Building resilient education systems after Covid-19: The critical role of the non-state sector

Anna Riggall
Michael Latham

Joel Mullan

Amid all the challenges of Covid-19, one critical area which has received relatively little attention is that of the non-state sector. Non-state schools serve many millions of students around the world – including some of the poorest children – and face unique additional challenges as a result of the pandemic. In this commentary, in partnership with the Global Schools Forum, we set out how critical this sector is, introduce the key challenges faced by these school systems and the urgent need for additional evidence on the types of support which will be of the most benefit for the many pupils they serve.

Schools in the non-state sector have long been doing interesting things that could help us all address the access and education quality challenges that have prevailed for decades.  In 2018, Education Development Trust published a report focusing on four not-for-profit school chains run by NGOs in low-income contexts. Collectively educating about three million learners, these four school chains were reaching marginalised students and expanding access for hard-to-reach groups. There was also evidence to suggest that students enrolled in these school groups outperformed students in traditional government schools. At EdDevTrust, we were inspired and excited by their achievements and success.


The non-state education sector has been particularly vulnerable during Covid-19-related school closures, but has been largely ignored.

The non-state sector is complex – alongside not-for-profit schools, there are various other school types including low-cost private schools.  Many of these schools cater to the poorest communities, offering education in regions where government schools are few and far between, or very poor-quality.  The majority of non-state provision is constituted by informal low-fee private schools – the so-called “mom and pop shops”.  These are individually owned community schools, most of which are not established as businesses[1] and are particularly vulnerable to the stresses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many are dependent on the modest fees they receive to keep paying teacher salaries and building rents, and so have been particularly deeply affected by the knock-on effects of the pandemic on the livelihoods and economic security of families and businesses.

However, since school systems began to close in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, relatively little attention has been given to how the sector is faring and how these non-state schools have been adapting to continue to provide education. The Global Schools Forum (GSF) and Education Development Trust have been two of the few organisations to consider this angle in their analyses of the crisis. In October 2020, GSF published a rapid review of the impact of Covid-19 on the non-state education sector in low- and middle-income countries[2]. Meanwhile, EdDevTrust has published a series of ‘stocktake’ reports that have tracked Covid-19 fall out on various aspects of education systems. The first, an international review of plans and actions for school reopening, picked up on some innovations coming from the non-state sector, while the second, presents lessons from pandemic that will support the renewal of learning as systems return to face-to-face learning. Recent reports from UNICEF’s Office of Global Insight and Policy[3] and Opportunity EduFinance have added welcome additional focus, insight and analysis[4], but despite this attention, the sector remains underrepresented in the global discourse.


We must not underestimate the important role this sector plays and we must support these education providers through the specific challenges they face.

Governments and national and international education partners around the world are right to prioritise government schools, where the majority of children are educated. It is, however, critical to ensure that the non-state education sector is not forgotten, since it caters for a large and growing share of school-going children around the world. UNESCO statistics show that 42% of pre-primary children globally were educated in the non-state sector, as well as 18% of children at primary level and 26% of children at secondary level.[5]  In India, just under half of children are educated in privately managed schools, and one third of these are from the poorest 40% of the population.[6]

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented challenges upon state and non-state education systems all over the world, with 1.6 billion learners affected by school closures at its peak. Schools in the non-state sector are facing many of the same challenges as their state sector counterparts: rolling out distance learning at scale and speed, maintaining communication between schools, teachers and students (often in poorly connected settings), ensuring education continuity for the most marginalised, planning for safe reopening and remedial programmes to overcome learning loss, and tackling a wellbeing crisis among students and staff.

However, they also face a range of additional, specific challenges. Many have faced great financial strains in the pandemic, where their revenue streams were already limited, and unlike government schools, they receive no subsidies from ministries of education. This renders many non-state schools – especially in low-income settings – unable to pay their teaching staff. This problem is often compounded by ineligibility for small business subsidies such as tax exemptions, reduced access to capital from financial institutions due to the economic shocks of the pandemic, and a reduction in parents’ ability to pay school fees amid economic hardship. In addition, Covid-19 has caused a major migration of population away from the urban centres in which many private schools operate.  

In such a context, without support, segments of the non-state education sector face collapse. UNICEF reports that “thousands of [low-cost private schools] have already shut down, and thousands more are on the brink of permanent closures.” The consequences of this collapse would be deep, broad and enduring; not only for the millions of children educated in the non-state sector, but also for the state systems which would need to absorb additional students.


We need more evidence to support the survival of the sector, continued education provision, and long-term learning recovery for pupils who rely on non-state schools.

Given the severity of the current situation, there is a critical need for evidence that can offer useful data and a mandate for action. Education Development Trust and Global Schools Forum are therefore partnering to:

  • provide information that supports learning and programme planning for the non-state sector;
  • assess the current impact of Covid-19 on the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, impact and sustainability of non-state schools, as well as equity, gender equality and human rights considerations; 
  • gather evidence and make recommendations that support enhanced coordination, leadership and institutionalisation of non-state schools; and 
  • support national governments in achieving their national goals and targets
  • contribute to the SDG agenda.  


There are three key objectives for our research:  

  • To analyse what has been happening to non-state schools their staff and students in a select group of regions or countries in the current pandemic and, going forward, to gather data to analyse what might happen to these schools, their students and communities as a result of Covid-19 . 
  • To determine if there are any particular types of government and non-government support that might be appropriate to manage economic and educational shocks on the sector, and build its resilience To identify and explore examples of innovation and creativity – ‘bright spots’ – in the face of adversity, that can help inform the ‘build back better’ agenda.

From this learning, we will extrapolate lessons and recommendations for governments, financial institutions, network providers, education technology companies and international education funders to ensure learners in low-cost private schools are able to continue to access quality education.


Global Schools Forum works to strengthen the education sector by working with non-state organisations in developing countries who are serving children from low-income backgrounds. Our network of 61 members spans 50 countries and our members are collectively running or supporting 18,000 schools which provide education to nearly 2.6 million children.


If you wish to get in touch with the team to share ideas, resources, discuss further or register for updates, please contact the study leads:

Astrid Korin –

Joel Mullan –


[1] Over 40% of 1,300 African school owners interviewed by CapitalPlus Exchange did not have bank accounts.

[6] Government of India Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation – National Statistics Office (2018) - and GSF (2020) -