Worlds of Education

We must put an end to schooling students for profit

published 25 October 2016 updated 25 October 2016

By Fred van Leeuwen. General Secretary, Education International

For World Teachers’ Day this year the education community is marking the 50th anniversary of the ILO/UNESCO Recommendation on the teaching profession. This landmark document identifies “the essential role of teachers in educational advancement and the importance of their contribution to the development of man and modern society.” This is just one of the many comprehensive set of principles as well as a number of specific practices that were enshrined in 1966. Sadly, many of those principles which define the teaching profession and establish the foundation of quality education have been dismissed by Bridge International Academies, a company establishing and running low fee for-profit schools in low income countries.

“When we get money we send her to school. But when we have no money she has to stay at home because we can’t pay the school fees. We don’t have money right now so she hasn’t been in school for weeks.”

These are the words of a parent in Uganda, who reminds us that any fee on education represents a barrier for the poor, a bridge to nowhere, effectively denying children their right to education. Unfortunately this is exactly the business model of Bridge, a company proudly touting their motto of “knowledge for all” while exploiting the poorest people on the planet and using taxpayer money to make their “business model” work.

On World Teachers’ Day, EI has released a study exposing how Ugandan children are being deprived of their fundamental right to quality education, where electronic tablets have replaced qualified teachers, and where unsafe structures are being passed off as schools. The study, “SCHOOLING THE POOR PROFITABLY: The innovations and deprivations of Bridge International Academies in Uganda,” co-authored by Curtis Riep and Mark Machacek, separates fact from fiction. It exposes the disconnect between Bridge’s various claims and the reality of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for education, which states that “all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education.”

The study reveals the operations of Bridge schools in Uganda where it sells its version of ‘education,’ or its standardised ‘Academy-in-a-Box,’ to an estimated 12,000 fee-paying students in 63 schools. Its teachers, untrained and unqualified, have been dumbed-down to content delivery agents and test score attendants rather than educators. What is too commonly referred to as ‘personalised learning’ is no more than scripted learning. It is worrisome that the World Bank, global education corporation Pearson, as well as billionaires Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, are supporting the education scam to the tune of $100 million USD.

I have often spoken of the ‘privatisation vultures’ circling overhead, waiting for the right moment to swoop in and pounce on a vulnerable victim. In the case of Uganda the vultures have already landed. Wearing Bridge colours, they are slowly picking away at the exposed public education system. But it is not too late to stop and reverse the course, to send Bridge packing.

The company’s approach of selling low-quality education to the poorest for profit involves the neglect of legal and educational standards established by the Government of Uganda. This includes requirements to employ qualified teachers, observe the national curriculum and standards related to school facilities. This is why this investigation comes at an urgent time for Education International’s Ugandan colleagues, and for the country’s education sector as a whole.

In August, following an announcement by the Minister of Education to close Bridge International Academies due to "poor hygiene and sanitation which put the life and safety of school children in danger," Bridge filed with the High Court of Uganda seeking an injunction in an attempt to appeal, and overturn, the Government’s decision.

Regardless of the outcome, the Ugandan Government must remain steadfast in demanding that Bridge operate in accordance with Ugandan legislative and regulatory requirements. The low fee for-profit chain must employ qualified teachers and deliver a curriculum consistent with and approved by the Ugandan educational authorities. Furthermore, the government must insist that facilities are safe and fit for purpose.

Teaching is human. It is personal. It is up close. None of this can be accomplished by a tablet instructing pupils when to sit, stand and head to lunch.

The 50th anniversary of the Recommendation on the Status of Teachers that the education community is celebrating today is in fact also a recommendation on the future of our children.

We must stand up for Uganda’s children so that they have access to a rigorous, rich curriculum, taught by well supported qualified teachers in safe environments conducive to good teaching and learning. And we must continue exposing those Western entrepreneurs who export education business models which they would never use at home for the education of their own children.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.