A row over the future of low-cost private schools in Africa has escalated after one school company, backed by the UK government, was accused of intimidating its critics.
Bridge International Academies, which runs more than 500 primary and nursery schools in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Libya, as well as India, has high-profile backers including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
Education International (EI), a federation representing 32 million teachers and support staff, expressed “deep concern” over legal action by BIA against Kenya’s national teaching union, claiming it was an “increasingly desperate” attempt to silence critics. In a letter to the Department for International Development (DfID), EI said the UK government’s ongoing support for BIA is “beyond justification”.
BIA said the legal action they have taken in Kenya is to stop the union making untrue allegations.
One in four pupils in Africa is expected to be educated in the private sector by 2021, according to a new report, encouraging private investment in the market. But the issue is becoming increasingly controversial, with both private and some DfID-funded projects in Africa coming under fire over the standard of education and for entrenching inequality.
Last August, a high court in Kampala ordered the closure of 63 BIA schools across Uganda after finding that they used unqualified teachers, provided unsanitary learning conditions and were not properly licensed.
The court’s order has been put on hold, however, pending the result of an appeal by BIA.
In February, a court in Kenya upheld the decision of Busia county to close 10 Bridge schools for not meeting basic educational standards. The company has also attracted criticism for its teaching model, which requires teachers to follow scripted lessons off a tablet or smartphone.
The latest censure of the company follows political concerns about British support for low-cost private schools, including BIA. Last week, a parliamentary committee said the majority of low-cost schools were not serving the world’s poorest and most marginalised children, which is where DfID’s focus should be.
The EI board’s letter, sent last month to Nick Dyer, the director general of policy and global programmes, claims BIA uses “cost-cutting” methods –not least unqualified staff working in substandard conditions – to minimise operational costs and maximise profits. The EI board has unanimously adopted a resolution against BIA, accusing it of intimidation towards the Kenyan teaching union and its general secretary, Wilson Sossion. An injunction against Sossion prevents him from criticising BIA, said EI.
Teaching unions and NGOs have organised protests against BIA in London on Friday. Protesters will gather outside DfID headquarters and also at Pearson, a British-owned multinational education and publishing company, over support for privatised schools in Africa and Asia. Sossion, who is expected to attend the AGM, said he plans to appeal the injunction against him.
Last June, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child criticised a £3.5m investment in BIA by DfID as the chain set up 250 schools in Nigeria.
“Rapid increase in the number of such schools may contribute to sub-standard education, less investment in free and quality public schools, and deepened inequalities in the recipient countries, leaving behind children who cannot afford even low-fee schools,” the committee statement said.
Critics say that the use of private education means communities unable to pay may be excluded, potentially exacerbating social inequality.
Aisha Dodwell, campaigner at Global Justice Now, said: “Aid money could and should be used to support the development of robust public services to deliver education rather than supporting a controversial private-sector approach that has been shown time and time again to worsen conditions of inequality. DfID should instead be focusing on increasing its existing support for schemes that have proven successful results, such as the Global Partnership for Education. The GPE pools donor funds to strengthen public education systems in developing countries and achieve equitable, quality education and learning for all. Under the GPE, governments develop their own education plans in consultation with their citizens and civil society.”
A BIA spokesman said: “We are very happy to debate education and the models of provision we offer. We firmly believe debate should be informed by facts and based on evidence. Kenya National Union of Teachers has made allegations that are untrue and continues to share misleading information, despite being informed of their errors and evidence contrary to their claims. We also think it’s important that people in influential positions listen to the opinions of the African parents, teachers, pupils and others who support Bridge.”
He added that BIA “is and always has been, legally open in Uganda, where we are now serving 14,000 children”.