FinDev Blog

Locked out of Learning: Addressing the COVID-19 Education Crisis

Private sector investment is needed to support low-cost private schools in low and medium income countries
School children in Rwanda.

From economic slowdowns to travel restrictions to severe health risks, the pandemic has irrevocably changed our world. Over the past two years, we have lost jobs, opportunities, gatherings and loved ones.

One of the greatest losses we have experienced—one whose implications we have yet to fully grasp—is education.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1.6 billion children were out of school. In some countries like Uganda, schools just reopened last week—students missed nearly two years of schooling. Already suffering from countless educational and economic hurdles, these children are unlikely to recover these lost years.

Education is one of the best tools we have to break the cycle of poverty, but millions of children are at risk of never returning to the classroom.  The challenge we face as a global community is figuring out how to get these children back in the classroom as soon as possible—and improving the quality of education for those that have already gone back to school. Despite the new hurdles that stand in our way, we must continue to pursue SDG4: Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong opportunities for all.

The Business of Affordable Private Schools

Currently, there are more than 1.5 million private schools serving nearly 421 million children in low and medium-income countries. These schools serve as a buffer in communities where the public education systems are not able to keep up with the demand for education. Most of these schools are operated by sole proprietors, not school chains, and are run as small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

These education entrepreneurs face the same economic pressure as their fellow SME business owners in other sectors, but are responsible for educating hundreds of millions of children. Without government support, affordable private schools rely on school fees to cover operational costs, including teacher salaries, rent for buildings and loan repayments. Nearly all of them have faced months-long closures due to the pandemic.

We know from past crises that any school closure is detrimental to a child’s education. When a student’s local school closes permanently, requiring them to find a new school, the challenges of re-enrollment become even more severe. After prolonged school closures caused by the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, many children, especially the most vulnerable, never returned to school.

The Challenges Affordable Private Schools Face

The question, then, is how to keep more schools operational so that they can reopen, continue to educate students and grow. The simple answer is that these schools need resources that are all too often unavailable.

A recent study in India illuminated a number of the challenges that private schools face:

  • 73 percent of schools cited “identifying a financial institution who gives loans to schools” as one of the top three challenges to accessing finance.
  • 72 percent cited “poor fit of products” and 70 percent cited “high interest rates” as top areas of concern.
  • 75 percent noted the need for loans to improve school infrastructure.

As private sector businesses, non-state schools require private financing. They need capital to improve infrastructure and reopen, but traditional financing does not meet their unique needs. And after months of shutdowns and reduced revenue from key sources like school fees, these barriers have become even more pronounced.

Financing Affordable Private Schools

Solving the enormous education challenges ahead of us will require all of us to work together. In addition to support for national school systems, we need a growing complimentary non-state sector that attracts private capital. As governments invest in public schools, it is the responsibility of the private sector to provide the same support to the affordable private school sector.  One of the most effective ways to finance these non-state schools is partnering with local financial institutions to develop and deploy creative financial tools and products.

For example, Opportunity International’s EduFinance program equips local banks and MFIs to lend education-specific loans to affordable private schools so that they can expand their facilities to serve more students, improve their classroom resources or simply prepare to reopen after months-long shutdowns. Over the next three years, Opportunity plans to equip an additional 75 lenders across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Last summer, at the height of school closures, 275 global leaders wrote a letter to the G20, saying, “There is now a real and present danger that the public health crisis will create a COVID generation who will lose out on schooling and whose opportunities are permanently damaged. While the more fortunate have had access to alternatives, the world’s poorest children have been locked out of learning…”

Making affordable capital available to low-cost private schools is an essential step toward ensuring that this does not happen. Alongside governments, multinational agencies and global partners, the private sector and financial institutions have a key role to play in addressing the current education crisis. 

Together, we can help schools stay afloat, reopen, welcome students back to the classroom, and continue to provide high quality education. Together, we can help the next generation build the skills they need to break the cycle of poverty—for good.  


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Robert Sande , Former employee, Rwanda
06 May 2022

Another challenge is the massive exodus of teachers who got other employments as their schools couldn't pay during long school closures. Many joined public schools or other sectors of the economy and novice teachers will need support to enhance their skillsets to ably support students.

Robert Wawire , School Director, Kenya
03 February 2022

I fully agree with the writer. Indeed when lockdowns were happening in Kenya for example, the public schools teachers and staff continued to receive their monthly salaries, but the private schools staff including owners had nobody to turn to. Our financial stream was locked down!

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