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Chicken coop private schools for Africa’s kids

MUGWENA MALULEKE reports on Bridge International Academies, a billionaire-funded company running substandard for-profit schools all across Africa and Asia

BRIDGE International Academies (BIA) is an education-for-profit business. It has plans to sell basic education services for 10 million schoolchildren in Africa and Asia by 2025. But in Uganda its ambitions has been checked by government intervention.

BIA expanded quickly in Uganda. It acquired 12,000 fee-generating students since February, 2015.

BIA has received $100m (£78.4m) in funding from — among others — the global edu-business Pearson, the World Bank, Britain’s government’s Department for International Development, the US government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and US billionaires including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

The company created a business plan for schooling huge numbers of children in developing countries.

They called it the “academy in a box” model, which is meant to drive down costs, scale-up services rapidly and increase profitability.

Everything was looking good for BIA. So what went wrong?

The academy in a box depends on strict standardisation, automated technology, cheap school structures and internet devices. These replace all instructional and non-instructional activities that would normally make up an education system.

But the BIA approach inevitably neglects the Ugandan government’s legal and educational standards.

These include requirements to employ qualified teachers and to observe the national curriculum, and standards related to school facilities.

A probe by Uganda’s Ministry of Education resulted in the decision on April 6 2016 to “halt the expansion” of BIA.

The BIA schools were held to be in violation of the 2008 Education Act, due to “the quality of the infrastructure, teacher issues, methodology and curriculum.”

On August 11 2016, the ministry closed all BIA schools, citing the company’s failure to meet the established educational and legal standards. Analysis of BIA’s curriculum and pedagogy reveals serious implications for teachers and students that, if allowed, would fundamentally alter the nature and practice of education itself. These implications go far beyond Uganda.

The pre-programmed curriculum, centrally developed by BIA at its headquarters in Boston,US, and in Nairobi, Kenya, is sent electronically to each school site using smartphones that transfer the text to tablets.

Every pedagogical activity is pre-set and scripted. Teachers are even told when to “pause,” when to “circulate for 30 seconds,” when to “rub the board” and when to tell pupils to “close your textbooks.”

According to BIA, the broadband technology used to send pre-cooked instruction has eliminated the need for professionally trained and certified teachers. The thinking is similar to the way that US war-drone technology eliminates the need for US pilots. Whatever can be is controlled from the head office, where the controller is safe from argument or any kind of personal come backs at all.

It’s a business strategy for drastically reducing operating costs, and for benefiting from economies of scale by employing unqualified individuals who are more like performers than teachers. These unfortunates are paid a pittance to read the script off the tablet and to make the prompted, puppet-like moves.

It is not surprising that a recent report released by Education International based on a cross-sample of BIA schools in Uganda found that 80 to 90 per cent of their “teachers” are unlicensed.

Whereas according to Uganda’s Education Act: “No person shall teach in any public or private school of any description unless he or she is registered as a teacher or licensed to teach under this Act.”

Going on to the physical structures of BIA, they are hardly recognisable as schools; they would shame a livestock farmer.

Indeed, some academy managers at BIA have referred to these facilities as “chicken coops for kids.”

Uganda’s Minister of education has condemned the “poor hygiene and sanitation which put the life and safety of school children in danger” at BIA schools.

Cost-cutting techniques employed by BIA are supposed to make the company’s educational services “affordable” for all children in Uganda “regardless of their family’s income.”

In reality these degraded for-profit services are still not affordable for the poor. An ordinary Ugandan family cannot afford what BIA is charging. And the majority of pupils not going to school in Uganda are those who are not able to afford to pay for any type of schooling.

Bridge International Academies is not helping. Instead, it makes matters worse.

It reminds us of Walter Rodney’s famous book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, except that now it is the US that is underdeveloping Africa.

  • Mugwena Maluleke is Education International’s vice-president for Africa and general secretary of South African Democratic Teachers Union.


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