Bridge battles to convince Uganda
Recently Uganda’s education ministry closed all Bridge International Academies in the country. Ventures Africa’ DAVID ADELEKE provides some background and commentary into an institution that is supposed to revolutionalise education on the continent.
Bridge International Academies (BIA) was founded by Americans, Shannon May and Joel Kimmelman, in 2008 in Nairobi, Kenya.
It is targeted at low-income/poor families that cannot afford to send their children to expensive private schools, but at the same time cannot afford the luxury of sending their kids to public schools where they will be neglected and paired with teachers that are poorly-skilled and unconcerned about their kids’ development. It is founded on the idea that the children of poor parents deserve to have a shot at quality education too.
Bridge uses a school-in-the-box model to teach students. It employs teachers, who may or may not be certified educators, to teach students using a school-issued tablet. That tablet contains software and content that direct and monitor everything the teacher does. Every action and word are scripted so that the information on the device tells the teacher what to say, when to look up, when to ask the students questions and when to write on the board. Think about a ventriloquist controlling a dummy or a puppeteer running a puppet show and you will get the picture.
Bridge is a business that offers education as a service, and so it believes that it will start making profit when student enrolment figures reach 500,000; they are currently at 126,000. Since it established its first country headquarter in Nairobi in 2008, Bridge has grown exponentially.
The first Bridge Academy opened in 2009, 28 new academies were launched in 2011, 47 in 2012. By 2015, it had 414 branches across three countries: Kenya, Uganda, and Liberia. It is currently trying to establish itself in Nigeria.
In January 2016, Liberia’s Minister of Education, George Werner, announced that Liberia would be outsourcing its pre-primary and primary education system to bridge International Academies.
The deal was that Bridge would provide the educational and admin- istrative services while the government would continue funding the schools. This move was Mr Werner’s way of trying to fix the heavily criticised educational sector in Liberia. It was greeted with both boos and applauses, and some teachers threatened to strike.
In Uganda, Bridge hasn’t enjoyed as much latitude. Not unlike the MTN vs Nccsaga in Nigeria, Bridge International Academies has had it tough with the Ugandan government. Earlier this month, Judge Patricia Basaza Wasswa of the Ugandan high court ordered the closure of 63 Bridge International Academies schools due to unsanitary learning conditions, use of unqualified teachers, and improper licenses.
This ruling would effectively push 12,000 Bridge children out of school and 800 Ugandans out of work.
The details of the ruling show an unfriendly back-and-forth between the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports and Bridge International Academies since 2009. Bridge defied the court order and has since sparked a debate.
The arguments against Bridge are many. One, it suppresses critical thinking, encourages rote learning and discourages the employment of qualified teachers. Two, contrary to what it touts, Bridge’s schools are not for the poor (people who live on less than $2 a day); rather, they are for people who can afford to spend $6 per month on a child’s education; majority of the world’s poor can’t do that.
Three, critics say Bridge is “undermining the public education system by diverting off children from the most motivated families – the ones who are poor but have enough to pay $6 a term.
These are the ones who care enough about education to put their money down, and so could be the ones holding government schools accountable.” The final argument is that Bridge’s system cannot be applied on a larger scale. Simply put, it does not solve the problem of a lack of access to good education for the poorest of poor, and this is what government-funded public schools are meant to do.
In an ideal world, education as a fundamental human right means that even the poorest people should have access to it. But, that is just not the case because free or cheap schools that offer the kind of education that schools like Bridge offer are hard to come by; this is one reason why Bridge should be allowed to thrive, at least for now.
Ideally, everyone should have access to good, cheap education in public schools, then there would be little to no need for private schools. However, we do not live in an ideal world and the reality is that public schooling in Africa is in a deplorable state. The parents who can afford to send their kids to Bridge will do so and the ones that can afford more expensive schools will patronise them.
While some of the criticisms against Bridge are well-founded, the focus shouldn’t be on pushing back against it. Governments, like that of Uganda, should pay more attention to their educational sectors. Liberia’s government didn’t just decide to outsource their pre-primary and primary schools to Bridge, they did it because their education sector is in disarray and needed help putting things in order.
That is the underlying problem here. Bridge has come to Nigeria and barring any form of political gymnastics from the government, it will thrive.
But the fact that Bridge will thrive—as a thousand other more expensive private schools have— should be a sound reminder of the current state of education in Nigeria and Africa.
Education is a basic human right that, if all goes well, will boost the economy of any nation, so everyone should have access to it.
But, as long as African governments continue neglecting their education all sectors, expensive private schools will thrive, poor people will continue to be disadvantaged, the wealth gap will continue to widen, and the quest for prosperity by many African nations will continue to be a fool’s errand.
Contrary to what is touts, Bridge schools are not for the poor (people who live on $2 a day)
NOT PICTURE PERFECT: One criticism in Uganda of the Bridge style is that it undermines the national education system.