It seems like we had just written about Bridge International the other day and the dangers of locking whole educational systems into for-profit industries and their paint by number pedagogies and school in a box systems. And here we are again as Uganda’s education minister just announced that the government is closing 63 schools at sites operated by the Bridge International Academies (BIA) due to national standards being ignored and the “life and safety” of some 12,000 children were endangered because of poor hygiene and sanitation.” Yes, they do have educational standards (even a teacher training curriculum!) in Uganda and they are not for you to ignore, Bridge. I am looking for corroborating reports or further detail about what the poor hygiene and sanitation refers to, but I can’t imagine it is positive.
Initially enthusiastic, some cracks started to show earlier this year as Uganda halted expansion of Bridge Academies in April citing the same things we are hearing now: poor infrastructure, teacher training, standards, etc. Yet even the month before in March, government officials were (cautiously) optimistic about the partnership with Bridge, as addresses to 320 graduates of the Bridge Partnership School program suggests. But go pear-shaped it did as these new government directives effectively shutting down the programme altogether in Uganda can attest. I am not sure if this is a case of waking up to certain unpleasant realities of the partnership, a civic pushback on what is viewed (not necessarily incorrectly, mind you) as a neo-liberal foreign takeover of their public institutions, or some response to government or civilian overreach, but I think the tide has turned on this experiment.
Even though they just signed with Bridge International earlier this year for Bridge to supervise the pre-primary education for five years (all of it, essentially) with the entire primary education system to follow, Liberia has taken note and concerns are already surfacing about whether this programme will be supported in the next administration which is just about to take office. Also, Minister George Werner appears to be expressing concerns over Bridge’s method “amid reports that education partners may be contemplating walking away if the Minister insists on the Randomized Control Trial, which Bridge does not want to agree to.
Yes, Bridge International is pushing back on a randomized control trial; they seemingly want to select the schools involved in the trial rather than use the government’s lists and are seemingly willing (mind you, from one source) to go to court to say that the Liberian government breached their own Memorandum of Understanding with Bridge International. Neither side looks particularly good in this scenario and it is likely that this will be a political issue for some time to come.
What is worse is the high-level backing BIA has received: the World Bank; Pearson, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, DFID, among others. Due diligence is a good thing, team. As is risk management: once people wake up to the ramifications of what they had just signed away, there was bound to be blowback. India knew about this; this should be required reading for all in education technology in developing regions or anywhere for that matter:
It isn’t like privatization of education is exclusive to developing nations, but it is especially acute in areas that need to bolster their own teachers using their own curricula to meet their own development agenda. It will be messy and inefficient (as education often is), but it has to be theirs. Support them with teacher training and advanced pedagogy by all means, teach them how to teach with tech responsibly and ethically, build digital literacy (as my colleagues here and here have called for in recent weeks), but don't replace them with instrumentation and calibration. Get messy and build a durable, sustainable curriculum with Uganda, not one merely directed at them.