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Bridge International Academies adds fear and intimidation to its business strategy

published 17 June 2016 updated 17 June 2016

By Angelo Gavrielatos, Project Director Global Response, Education International

The flailing reputation of the Pearson-backed ‘edu-business’ has fallen to a new low after it was caught spreading false accusations to have a Canadian academic researcher jailed while studying its Ugandan operations.

Just when it thought its business couldn’t get any worse, for-profit education provider Bridge International Academies has resorted to dangerous tactics to avoid questions of its practices. Last week, Canadian Curtis Riep, a University of Alberta doctoral student and researcher for the global teachers’ federation Education International (EI), found out the length the corporation is willing to go to silence its critics.

After arriving for a pre-arranged interview with school officials on 30 May, Riep was detained by police and later charged with impersonation and criminal trespass. Although he was dismissed after two days of questioning, the experience left him shocked.

“It shows to what extent they will go to muzzle and repress the truth about their operations,” said Riep, in e-mail correspondence. “Every school inspector and ministry official I have spoken with has told me about their unwillingness to cooperate and withhold information. This just happens to be another manifestation of that.”

Now safely back in Canada, Riep was unaware that days earlier Bridge published a ‘wanted ad’ in a national newspaper accusing him of impersonating one of its employees, an allegation proven to be false.

Addressing Bridge co-founder Shannon May in an open letter, EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen said that the company’s “actions have been exposed as not only unwarranted, but also irresponsible. We consider this whole episode and this behaviour totally unacceptable, and unworthy of an organisation which claims to have the interest of young people at heart.” Van Leeuwen has demanded Bridge to apologise to Riep in addition to compensating his legal expenses.

Bridge, operating so-called ‘low-fee,’ for-profit schools in Uganda, Kenya, is financially supported by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and education conglomerate Pearson Ltd. It is also supported by the World Bank and DfID-UK. Bridge’s business model, which includes fee charging schools run by unqualified teachers delivering a scripted standardised curriculum, has faced heavy criticism. Also attracting significant criticism is the Liberian Government’s announcement to outsource its primary schools to Bridge.

Although it promotes ‘affordable’ education to some of the world’s poorest children, Bridge forces families to pay for inadequate scripted lessons read from tablets. Many children are left to learn in questionable environments, such as classrooms lacking proper materials, including desks and chairs.

Education International, which represents more than 400 teacher organisations in 171 countries, is leading a global campaign against the privatisation and commercialisation of public education. Both Bridge and Pearson Ltd. are among the campaign’s corporate targets.

For Riep, the Uganda project followed studies on the Omega school chain in Ghana and the spread of APEC schools in the Philippines.

Despite the setback in Uganda, the company’s plans are moving forward elsewhere. In the wake of the Ebola outbreak and years of civil war, Bridge has set its sights on the impoverished country of Liberia and is lobbying its financially-strapped government to outsource its entire public education system.

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