

A square in Amman, Jordan.
Amman, Jordan
The privatisation of public services has a bad reputation. Sometimes deservedly so. 

Just ask anyone relying on the UK rail system, those wondering why utility rates have risen faster than inflation over the last 30 years, or those asking how regulators failed to spot Carillion’s collapse. It’s an increasingly difficult sell. You can see why.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

In low- and middle-income countries, where government ambitions exceed public finance capacity, the private sector can play an important and complementary role in delivering on Sustainable Development Goals. Critics of private sector partnerships often cite the pursuit of profit as antithetical to delivering for the public good, however the noteworthy failures of public private partnerships shouldn’t deter us from exploring ways of making them more effective and accountable to the populations they serve.

Earlier this year, the World Bank invited me to assist Jordan’s Ministry of Education in investigating how it could promote the expansion of high quality pre-primary schooling to lower income communities through mobilising the private sector, with an initial focus on the lower-income neighbourhoods of East Amman. Could it be done?

Human capital development is a core strategic aim of the Government of Jordan

Jordan has a population of more than 10 million, 36% of whom are under the age of 14. It has long recognised the value of investing in its human capital and has launched national education reform initiatives to improve the accessibility and quality of education. Enshrined in its constitution is the right for all children to ten years of schooling, and 97% (Jordanian and non-Jordanian) are now enrolled. But enrolment rates for pre-primary education remain low, especially for children from poorer backgrounds, and the number of classroom seats insufficient to serve the population. Studies show that access to pre-primary education improves educational performance and self-control, as measured by behaviours such as attention, effort, class participation, and discipline. The public sector manages only a small percentage of pre-primary classrooms and does not have the resources to expand this footprint.

Supply and demand constraints currently limit early childhood provision

I was struck that both supply- and demand-side factors were at play in East Amman, limiting the sector’s ability to expand. I heard multiple stakeholders refer to the strict and inflexible licensing requirements as a key challenge to sourcing additional classroom space. Providers also told me that households’ price sensitivity limited how high tuition rates could be set.

Despite these factors, I learned that the private sector isn’t exclusively focused on more affluent market segments and isn’t dominated by large providers. In Amman, I spoke with a number of small private providers that exclusively serve low- and middle-income households and all of whom provide some form of tuition discounts in cases of need. These are providers with a clear commitment to their communities. But they generally have low enrolment capacities, operate with small margins and don’t have cash reserves to support expansion or to even contemplate offering professional development to their teachers.

Social outcomes contracts may be an effective way to safeguard quality at scale

The Ministry of Education understands that an ambition to expand without an equally focused effort to assure quality would be near-sighted. Recent assessments found that as many as a quarter of Year 1 students missed at least one domain target on the Early Development Instrument. Even with its strict licensing requirements, the Ministry has limited visibility of the quality of pre-primary instruction and few levers at its disposal to assure it. A push to expand provision that does not meet quality standards wouldn’t maximise the full benefits of broader early childhood education.

Social outcomes contracts could be used both to drive quality delivery and to facilitate the expansion of private sector capacity in East Amman. Tying financing to learning outcomes could promote a focus on high-quality instruction among private sector providers. However it’s also clear that providers don’t have the resources to self-fund professional development (a key ingredient to improving quality) nor can they make large capital investments in expansion (crucial to growing capacity of the sector). So what are the elements that would make an outcomes-based financing instrument appropriate in this context?

  • Dual focus on scale and quality:The instrument should link payments to outcomes associated with both increased enrollment and quality instruction. A focus on providers operating in the lower-income neighbourhoods of East Amman can help ensure that it expands access to more disadvantaged populations. Actual household payment of tuition fees could be a good proxy for sustained attendance and robust payment metric for scale, provided this could be easily verified at the provider level. Quality could be measured by the results of learning environment surveys or student assessments. The latter would give the Ministry of Education a quality-assurance lever it doesn’t currently have to ensure children in Jordan are receiving good education from private providers.
  • Implementation flexibility: The barriers to increased enrolment and improved quality vary in Jordan. In Amman, some providers may need to provide transportation to increase enrolment, while others may need to direct investment to improving the learning environment. The instrument should encourage adaptive delivery for impact and allow implementation decisions to be made by each provider, depending on their circumstances. This flexibility avoids forcing providers to fix an expansion approach or curriculum before having tested how to unlock latent demand and developed an understanding of their students’ educational needs.
  • Access to working capital: Providers will need access to up-front funding to enable them to expand.
  • Capacity-building support: Especially where private providers are seen as long-term partners in the achievement of national education targets, efforts to improve their management capacity will generate longer-term benefits. If the Ministry is looking to further professionalise the sector, then the instrument could offer teacher training and curricular improvement guidance to participating providers. It also provides a valuable opportunity for government to develop a toolkit that could be leveraged should it wish to develop effective and accountable public private partnerships in other sectors. 

Effective public private partnerships are based on the principles of accountability and shared learning, and outcomes-based financing instruments are well suited to provide both of those. They give operational freedom to those providers closest to the challenges at hand and provide donors and government with powerful tools to encourage the development of a robust sector that upholds consistently good delivery standards.

Questions do remain. How can an outcomes-based contract provide a route to long-term sustainability? How should we assess the contract readiness of private providers? What would an appropriate implementation structure look like?

I look forward to picking up the second phase of our work and to working closely with the World Bank and Ministry of Education to explore if and how engagement with the private sector can deliver improved outcomes.

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