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Bridge Schools: Poor education for the poor?

Bridge schools
A class goes on at Bridge International Academy, Nabaziza. PHOTO INDEPENDENT/Ian Katusiime

Despite its low cost education, Bridge International Academies has come under fire for the quality of its infrastructure

Nabaziza village just off Kyengera town – about 12kms outside Kampala city on the Masaka Highway-in Wakiso district is the home of a Bridge International academy. Reached via a dusty heavily potholed road, the school comprises about four buildings of un-plastered burnt clay brick walls and iron sheet roofs.

Around the school are residential houses; mainly two-roomed houses for the semi-urban low income community. There are also some tiny shops selling sachets of salt, soda and wheat buns. It is from here and surrounding areas that the pupils wake up every morning to attend the school.

Inside the classrooms, pupils aged between six and 12 years sit two-by-two on unpolished wood benches with attached desks. Most of them do not wear school uniform while their teachers wear shiny lemon green coloured T-shirts which make them easy to spot. One of them is Abas Kabanda who allows us to take a look around while he teaches.

Unlike most Ugandan teachers who rely on chalk and black with cane in hand, Abas takes his lesson for the day off a tablet computer. He appears to read directly from the tablet most of the time and explains off the cuff once in a while. He also writes on the blackboard as the pupils scribble notes in their exercise books. The class is small – about 20 pupils.

After initially being praised, Bridge Academy schools in Uganda have been in the news lately for the wrong reasons. They are being criticised over their methods of teaching, poor facilities, and alleged failure to follow licensing procedures.

Tony Mukasa Lusambu, the Assistant Commissioner for Primary Education in the Ministry of Education, says the government is not happy about how the Bridge Academies train their teachers, the curriculum they use, and the infrastructure at their schools.

“We first got concerned when officials from Bridge Schools made a presentation to the Basic Education Working Group, (a ministerial body) in March this year,” says Lusambu, “We sent some teams to establish some facts and we realised there were issues”.

An investigation by The Independent, however, reveals that the schools appear to be feeling the weight of two perennial Ugandan project implementation problems. The first is the tendency to implement anything as long as it has a big name behind it. Bridge Academies were easily embraced because of the big names behind them. These include American billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates of Microsoft, Zuckerburg Education Ventures, and the British Department for International Development (DFID), the International Finance Corporation and others.

Secondly, it appears the academies are under scrutiny now because of a tendency in Uganda to implement first, and ask questions later.

Not the worst

In this case, the scrutiny follows the detention by police of one Curtis Riep, a Canadian national, who was visiting Bridge schools unannounced.

According to Bridge officials who alerted police, Curtis was posing as an employee of the schools and claiming to be conducting research. The officials got concerned when he declined to identify himself or reveal the intentions of his research.

It later emerged that Riep is a PhD student in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. His interests in research involve the interdisciplinary study of global political economy and privatizations in education with a specific focus on the growth of multinational education corporations and their operations in various contexts. Riep was reportedly commissioned by Education International, a global federation for teachers unions based in Brussels, to conduct research on Bridge services in Uganda.

But in a statement Bridge says “Even if Mr. Riep’s intentions were noble, the means in which he undertook his studies were fraudulent and counterproductive. The code of ethics in conducting research requires informed consent, and does not allow lying about a researcher’s identity.

“What would be a school’s response anywhere in the world to an unknown adult man repeatedly making his way onto school grounds and coming into close proximity with young children? I would hope that they too would sound the alarm to ensure that no harm befalls a pupil. Ugandan pupils should be afforded the same rights and protection.”

But Curtis Riep has his supporters. A Ugandan NGO, Action Aid came out in support of Education International and Curtis Riep saying Bridge has “questionable business practices”.

In a statement published on its website, Action Aid says it is worried that Bridge is continuing its expansion with a diverse range of sponsors who include Bill Gates, the world’s richest man and Mark Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook in spite of its activities being queried by human rights bodies.

Bridge International Academies runs 63 schools in Uganda that authorities say are too poorly furnished to operate

“The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) expressed concerns about the UK “funding of low-fee, private and informal schools run by for-profit business enterprises” through its development aid on the grounds that it could be contributing to the violation of children’s rights in recipient countries.”

The Ministry of Education’s new interest in Bridge schools could, therefore, be an attempt to appear to be in charge. The ministry has vowed to take sterner action if the schools do not conform to approved practice.

On April 6, the management of Bridge Schools, Uganda received a letter from the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education instructing the international chain of schools to halt their plans for expansion in the country. The Permanent Secretary expressed concern over Bridge School’s quality of infrastructure, the training of its teachers, and the methodology used to teach the primary school curriculum and also over unlicensed schools in some districts.

Bridge Academy International opened in Uganda in February 2015 and operates 63 schools in total, 18 in Wakiso and the rest in districts like Tororo, Masaka, Jinja, Soroti and Kasese.  The Bridge schools were initially praised for promising to offer affordable low cost education for primary schools.

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