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Before the pandemic, Nigeria reportedly had the world’s largest number of out-of-school children, perhaps 13.5 million, the majority girls. The problem was acute in the north and east. Nigeria also has, in Lagos State, one of the world’s most studied low-cost private education markets. Before our research, it was claimed that Lagos also had a huge problem of out-of-school children. Only once those in low-cost schools (often unregistered, so off government’s radar) were included was it realized that Lagos had near universal schooling.

Our school networks suggest a similar situation may have pertained in Nigeria’s north and east before lockdowns; interest from schools in joining a private school association and preliminary visits suggested large numbers of unregistered low-cost private schools, serving more girls than boys. A tantalising possibility is that, just as we found when we first conducted research in Lagos State 15 years ago, many children were not out of school, but were in unregistered private schools. After lockdown, the situation may be different, but we will endeavour to research the status quo ante. If our data reflects what we found in Lagos, as Nigeria has the largest number of out of school children globally, this contrarian finding will be of global importance.

Research using household, and school surveys will be conducted in north and east Nigeria, addressing inter alia the impact of lockdowns, the affordability of private schools, and cost to government of closing private schools.

Outputs will include seminars, academic/popular articles and presentations to aid agencies. Impact will include challenging vested interests (governments, international agencies), who benefit from the existence of large numbers of out of school children. Investors and philanthropists will support the low-cost private education market, while opinion formers/ policy makers will acknowledge the beneficial impact of free markets in reaching the most marginalised.