Worlds of Education

Bridge schools long overdue for a reality check

published 4 December 2016 updated 4 December 2016

By Fred van Leeuwen, General Secretary, Education International 

When the world marks International Human Rights Day on December 10 it will do so in what are trying times around the globe. Amid an ever-increasing conflict between the rights of people and the rights of corporations, we are witnessing a fraying of our democratic principles. And when we look at the state of public education in too many countries, the situation is no different.

Under Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the United Nations enshrined the right to education nearly 69 years ago. And last year that right was reinforced by the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, which commits states to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. This is reinforced by Target 4.1 which states “that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education.” It could not be any clearer. However, as unifying as the words contained in both documents are, they have not proven able to deter all who seek to exploit and profit from a child’s right to a free, quality education.

In Education International’s latest report detailing the operations of for-profit private edu-business Bridge International Academies, or BIA, the focus turned to Kenya, home to the first Bridge school in 2009. What began as a fringe initiative in a Nairobi slum has since spread like an invasive plant throughout Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia and India.

Marketed to the poor as an ‘affordable’, alternative to public education, Bridge vs. Reality: a study of Bridge International Academies’ for-profit schooling in Kenya reveals how the company’s operations have left a trail of empty promises, failing to live up to its sales pitch.

Behind the sheen of glossy advertising, Bridge’s operations more closely resemble a profit seeking company rather than an education provider. The report details how the vast majority of BIA students and their families are being lured into believing that school fees equate quality, and this begins with the for-profit chain’s teachers. First-hand accounts reveal how most Bridge teachers are not only unqualified and overworked, but are also found to be demotivated by being forced to ‘teach’ from scripts read from electronic tablets. However, we know that teaching is a human endeavor. It is personal. It is up close. None of this can be accomplished by a tablet instructing teachers to direct pupils when to sit, stand and head to lunch.

To make things worse, Bridge fees are in fact far higher than those advertised, leaving parents to struggle to keep their children in school as they try to ensure they provide the basics for their families, food, shelter and healthcare. Forcing further poverty upon those already burdened with debt and alarmingly low earnings is unjust and ethically wrong. One wonders what the backers of BIA, the likes of the World Bank, the UK’s aid agency DfID, global edubusiness Pearson and billionaires, Bill and Melinda Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, make of this.

While these are the hard facts about Bridge schools, this latest report goes beyond the ‘known knowns’ and delves further with testimonies by administrators, academy managers, teaching staff, parents and students.

To accompany the written report, Education International has produced a video which exposes the stark disconnect between what Bridge claims and what the reality in the classroom is. The images captured in the video cut through Bridge’s sleek promotional packages to expose the reality, and it is not pretty.

When the world takes pause next week to acknowledge human rights, we must not forget that education is at the core of those rights. This is why we must stand up for all Kenyan children to ensure that they have the access to a free quality education they are entitled to. All children have a right to be taught by qualified teachers; quality teaching and learning tools; and quality teaching and learning environments.

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