Uganda’s closure of Pearson-backed academies raises questions re low-cost schools in global south

Janet Downs's picture

Uganda has closed all schools run by Bridge International Academies (BIA), a global chain of for-profit, supposedly ‘low-cost’, private schools.  The schools, backed by international edu-business Pearson and philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, were shut after only one of the 63 schools had been licensed.  BIA schools had poor hygiene and sanitation, operated in shoddy buildings and used materials which ‘could not promote pupil interaction’.

BIA received funding from the Department for International Development to the embarrassment of Education Secretary Justine Greening who was in charge of DfID when the funding was agreed.  

In 2016, DfID expressed concern that UK taxpayers were funding an organisation that couldn’t be accessed by the poorest 10%.  In its report on Nigeria, where BIA also operates, DfID found the alleged affordability was misleading.  BIA claimed it could educate children for $6 a month but Dr Joanna Härmä, Centre for International Education, told DfId’s International Development Committee the real fee was about $15 a month.  DfId concluded that even BIA’s minimum fees ‘may be prohibitively expensive’ outside Lagos state.  And even inside Lagos, Dr Härmä told DfID that BIA would never set up a school in a slum area ‘because there is no market for them there’.

And there’s the crux -   markets must be found if organisations offering low-cost schooling are to set up schools.   In poor countries this is done by proposing low fee-paying schools (LFPs) which can then buy in products deliverable by untrained staff; in the West it’s done by rubbishing state education and claiming it’s failing. 

But market-led options aren’t sustainable for remote areas nor are they “socially equitable”.  It would be better to improve the quality of education for all rather than rely on LFPs,

Providers of low-cost schooling such as BIA are not motivated by altruism but by making a profit.  And when market forces enter education, equity is at risk.  UNESCO* agrees:

‘Where access depends on paying fees, many of the poorest are left behind. And private providers are highly unlikely to locate to sparsely populated and remote areas, so reliance on private provision can reduce educational and social equity for poor and remote populations.’

When organisations like BIA make inroads into education, it can reduce a government’s capability or willingness to provide state-funded free education for all.   Sidelining state provision can prove lucrative for organisations seeking to profit out of providing an alternative.  But education is a human right not a commodity that can be bought and sold.

*Quoted by DfID page 39 






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Matthew Bennett's picture
Mon, 15/08/2016 - 17:38

Earlier this year, the Liberian government announced that, under a new ‘Partnership Schools’ project, all state provision of primary and nursery education will be outsourced to private companies – a decision which the UN special rapporteur, Kishore Singh, called ‘a gross violation of the right to education’.  Bridge International Academies is running a pilot programme involving 50 schools; the final five-year contract will be worth around $65 million.

C. Patrick Burrowes, a Liberian-American academic, has described Bridge International Academies as ‘bottom feeders, preying on the weakest of the weak’.  But BIA is not the only predator here.  Reading the Liberian Minister of Education’s official statement on ‘Partnership Schools’, it is difficult not to hear echoes of DfE and academy chain rhetoric.  The scheme will ‘bring new ideas, new capacity, new systems and new expertise to a system that is struggling to deliver’.  The privatised schools will be centres of ‘excellence’ and ‘innovation’ from which ‘technologies, pedagogies and other models … can be scaled to other public schools’.  And so on.

The explanation is simple:  the minister had been talking to ARK.  More specifically, to their international ‘PPP advice team’, which is currently ‘working with governments in Latin America, Africa and Asia to design and implement public-private partnerships for education’.  The powerpoint used by the ARK team suggests that Liberian officials were lectured about the transformation of English state education by ARK’s ‘pro-poor Academies’ – whatever that means – and their ‘total systems approach’ (the powerpoint can be found here:  ARK have set up an Education Partnership Group to drive forward similar public-private partnerships in South Africa, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Kenya and India.

In an excellent article ( ), Tamasin Cave recently drew attention to the British government’s promotion of educational technology as part of its ‘international education strategy’.  This calls for Britain to be ‘at the forefront of the ed tech revolution’, exporting ‘new and affordable models’ of mass schooling around the world.  Presumably DfID’s funding of BIA is part of this strategy.  But, as Cave points out, these ‘new and affordable models’ are not only being sold to failing states like Liberia.  ARK’s Pioneer Academy, currently being built on an old football ground in Barnet, will be a ‘blended learning’ school, closely modelled on the schools created by the US charter chains Rocketship and Carpe Diem (and, of course, KIPP).  According to ARK, the ‘innovative’ use of technology in the new academy – the combination of computer-based instruction with ‘face-to-face’ instruction by teachers and / or assistants – will ‘improve cost efficiency through both staffing and school design efficiencies’.

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