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Why World Bank praise for a profit-making education firm in Kenya was a bad idea

A school run by Bridge International Academies in Nairobi, Kenya. GlobalPartnership for Education/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim has come under fire for a speech he gave in April at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in which he pointed out the importance of investment in education in order to end extreme poverty. However, his only example was the supposed success of one private, for-profit company. Kim said:

We know that using new technology can help transform educational outcomes. For example, Bridge International Academies uses software and tablets in schools that teach over 100,000 students in Kenya and Uganda. After about two years, students’ average scores for reading and math have risen high above their public school peers. The cost per student at Bridge Academies is just $6 a month.

Bridge International Academies is a for-profit education company that has set up a network of 405 private primary schools in Kenya and seven in Uganda. It is owned by the US firm, New Globe Schools founded in 2007 to actively pursue a new education market – what some have called the “bottom billion”. There are plans to expand the model in Nigeria and India.

Kim’s statement about Bridge International Academies – which the World Bank funds through its investment arm the International Finance Corporation – troubled many people in the international education community and over 100 regional, national, and global civil society organisations released their own statement highlighting their concerns.

Problems with a ‘school in a box’

Kim made three points about Bridge in his speech. Those discontented with Kim’s speech suggest that each one of these points is either misleading or incorrect. His first point, that Bridge “uses software and tablets in schools” could be misinterpreted. Readers may assume that the students in Bridge had access to computers. Not at all. Barely trained, unqualified, poorly paid teachers are given a tablet to deliver and control a totally scripted curriculum to students, who do not have access to their own tablets.

Teachers in its schools are expected to all read aloud to the students, word-for-word, the content delivered on the tablet at the same time in each school every day. This teacher turned-robot barely deserves to be called education and would not be tolerated in most schools in most developed countries. The name Bridge applies to itself, school-in-a-box, is perhaps appropriate.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim has come under fire. Kimmo Brandt/EPA

Kim’s second point, that Bridge student test scores “have risen high above their public school peers” appears to be the result of a study financed by Bridge International Academies itself. Kim has been severely criticised for using this source as evidence of the efficacy of the teaching model. Few respectable researchers would cite a company’s own studies as valid evidence of the efficacy of a product. Criticism by Berkeley education professor Erin Murphy-Graham of Bridge’s study has suggested its analysis of the data was misleading.

In response to these criticisms, Keith Hansen, global practices vice president at the World Bank, told The Conversation that it is “supporting a rigorous, independent impact evaluation of the Bridge program in Kenya, the first large-scale randomized controlled trial of fee-paying schools in sub-Saharan Africa”.

For many, this is much too late – Kim has already praised the system and the World Bank, via its investment arm the IFC, has already invested US$10m of taxpayers’ money in the programme. Bridge has also attracted more than US$100m from international investors, including Bill Gates, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, education company Pearson, and the UK’s Department for International Development.

Not just $6 a month

Kim’s third point, that Bridge costs “just US$6 a month” is also misleading and does not reflect developing country reality.

Fees vary by grade, and $6 is the average, according to Bridge. Adding in fees for exams, uniforms, and other expenses means that costs per pupil per month can range from $9 to $13 – up to two times higher than Kim suggested. And this does not include the optional costs of breakfast and lunch, for which Bridge says it charges an additional $7.50 per month.

For many of the poor in Kenya and Uganda, such costs are out of reach, requiring more than a quarter of their income to just send one child to school. Those who do send children to private schools can be forced to make invidious choices, often only able to afford, barely, to send one child, usually a boy, and to leave their other children out. It has been estimated that the urban poor in Kenya spend between 60%-65% of their income on food. Sending a child to school for US$6 a month means taking money away from necessary expenses on food, water, and health care.

Reverse decline of public education

As I have argued elsewhere, 30 years of neo-liberal policies have often left public schools around the world over-crowded, with poorly trained teachers, few learning materials, dilapidated facilities, and not close by.

More than 120 million primary and lower-secondary school children around the world are not in school, and more than 200 million young people have not learned basic skills even if they have attended school. As Kim himself acknowledged in his speech: “Over 50% of young people in Kenya who have completed six years of schooling cannot read a simple sentence. Over 70 percent of children completing primary school in Mozambique do not have basic numeracy skills. These low achievement levels have devastating implications for when people look for jobs.”

In Kenya, parents can be charged extra fees for what is meant to be free primary education and some parents are suing the government over the issue.

It is no wonder that some parents opt out from public schools – and Bridge says that there are more than 118,000 students enrolled in its schools. However, while it is rational for some disadvantaged individuals to send their children to private schools, many disagree with a public policy that promotes privatised education, as recent criticisms make clear.

Privatisation in education increases inequality, provides no learning gains, and de-professionalises teachers. The right of children to free basic education is enshrined in numerous international agreements. While in practice there are often fees for public education, they are being challenged and eliminated around the world. Privatisation is supposed to help meet the growing education gap resulting from years of attack on the public sector, but all it does is replace an attempt to develop good public policy with the vagaries of charity or a narrow focus on profit-making.

Too often everything is about the bottom line vs the interests of children. We will not bridge the gap between the soaring rhetoric of Education for All goals, the Millennium Development Goals, and their successors and the too-dismal reality of our education efforts through privatisation.

The World Bank has been the most influential global marketeer in pushing for the privatisation of education for over three decades, based on ideology not evidence, as I and my colleagues detail in our recent research.

The World Bank’s Hansen told The Conversation that its support for Bridge was “complementary to what is offered in local school systems” and that the World Bank is “committed to working with the governments of Kenya and Uganda to help strengthen their public education systems”.

But I argue that Kim should recant his recent statement, and the World Bank should re-evaluate its ideological zeal for marketing privatisation in education.

The Conversation contacted Bridge International Academies for comment on the criticisms raised in this opinion piece.

In a response to the allegations raised by the civil society groups, a spokeswoman from Bridge International Academies told The Conversation that its “technology-enabled school management system” – tablets for every teacher – was used to tackle core problems, such as teacher absenteeism and neglect and that scripted programmes for teaching had been shown to drive “higher learning gains for children”. Bridge said that all its teachers “earn above the national median income” with many earning “significantly above this” and “every teacher working for Bridge earns more than the Gross National Income per capita of $1,036 per year.” It also said that 20% of its teachers are government certified and “all teachers undergo an extensive selection process, and more than 200 contact hours of induction training before beginning in-service training that continues throughout their tenure with Bridge”.

Bridge told The Conversation that the study about the achievement of pupils at its schools was an “extensively vetted, quasi-experimental measurement of the learning outcomes of 10,000 children who attend Bridge and neighboring schools over 26 months”. The spokeswoman said the study based on examinations “administered independently by the same specialist consulting firm” used by the UK and US aid agencies to evaluate public schools in Kenya.

Bridge also told The Conversation that: “fees vary based on a child’s age as well as an academy’s location, the average of which is just $6 per month per pupil. This is affordable to the average Bridge family – who lives on just $1.60 a day per person and is able to spend less than 20% of their income to send all of their children, both girls and boys, of nursery and primary school age to Bridge. This fee includes all costs of education for the child, including all use of textbooks, classwork books, homework books, and other materials and toys in class.”

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