Kenyan teachers seek to follow Uganda’s lead; ban Gates-backed private schools

Global Partnership for Education CEO Alice Albright at a Bridge International Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. 2015. (Credit: Global Partnership for Education)

By Katy Migiro

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Kenyan teachers want the government to ban a chain of low-cost private primary and nursery schools, backed by Bill Gates and Britain’s aid budget, after it faced criticism from a court in neighboring Uganda for hiring unlicensed teachers.

Uganda’s high court on Friday ordered Bridge International Academies (BIA) to close 63 schools in the country for operating without a license, having poor sanitation and for using unregistered and unlicensed teachers, the judgment said.

The company, founded by a U.S. couple, started working in Uganda in 2015 after opening 405 schools in Kenya since 2009 that use an ‘academy-in-a-box’ model in which teachers read lessons from a tablet computer.

However, the fast-growing company has faced opposition from teachers unions in Kenya and Uganda, where it often hires staff who have not undergone government training to read scripted lessons, delivered via the internet.

“These academies should not be allowed to operate anywhere in third-world countries,” said Wilson Sossion, secretary-general of the Kenya National Union of Teachers, adding that his union would release a report criticizing BIA in December. “We want to believe that will open the eyes of the government of Kenya to move a step further to close down Bridge schools.”

Kenyan government officials were not immediately available for comment.

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Low-cost private schools are expanding across the region, particularly in unplanned slums where there are not enough government schools.

Last year, the United Nations adopted an ambitious set of development goals, pledging to leave no one behind, including the 57 million children around the world who are not in primary school – most of them in Africa.

BIA, which aims to reach 10 million students by 2025, targets families that live on $2 per person per day, keeping its costs down through technology, standardized content and scale among other factors.

Tuition fees in Uganda range from 54,000 shillings ($15) to 108,000 shillings ($30) per term, depending on age and location.

Ghost teachers

BIA has filed documents to appeal the Ugandan ruling, citing its adherence to government standards, BIA’s Expansion Director in Uganda Andrew White told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Bridge is being singled out by other vested interests who fear the innovation and changes that Bridge could bring to the education sector,” White said.

Rates of teacher absenteeism are more than 25 percent in Kenya and Uganda and large sums are lost through the payment of ‘ghost’ teachers who do not exist, according to a 2013 report by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

With BIA’s tech-based approach, teachers have to log in and out each day, cutting absenteeism to below 2 percent, White said.

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“A teacher cannot be absent in our class,” he said. “A ghost can’t log in and can’t log out.”

BIA’s entrepreneurial approach has won it financial backing from Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar, the wealthy founders of Facebook and eBay, as well as the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation.

But increased foreign investment in private-sector schools, has been controversial, with campaigners calling for a greater focus on the right to free, quality public education.

Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has come under fire for investing $7.1 million of taxpayers’ money in BIA through its development-finance arm, CDC, and the venture capital firm Novastar.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child criticized DFID’s funding of private schools in July, saying it could contribute to substandard education and leave behind children who cannot afford even low-fee schools.

“Our priority is to ensure children in the world’s poorest countries get the education they deserve, regardless of whether the school is public or private,” a DFID spokesman said. “When state provision is not delivering for the poorest, we work with low-cost privately run schools to provide an education to children who would otherwise get none.”

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  • James Crawford

    It would be interesting to find out if these schools were actually working vs the alternative. Seems like the criticism is largely coming from teachers unions which have their own interests in mind.

    • It is a great question and something we are trying to find out. The debate right now seems to be about the nature of the schools and not impact. From what I’ve learned so far, the truth is somewhere between the claims made by supporters and opponents. Which direction that tips the scale is the goal to understand.

      • James Crawford

        Completely agree. There is certainly truth on both sides. To what degree, time will tell. In my time living in Uganda, locals took their kids out of public schools and into private the first chance they could get time and time again. Not that private schools are the answer but I am a huge believer in new ideas and experimenting since there is so much we don’t know. Interesting to see how it plays out.

        • That is in part the argument that drives the pilot in Liberia. Schools are performing poorly and parents want better options.

  • Monica Mburu

    The people who are opposed to these schools are simply malicious. The government schools are way overloaded with too many students and too few teachers. The school structures are very bad state and the hygiene standards are very poor. The economically disadvantaged are continuously being down trodden. These schools are a good idea and we should be embracing them. Instead of shouting for them to be closed down (and where would the students go?) they should just find ways to ensure they are maintaining good educational standards.