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ANALYSIS: Bridge Academies closure

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Bridge pupils protesting the closure of their school at parliament.

What it says about politics of education provision

The High Court in Kampala on Nov.4 confirmed the closure of Bridge International Academies, the American-owned schools that operate in Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and India and funded by American billionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and institutions such as CDC, IFC, and DFID.

In her ruling Justice Patricia Basazza Wasswa said Bridge Academies were operating in contravention of the law as they had been ordered to close by the Ministry of education.

“The Permanent Secretary Ministry of Education and Sports has all the mandate to promote quality control of education and training and the power to close institutions that do not comply with the set Basic requirements and minimum standards and the law,” she ruled.

The judge emphasised that her role in the saga is not to usurp the work of the executive arm of government but to ensure that its work is in conformity with the law.

“I have no basis whatsoever to fault the PS MoES in her decision to close the applicant’s academies for the reasons set out in her said letter of July 25, 2016,” she said.

The ruling marked the crest of several run-ins the academies have had with the Ministry of Education since they opened in Uganda in February 2015.

The ruling is a major blow following an earlier court ruling that had quashed an order on July 25 by the outgoing Permanent Secretary at the ministry of education, Rose Nassali Lukwago, to close the schools.

At the time, the High Court issued an injunction on the PS’s actions.

“The directions contained in the said letter are irrational, arbitrary, illegal and oppressive as they were issued without according the Applicant a hearing and were in the nature of a blanket order affecting all the Applicant’s 63 academies in Uganda that were never the subject of any investigation by the Ministry of Education and Sports.”

The court further stated: “The directions are extremely oppressive to the over twelve thousand pupils in the Applicant’s academies whose parents were never consulted before making such a decision.”

The closure of the schools also came at a time when pupils were sitting for their end of year exams. Fortunately, Bridge Academies was not presenting any candidates for the major Primary Leaving Exams (PLE) as they were expecting their first cohort in 2017.

Bridge Schools have over 12,000 pupils in 63 academies scattered across the country, especially in rural parts the country. The schools are in districts like Wakiso, Tororo, Mubende, Mpigi and Iganga and several others.

Their main attraction appears to be the low fees they charge with parents parting with an average of Shs80, 000 per term per child for primary education. Pupils in lower classes like Primary One could only pay Shs65, 000, which is a tenth of what some pupils in private schools in Kampala pay for a single term, including at government owned schools under the Universal Free Primary Education (UPE).

But Bridge’s low cost model appears not to have won over everyone. On several occasions, officials in the Ministry of Education have raised queries and written to Bridge Schools challenging them to improve their infrastructure, and raise their sanitation standards. They have also warned the schools against allegedly not adhering to the national curriculum and employing teachers without adequate training and academic qualifications.

Bridge’s mistake

The mistake Bridge Academies managers appear to have made is to treat the accusations as a passing nuisance that would disappear once the worth of their schools was established.

They persisted with hurried expansion, sometimes without the necessary paper. In their view, they said, for a country with pressing education needs; where some pupils in upcountry schools sit on floors during classes, others under trees, issues such as infrastructure should not be a major concern since they were offering the bare minimum- desks, classrooms and even conducting lessons using modern technology including tablet computers found nowhere else in Uganda.

But they had not factored in the politics of education provision in Uganda. Now, some observers say the pushback against Bridge Schools was influenced by the competition the schools gave to locally owned private schools because of the former’s more affordable fees. The success of the Bridge schools also exposed the faults in the government’s UPE programme as parents had started removing their children from the government programme. There is also a feeling that the international financial support going to Bridge Academies should instead go to the government.

Following the court ruling, many parents of Bridge pupils poured at the various schools to express their dismay at the decision. On Nov. 7, a group of parents took a petition to parliament to have the decision reversed.

Andrew White, the Expansion Director of Bridge International Academies says the court decision was unfair. He cited over 20,000 parents that he said are unhappy about the court decision.

“You can see the reaction on social media and even the other media about how many people are not happy with this. Everyone is asking; why is this happening to Bridge?”

Bridge Academies had already filed a notice of appeal and a stay of execution by close of day.

White told The Independent that immediately after the ruling, Bridge schools wrote a letter to the Permanent Secretary at the ministry requesting for a meeting.

“We wrote to both the outgoing and the incoming PS, even today (Nov 7) we wrote another letter because we believe this can be resolved. We believe we can still have an engagement with the officials there.” White says Shs10billion has been sunk into the schools.

White also said they are keeping all options open.

“The court process had stalled a lot of things. We had submitted our documents for licensing. The documents are ready. The districts have to first approve through their officials like District Education Officers, Chief Administrative Officers, they were waiting because the Ministry could not look at them saying the case is before court. So that is why we want a meeting now.”

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