05/29/2014 02:05 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2014

Schools in Slums: A Surprising Number of the Poorest Kids Are Enrolled in Private Preschools

There are many things a person expects to see when walking through Mukuru, a vast expanse of sheet metal and mud located just to the southeast of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and home to an estimated 270,000 people. In Mukuru, as in many of Africa's slums, an overcrowded population lives in precarious circumstances, occupying substandard housing structures with few, if any, public services to rely upon. The hallmarks of a slum are everywhere, from the tangles of small shacks to the abundance of dust and debris.

But an interesting entrepreneurial trend has emerged here and is fueling a promising transformation in early childhood education. Nestled in Mukuru's narrow alleys, one discovers a profusion of private, low-fee preschools, full of children ages three to six. In an area with virtually no government-sponsored preschools, it is a remarkable development.

Until now, no formal research initiative had officially documented the presence of these preschools or evaluated the quality of the early childhood care and education they provide. A better understanding of these schools, however, is essential. The young students in Mukuru have entered a decisive moment in their cognitive, social and emotional development, the phase during which a safe and stimulating learning environment can determine whether a child thrives, advancing to primary school and beyond, or languishes. Yet too few children benefit from early education and the school-readiness and life-long advantages it instills, exacerbating deficits in global education.

It is therefore no surprise that UNICEF has found that the poorest or most socially marginalized children, such as those growing up in urban slums, are among the worst served by national education systems. At the same time, the tide of urbanization means that one-third of people in low- and middle-income countries live in slums today, including six of every ten urban dwellers in Sub-Saharan Africa and a massive cohort of young children.

This is the dilemma. Progress in early and basic education access and quality is not reaching the most vulnerable children, who are increasingly living in expanding urban slums with few and often low-performing government schools.

Innovations for Poverty Action and the UBS Optimus Foundation partnered to pursue pioneering research into the availability and efficacy of these private preschools, by carrying out assessments in slums around Accra, Ghana; Lagos, Nigeria; Nairobi, Kenya; and Johannesburg, South Africa.

What options exist for poor parents? Quite a few, in fact, according to this new research conducted in four peri-urban slums. We have found that a very high proportion of children between three and six years old in these settings are attending preschools, most of which are private.

Evidence increasingly suggests that many low-fee private schools can improve a child's academic achievements in low-income areas. Anecdotal evidence further suggests that these schools may offer pre-primary programs for children under six, such as the ones that can be found in Mukuru.

The research team found high rates of enrollment in private preschools at all the research sites, with no significant gender gap and impressive participation rates even among the poorest families. Caregivers can choose among many different options, usually including three to five preschools within walking distance, which they carefully assess in regards to their proximity, fees, teacher qualifications and quality of curriculum. Basic infrastructure, such as latrines, playgrounds and electricity are generally available, and teacher-student ratios and class sizes are acceptable.

Across all the study sites, caregivers overwhelmingly stated that they devote their finite resources to preschool fees for the educational benefits. There is very little evidence that parents utilize preschools as daycare centers. Indeed, parents assign real value to preschool learning and spend a substantial proportion of their income to obtain it for their children.

A burgeoning and competitive market among private preschools suggests that this unique model could meet the needs of marginalized children and the aspirations of low-income parents dissatisfied by the weaknesses of government-provided pre-primary education.

Now that data has been collected on the existence of these preschools and their salient characteristics, how can this knowledge be leveraged to advance learning outcomes and school success? While preschool enrollment rates are very encouraging, overall age-appropriateness and quality of instruction need to be addressed. The provision of basic health services at these schools must also be ensured. Interventions on the supply side, including teacher training, as well as on the demand side, such as increasing parental awareness on best preschool practices, should be considered. The Optimus Foundation intends to build on the existing movement and focus on improving the quality of these existing preschools rather than creating new ones.

To make sure children are ready for schools and the schools are ready for them, we must consider the political, financial, capacity and policy factors that influence and constrain modern education systems. The thriving private preschool sector affirms this, expanding the definition of what makes a school a school, and our understanding of what is possible for children, even in the crowded alleys of a slum.