Bridge bat­tles to con­vince Uganda

East African Business Week - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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