Worlds of Education

Keeping Our Responsibility to All Children

published 17 March 2017 updated 17 March 2017

On the occasion of  GESF, Angelo Gavrielatos reminds us of our responsibility to provide free quality education for all children. Follow @ AGavrielatos to stay infomed on the debate,"This House Would Ban Low-Cost Private Schools in the Developing World" happening at 11.30 (UTC+4), 18/3/17.

By Angelo Gavrielatos, Education International

No odds maker in the world is taking wagers on the fate of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but tens of millions of dollars continue to be bet against the success of one of the key goals, to ensure inclusive and quality education for all.

One such gambler is Bridge International Academies, an operator of so-called 'low-fee' for-profit private schools in multiple countries that are seeking to displace public education systems. According to the Economist, a Bridge “presentation to investors in 2016 promised a “multi-billion dollar opportunity” with projected net earnings of nearly $250m by 2025 and revenues of almost $750m.”

The urgency of supporting public education as a human right and public good has been well established as has been the importance of education in achieving most of the other SDGs including ending poverty and hunger, and ensuring health, gender equality, and environmental sustainability.

Meeting the goals by 2030 will take an unprecedented mobilisation of political will. Since 2002, the share of international aid to education has fallen from 13 percent to 10 and government spending across countries of all income groups has declined. At a time when governments should be investing, they are pulling back.

The situation is serious enough that UN Special Envoy for Global Education and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was tasked to lead a Global Commission on Education Finance. Not everyone agrees with every aspect of the Commission’s work for the past 17 months, but the focus on governmental accountability along with a call for a significant increase in resources for public education is strong.

Brown told a British parliamentary committee in January, “if we are going to meet our goals, we must be able to say that there is public provision that is free of charge and universally available for children in every area of the world. We cannot rely on either the charitable sector or the private sector providing the guarantee of universal education, because they cannot. What we have to do is ensure there is sufficient public provision and funding of education so that we meet our goals.”

The bet being placed against the education SDG is a bet against quality and universality. Bridge and other private operators have a business model that allows neither. To satisfy investors and meet corporate targets, private operators must sacrifice both quality and access, two of the pillars of SDG4.

In every country we have observed, the return on investment for so-called 'low-fee' for-profit schools depends on the employment of unqualified staff in substandard facilities delivering a curriculum that fails to meet national standards. And the poor are left behind. The demands of a profit-making entity in education are inevitable and inexorable – a downward pressure on professional standards, salaries and working conditions for teachers, and ultimately the quality of education.

In the Philippines, 70 percent of staff employed by private operator Affordable Private Education Centres do not have required professional accreditation required to teach. A joint venture between Philippines-based AYALA and global education giant Pearson, APEC operates in leased facilities that lack adequate space for libraries, gymnasiums, science and/or computer laboratories. And the lowest-income families in the Philippines would have to expend, on average, an estimated 40 percent of their annual household income to send one child to an APEC school.

In Ghana, the Pearson-funded Omega Schools Franchise employs high-school graduates as teachers  paying them a fraction of what professionally trained and qualified teachers receive in the public sector.Omega Schools are not ‘low-fee’, ‘budget’ or ‘affordable’ options for the poorest families in Ghana at all. This ‘low-fee’ private-school model is out of reach for the ‘last 10%’ who remain out of school in Ghana. Only 1 out of 437 students sampled said that Omega was the first school they had attended school prior to their enrolment at Omega. So much for increasing access for the poor.

In Uganda, Bridge International Academies schools, funded and supported by the World Bank, DfID – UK, Pearson and the tech fortunes of investors including Microsoft’s Gates and Facebook’s Zuckerberg, were ordered shut down by the government for the companies neglect and disregard for national legal and educational requirements. In announcing the closure of Bridge in Uganda, the minister sited the company’s failure to employ qualified teachers (more than 80% of Bridge staff are not qualified), failing to confirm to the Ugandan curriculum and poor hygiene and sanitation that “put the life and safety of the school children in danger.” The average family in Uganda would pay approximately a quarter of its income per child to be admitted to Bridge schools.

In Kenya, more than 70 percent of Bridge teachers are not qualified. They are directed to follow a standardised highly scripted curriculum reading off a tablet. One teacher told researchers, “We do not plan any lesson. We follow the tablets to the letter. We are robots being directed by tablets.” Research shows half the population of Kenya would use 20 percent of their income per child to attend Bridge.

As we build momentum for the SDGs, public education advocates will continue to monitor and expose privatisers who place their bets and their investors’ fortunes on unqualified staff and sub-standard curriculum and facilities to make their earnings’ targets in schools they wouldn’t let their own children near. Unlike them, the rest of us have a responsibility to other people’s 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.