Opinion: Why Uganda's threat to shut down Bridge International Academies' schools matters

By Andrew White 17 November 2016

Teacher at Bridge International Academies Kenya works with a student. Photo by: Bridge International Academies

Uganda’s High Court recently issued a ruling that jeopardizes efforts to dramatically expand vital education opportunities for millions of children globally.

On its face, the court’s ruling threatens the education of children at 63 Bridge International Academies that educate more than 12,000 Ugandan children. More broadly, the ruling represents the challenges confronted by any organization trying to build programs to ensure every child’s right to an education.

In too many developing countries, including Uganda, families who want an education for their children have only two options: government-run schools that too often are overcrowded and understaffed, or private schools where tuition is beyond the reach of most families. We must provide for millions of children around the globe to receive a high-quality education, escape generational poverty and achieve their potential.

This involves systemic changes in the status quo and how we approach education. Consequently, Bridge and others encounter fierce resistance from entrenched interests where the bottom line is threatened, and there always are many interests at play.

Because the status quo is so unacceptable, we are explicitly and unapologetically intent on disrupting dysfunctional education systems to better serve children in families from the so-called “bottom billion” of the world’s population. It is imperative that these schools remain available for families who choose them, who recognize and value the life-changing power of education.

Devex published a guest column from the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights on their view on private education in Uganda. Read the article here.

These schools offer practical lessons on how to achieve and spread real learning gains that will strengthen other schools and public systems worldwide. Here’s why we think our work in Uganda is important and what these alternative schools can provide.

Provide quality alternatives

In East Africa, the Uwezo initiative 2015 education report — the region’s largest scale household assessment of children’s basic literacy and numeracy skills — found that two-thirds of all Ugandan children tested in primary grades 3-7 were unable to read and solve division problems at a primary grade 2 level. Thirty percent of pupils nationally, whether in government-run or private schools, complete primary school without having mastered basic literacy and numeracy.

The Uwezo report also showed that the average teacher attendance rate in Ugandan government-run schools is just 47 percent. We need teachers who are committed to kids. And we need to leverage powerful technology and smart data to drive improvements in the schools. This can be done by providing teachers with mobile, detailed, up-to-the-minute lesson guides based on Uganda’s national curriculum.

We also need to consider cost. For an average monthly cost of $6 — on par with some government-run schools — Bridge equips teachers and delivers education to those most in need, even when families earn only a modest income. In Uganda, the median income of families we serve is just $1.42 per capita per day.

Leverage broad base of support

Families and teachers are speaking up for their schools. Families who experience directly the dramatic difference when a child — often for the first time — attends a school where there are ample supplies, motivated teachers, and where school sessions aren’t routinely cut short by teacher strikes provide compelling first-hand testimony about their child’s learning gains and attitudes toward school.

Listen to teachers and others with a passion for education. Some teachers from government-run schools who have grown frustrated with mismanagement, corruption and sporadic pay often choose to join Bridge, where they find a school that is passionately focused on teacher support and student learning.

Because Bridge teachers get the support the need, day in and day out, from professional development coaching, on-going training, and detailed teachers’ guides, they are better able to meet individual students’ needs. They like what they do and they show up.

Work closely with governments

When setting up operations, seeking approval to operate, and moving forward, Bridge and other innovative school providers must work closely with all required approval agencies or ministries at the local, regional and national level.

In Uganda, out of respect for due process and the rights of children, Bridge has filed an appeal to a ruling — based on a misinformation campaign — that halted the licensing process for 63 schools. Our focus remains on what matters most: learning and achieving success in the classroom for children. We are committed to continuing to work closely with the Ugandan government to resolve any outstanding issues.

Working closely with governments is the right approach because governments that struggle to provide an adequate education for all of their citizens are themselves valuable partners. We can work together and learn from each other for the sake of all children.  

In Liberia, for instance, Bridge is one operator of 25 schools under Partnership Schools for Liberia, an innovative pilot public-private partnership that operates government schools under a performance-based contract. This arrangement offers a best-of-both-worlds quality; it allows Bridge to serve every child, irrespective of their family’s ability to pay, and it allows Liberia to provide a better education — at far lower cost — for its citizens, while retaining the ability to hold Bridge accountable.

What’s next?

There is no denying that these changes are disruptive in many places. They are designed to be, so they draw fierce and unfair criticism from entrenched interests — from teachers unions to political opponents who philosophically oppose any private education — even when government-run schools are not enough, or not performing how they should yet.

The poorest children of the world cannot wait. These children and their families deserve good schools today. The demand for real learning at schools accessible to the poor and working class is an urgent global development issue. Until governments radically change current systems to ensure that every child can attend a great, public school, parents will rightfully continue to demand that their schools — schools they choose because they meet their children’s needs — stay open.

Families in the developing world — who are increasingly connected to the global community through technology and increasingly aware of the importance of education — are hungry for education alternatives that can help their children escape lives of inherited poverty and limited opportunity. With attention to the imperatives above, great innovative schools can help to meet that appetite and change the life trajectories for millions more young people.  

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About the author

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Andrew White

Andrew White has been the country director for Bridge International Academies since the company launched in Uganda in 2014. Andrew has worked in the nonprofit and social impact sectors in Uganda for more than seven years, focusing on education, enterprise and agriculture. He holds a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and prior to working in Uganda, lived and worked in Malawi, Swaziland and Zambia.


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