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How to solve Lagos State's education conundrum?

Lagos is currently the fastest growing city on the planet. By 2050, its population is expected to double to 35 million. On average, 85 more people need shelter, food and basic services every hour.

With considerable pressure already on the public education system, the commercial heartland of Nigeria has seen the rapid emergence of low-cost private schools, especially in slum areas, as even the poorest parents seek to provide opportunities for their children.

Mention private schools and people often think of privileged schools for the wealthy. However, private schools in Lagos meet the needs of the poorest in society. Most schools fly beneath the government radar, in fear of being closed down. For Lagos to progress, both socially and economically, the challenge of improving education quality must be addressed, and these schools are a big part of that future. DEEPEN was formed to help them put down financial roots and integrate within the official education system.

Gboyega Ilusanya

Team Leader

Private schools are now a major player on the Lagos education scene, dominating at the pre-primary and primary levels. Approximately 18,000 schools have opened, with the majority unapproved by the government, and offering varying standards of education and facilities. As many as 1.4 million children are spread across these private schools, against just 1.1 million children in 1,600 public schools. The success of this new sector is critical for Lagos’s aspirations of becoming a major player on the global stage.

In 2013, the state government invited DFID Nigeria to fund a five-year programme to address the market constraints faced by private schools, providing support and guidance to help them become a formal contributor to the city’s future.

Fast facts

  • 578,114 children from across 5,162 schools have directly benefitted from DEEPEN’s interventions, reaching a further one million indirectly
  • Of these schools, half have received loans, and over a third rate their financial position to be ‘stronger’ than what it was 12 months ago
  • Over 200 episodes of education radio programmes have been broadcast with an average of 800,000 listeners monthly


New private schools are opening almost every day in Lagos, sometimes with inadequate facilities and substandard teaching. However, parents are prepared to find the money, as these private schools are perceived to offer better quality education when compared to government schools. Overall, the poor levels of numeracy and literacy in Lagos remain a significant barrier as the city tries to adjust to rapid population growth.

While private schools give a potential solution for the growing problems of access to education, they face stark financial hurdles that threaten to disrupt their development, especially at the lower end of the market. Unregulated by the government, banks are reluctant to offer credit. Parents with informal employment often pay late or not in full. The proprietors may bring enthusiasm for education, but many have little experience in financial planning or cash flow management. The severe arrears can destabilise the sustainability of the school as a business and deprive them of the means to invest in improving educational quality.


Cambridge Education was the managing partner for DEEPEN (Developing Effective Private Education Nigeria), an initiative by DFID to improve learning outcomes in Lagos’ private schools. Using a market-development approach, the programme continued the progress from the Education Sector Support Programme in Nigeria (ESSPIN), with a particular focus on improving learning outcomes of children from low-income families.

Our team conducted a detailed market analysis to identify the main constraints for improved private education in Lagos, with subsequent interventions classified into four priority areas:

  • Rules and Standards: Improving the formal regulatory framework and informal cultural practices that undermine the private education sector. In particular, this looked at improving the approval system, eliminating multiple taxation and working with the school associations to improve their organisational capacity.
  • Information: Addressing the lack of reliable information available to parents, schools, and policy-makers for making informed decisions about education. Interventions centred on media development, quality and more frequent reporting by journalists, and engagement with local communities on education issues.
  • Finance: Confronting inaccessibility of financial services and products to meet the needs of schools and their parents. DEEPEN has run pilots to improve fee payment systems and access to credit, as well as business development services.
  • School Improvement Services: Tackling the absence of affordable and effective services for low-cost schools to improve their academic leadership and teaching practices. This involves working closely with school leaders and teachers to raise standards of both management and teachers.

What is an M4P approach?

DEEPEN adopted a market systems – or ‘making markets work for the poor’ (M4P) – approach. It works by understanding the structures, rules and incentives around which the core of a market, i.e. ‘supply and demand’ works – and then unblocking the main constraints that prevent it from working better for the poor. What a market systems approach does not do is provide short term fixes in the form of funds, goods and services that may undermine market systems and do long term damage. For example, encouraging new financial services aimed at better fee collection from parents are more sustainable solutions to the problem of school financing than simply offering one-off grants for school improvement.

M4P is grounded on the principle of ‘doing no harm’: every proposed intervention considers what impacts – negative and positive – it may have and ensures sustainability. This approach builds on recent successes for DFID in Nigeria, South Africa and Bangladesh.


DEEPEN has helped establish a vibrant and dynamic market for private education especially low-cost schools. While DEEPEN was designed to focus on Lagos State, the programme expanded into Kano state in the North East and Anambra state in the South East.

What would sustainable success look like?

  • Increased access to, and use of, low cost school improvement services
  • Improved consumer understanding of education quality
  • Increased capacity to invest in education as a result of increased profitability and creditworthiness
  • Improved capacity of private school associations to serve their members and lobby government
  • Competition between public and private systems based around quality by ensuring access to the public examination system
  • A government that is increasingly supportive of private education

Landmark initiatives included the introduction of a government-validated grading system - the Graded Assessment of Private Schools (GAPS) – which aims to raise standards of teaching and ‘mobile money’ pilots which have highlighted the opportunities and challenges in changing the way that parents pay their fees. Another finance pilot paved the way for greater access to credit through partnership between the school associations and Accion Microfinance bank. Now, other financial institutions are crowding into this growth sector, with its proven high rates of return on investment.

The programme’s work around school improvement services is proving sustainable, with clear evidence of crowding in from competitor providers not involved in the original scope. Likewise, work to increase peer-to-peer information sharing among schools and support for business development are expected to prove sustainable against the benchmarks listed above.

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