The UK must stop aid to failing private schools

How on earth did we get to the point where our aid spending funded schools which two African countries are trying to shut down, and which have been criticized by UN human rights organizations? Nick Dearden asks

On Theresa May’s recent visit to Africa she was unashamed about using aid money to promote business interests, creating a UK-Africa relationship that is ‘more and more about private investment’. This isn’t new – the use of aid money to boost the profits of transnational corporations rather than undermine poverty has been a scandal for years. But one particularly shocking case that went entirely overlooked during May’s trip is British aid funding for ‘low cost’ private schools in Africa.

Not only are these schools unaffordable for the poorest people who should be benefiting from aid money, but the educational standards have been reported to be so low, the buildings so shoddy, and the teaching conditions so poor, that authorities in Kenya and Uganda are taking action to shut the schools down.

Today, with the help of human rights and education experts from the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Culture Rights, the Right to Education Initiative and the National Education Union, I wrote to Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary, to demand the immediate suspension of all funding to these schools. The facts make for painful reading.

Bridge International Academies is a network of private pre-primary and primary schools, operating across Africa and Asia, using what it calls the ‘school in a box’ model, a highly-standardized approach with scripted lessons which teachers have to deliver mechanically, word by word. Bridge draws investment from educational multinational Pearson, Bill Gates, the World Bank and the British Department for International Development (DfID). DfID has funded these schools with well over USD$26 million ( GBP£20 million) from direct and indirect funds.

The problems start with the cost. Although the schools are said to be ‘low cost’ they are in practice too expensive for many parents. Studies in Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria found the fees to attend the schools were significantly higher than the $6 per month claimed by the company. In Kenya, tuition fees alone ranged from $6.40 to $10.57 a month. But when you add mandatory items, such as uniforms, the monthly costs jump to an average of over $17 per month, well out of reach of poorer families.

In Kenya, 58 per cent of pupils interviewed reported that they had missed school due to non-payment of fees. A whopping 91.5 per cent of parents admitted that they opted not to send all of their children to the schools, as they lacked sufficient funds. The vast majority of parents had difficulty paying rent, providing food, or accessing healthcare due to the effects of fees. In Liberia, campaigners report that children who previously accessed their local schools were turned away when Bridge took over and imposed restrictions.

Then there’s the quality of education received. Teachers in Kenya were found to be mostly secondary school leavers without formal teaching qualifications. Although the company is trying to recruit more qualified teachers, the scripted lesson plans, which are designed in the USA, are delivered on an e-tablet, which must be followed without deviation. This is great news for the companies that provide the technology, but not for the pupils who receive an education that even the teachers might not understand or be able to elaborate on.

Teachers themselves have been found to work excessive hours of up to 65 hours a week, for a salary below the national minimum wage guidelines. One Bridge teacher told researchers: 'When you are sick, teachers are not insured.… maybe you can’t afford to go to the hospital because our salary is so low.' In Uganda one study found that Bridge had hired unlicensed and unregistered teachers, a violation of the country’s education law.

Bridge schools themselves have been reported to violate basic health and safety standards, with some instructed to close on that basis. In fact, there are currently three criminal cases against three Bridge academy managers for failing to meet health, safety and sanitation. A New York Times journalist noted that in 'One of these schools… The schoolyard fence was made of patched, bent gray metal and barbed wire. The school building itself was shabby and neglected. In the schoolyard, about 30 feet away from where children enter their classrooms, was a deep trench of fetid garbage and rotting bags of faeces.'

Finally Bridge stands accused of being opaque, making full assessment of the schools difficult. One extreme example relates to the experience of an independent researcher who was arrested at the request of Bridge in Uganda when attempting to collect evidence. The allegations were later considered baseless by the police. In Kenya, Bridge has used the courts several times to sue over defamation – though they have lost all cases so far.

No wonder then that Bridge has been the subject of strong campaigns in Kenya and Uganda. In August 2016 the Ugandan minister of education, Janet Museveni, announced to parliament her intention to close the 63 Bridge schools in her country, noting the teaching 'material used could not promote teacher pupil interaction' and that 'poor hygiene and sanitation… put the life and safety of the school children in danger'. After lengthy court action and negotiations, there is still a standoff between Bridge and the government.

In Kenya, Bridge stands accused of infringing the Basic Education Act. In one example from the west of the country, authorities decided in 2014 to close local Bridge schools for not complying with minimum education standards, including failure to employ trained teachers. The court confirmed in 2017 that 10 schools could be closed – though there again, the situation is unclear as the company is negotiating with the authorities.

The involvement of British aid has attracted the attention of the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee, which expressed concerns about the quality of education, lack of compliance with regulations, and high cost. In April 2017, following an inquiry of several months, the committee concludes: 'We would not recommend DFID make any further investments in Bridge until it has seen clear, independent evidence that the schools produce positive learning outcomes for pupils. Even at that time, we would want to see a compelling case for any further DFID support.'

In 2016, both the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child went as far as saying that the UK could be infringing its human rights obligations in its funding to Bridge and that it 'may have contributed to undermining the quality of free public education and created segregation and discrimination among pupils and students.'

How on earth did we get to the point where our aid spending funded schools which two African countries are trying to shut down, and which have been criticized by UN human rights organizations?

Nothing in the Bridge case means we should slash the aid budget. This money could play a useful role in helping develop comprehensive free and public education across the world. It’s exactly this model which helped undermine poverty and reduce inequality in Britain after all. But to achieve that we must move away from the idea, which our government has embraced, that the ‘market knows best’ when it comes to education. It doesn’t.