What is the biggest education challenge the world faces? It’s hard to argue with a number as large as 263 million. That is how many children around the world don’t go to school. Particularly worrying is the fact that, for all the myriad ways in which life for the world’s poorest is getting better, the number of primary-aged children in school is actually falling.
There’s also a bigger, equally troubling number. According to the 2017 Education Commission report, 330 million children are in school but still not learning the basics.
A 2017 academic paper by Professor Tessa Bold et al found that “teachers in sub-Saharan Africa perform poorly in several, likely complimentary dimensions. They teach too little, and they lack the necessary skills and knowledge to teach effectively when they do teach.”
The authors’ shocking conclusion is that, “if ‘adequate’ teaching is characterised as being taught by teachers with at least basic pedagogical knowledge and minimum subject knowledge in language and mathematics for the full scheduled teaching day, then essentially no public primary schools in these countries offer adequate quality education.”
It is no surprise that UNESCO has called the state of education in low-income countries a “global learning crisis”.
Bridge International Academies was founded in Kenya in 2007 to be part of the solution to this problem. The founders’ ambition was to set up low-fee, low-cost, for-profit schools in some of the poorest parts of the world. The organisation has the backing of high-profile investors including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates and has so far educated more than a quarter of a million children in 500 or so schools in Africa and India.
The company works on what it calls a school-in-a-box model, which is quickly and easily replicable around the world. Schools offer low fees – a global average of $7 per month – with teachers delivering scripted lessons using tablets. The fees are so low that, according to Bridge, even those living on extreme poverty (less than $1.25 a day) can afford to send two children to one of their schools. They use technology to exploit economies of scale: planning and administrative work is, wherever possible, done centrally. And the highly prescriptive nature of lessons at their schools, which will understandably not be everyone’s preferred approach, at least enables the company to deliver a minimum standard of education that otherwise might not have been available to pupils enrolled in one of their schools.
As well its low-fee schools, Bridge has a number of contracts to run public schools on behalf of governments. It has also received UK Aid funding. The Department for International Development recently backed them to set up schools in Lagos as part of its Developing Effective Private Education Nigeria Innovation Fund. The fund aims to “increase competition in the low-fee education market and to improve quality in low-fee schools in Lagos”.
Last week saw the publication of an independent report on the performance of the schools established in the city. The DFID-commissioned study, “Learning in Lagos”, compares the performance of the children in public schools, Bridge schools and other private schools. The results are a vindication of DFID’s decision to back the company.
It found that Bridge students outperform students at public and private schools in literacy: “80 per cent of students in Bridge schools perform above the sample average, compared to 62 per cent in private schools and 18 per cent in public schools”. Their teachers report higher motivation than teachers in other schools. The research also shows that “students from better socio-economic backgrounds have higher learning achievement in private and public schools, but not at Bridge schools”. In other words, Bridge schools in Lagos are delivering an education that is both of a higher standard and more equitable than the alternatives.
These findings are backed up by results elsewhere. Bridge pupils in Kenya, for example, have significantly outperformed the nationwide average in national exams over the last three years. Bridge looks a lot like a good news story: not just more schools in parts of the world that need them, but an approach that appears to be working where others have failed.
Given the scale of the global education problem, you would have thought that those fighting to improve the life chances of children born without the prospect of even the most basic kind of education would welcome the arrival of these effective reinforcements.
Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly given the company’s for-profit status, that has not proven to be the case. Bridge has been given a frosty reception by the bulk of the aid industry and development establishment, hard-wired as they are to treat profit with suspicion.
Earlier this year, a long list of organisations, including Oxfam, Unison and Amnesty International, signed a “public letter of concern to current or prospective investors in Bridge International Academies”. Their attack referenced “a robust and growing body of evidence” that “raises serious concerns about BIA’s corporate practices and the impact of their operations”. Specifically, their complaints were a “lack of transparency, poor labour conditions, and non-respect of the rule of law in host countries”.
Bridge’s response casts significant doubt on the idea that the evidence in question is “robust and growing”. For example, some of it is a series of vague and anonymous allegations compiled by campaigners who refer to education reform as a “GERM” which “must be stamped out”.
But more telling than the specifics of these complaints is the signatories’ recommended course of action. They do not argue for the company — which, remember, operates more than 500 schools – to fix the problems they claim to identify, or tweak their approach. Rather, their advice to investors is to “exit in the shortest possible time… We call on you to fully discharge your legal due diligence obligations and responsibilities by making no further financing commitments to Bridge schools.”
Of course, Bridge should not be above criticism. And transparency certainly matters. But setting up schools in low-income countries is unlikely to be an easy, error-free process. The company’s critics are not interested in it honing its model. Nor do they appear to ask themselves why it is that so many parents are voting with their feet and sending their children to a Bridge school.
In other words, Bridge’s presence on the global education landscape makes a lot of the established players uncomfortable. The company is certainly not a panacea but, the evidence that they are doing something right continues to pile up. And, given the sorry state of so much schooling in low-income countries, an alternative to the failed approaches that are repeated in the futile hope of different results is no bad thing.