At just 19-years-old, Malala Yousafzai is the youngest ever UN Messenger of Peace.

United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, who presented Malala with the honour, described her as a “symbol of perhaps the most important thing in the world – education for all”.

The UN have set out how they want to achieve this in Class Four of their development goals, which states: “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes”.

This is a noble yet short-sighted sentiment. The UN’s focus on “free” education will not only fail, it will also hamper the growth of education in the developing world.

Instead of focusing on “free” education, the UN should be promoting the most successful, accessible, and freedom-enhancing option: low-cost private schools.

Malala Yousafzai sits with girls in a classroom at a school for Syrian refugee girls
Malala Yousafzai attended her father’s private school in Pakistan

Malala herself attended a low-cost private school in Pakistan. Her father, dissatisfied by the government-run schools available, invested all of his savings of 60,000 rupees (or £1,127 at contemporary exchange rates) and set up a private school in Minorga. The fees were £1.50 a month. It was whilst she was on her way to this school that Malala was famously shot by the Taliban.

The education establishment and the media have been keen to downplay Malala’s father’s business. Education International, the global teachers’ union, simply describes him as a “headmaster”, whilst Time magazine refer to him as a “school administrator”. Neither description aptly summarises him and both understate the brilliance of his entrepreneurship.

Malala’s father recognised the threat that government control of education posed. Pauline Dixon, a professor of International Development and Education at Newcastle University, has provided detailed research on the failures of government-run schools in the developing world.

One of the most crucial shortcomings is that teachers at government-run schools are less likely to be from the community that they are teaching in. Similarly to the French system, teachers are placed into a school after initial teacher training. Teachers at government schools don’t have a choice, and this freedom-inhibiting move creates more problems for the students.

School photo at City Montessori School
The world’s biggest school, with 52,000 pupils, is a private school in Lucknow, India

This top-down, bureaucratic form of education means that teachers are often on strike and students frequently suffer from long-term absenteeism.

Malala’s father saw these problems and rejected bribes to have his school registered by the government. Instead, he joined an association of private schools before quickly rising to become its president. Under his leadership, the association expanded to include over 400 private schools.

If that sounds like a lot, then consider this: there are approximately 400,000 low-cost private schools in India. In the Nigerien state of Lagos, there are at least 8,000. Rural Kenya also has a similar number of these schools. The growth of low-cost private schools has been so rapid since the UN declared their goal for “free” education that the majority of schoolchildren in poor urban areas now attend low-cost private schools.

Children in a slum school in Mumbai

The importance of this educational expansion is being overlooked and understated. And there’s one simple reason why the UN are so silent on the rise of private schools in the developing world: they’re better than the government schools.

The difference in test performance between government schools and private schools is staggering. James Tooley, an academic at Newcastle University, tested a stratified sample of 3,000 grade 4 students in English and mathematics. Tooley controlled for family background and IQ and discovered that in English reading tests, boys in government schools achieved 15.5 per cent, while girls would typically score around 10.8 per cent. In low-cost private schools from the same area, the results for boys doubled and for girls they tripled.

More recent research from Tooley and Dixon tested around 40,000 children from both government and private schools in seven sub-Saharan African countries revealed that facilities, teaching activity, student outcomes, school accountability, and parental satisfaction are all significantly higher in low-cost private schools than in government-run schools. In every major category, the private institutions are leading the way.

Furthermore, low-cost private schools in the developing world are affordable to families on the poverty line. Tooley’s research has revealed that 73.7 per cent of private schools in the slums of Monrovia, Liberia are affordable to families living on $1.25 a day. 66 per cent of for-profit schools in Sierra Leone are affordable to families with the same incomes. Given the huge market demand for these schools, their affordability is hardly surprising.

If the UN is truly concerned about ensuring that all boys and girls receive quality education, then they must look to the accessible, cheap, and high-performing schools that parents want to send their children to.

Malala is an incredibly brave woman whose story is an inspiration to many. But now she must stand up to the UN and make sure that both her story and the truth about education in the developing world are fairly reported.

The evidence points towards the need for more low-cost private schools and fewer government-run institutions. She is a privately-educated schoolgirl, both in Pakistan and in Britain. She can be the champion for that argument.