The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saying kids were endangered, Uganda is closing schools backed by U.S., World Bank, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg

Women walk past campaign posters of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala after he won the presidential election for a fifth term on February 20, 2016. (CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

Uganda’s education minister just announced that the government is closing a controversial chain of for-profit nursery and primary schools because, she said, national standards were being ignored and the “life and safety” of some 12,000 children were endangered because of poor hygiene and sanitation.

Janet K. Museveni, Uganda’s minister of education and sports (and wife of Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni), made the formal announcement to parliament Tuesday, saying the schools will be closed at the end of the school term and will stay closed “until the ministry is satisfied that they have put in place what is required to operate a school as per ministry’s guidelines,” according to a transcript of her remarks.

Being closed are schools at 63 sites operated by the Bridge International Academies (BIA) network, which has support from the World Bank; by Pearson, the world’s largest for-profit education company; and by billionaires Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar, among others. The U.S. government has supported the Bridge International Academies with millions of dollars in development funds, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation awarded the network its 2015 Impact Award for Development Impact. The British government also supports the network with development funds.

Bridge International Academies issued a statement about the impending closures, saying in part:

Bridge International Academies has expressed sincere concern over statements made in the Ugandan parliament this afternoon threatening to force 12,000 Bridge children out of school and 800 Ugandans out of work, by seeking the closure of Bridge International Academies. Bridge has been working in partnership with the Government of Uganda to ensure that all Ugandan children have access to a high quality education.
“We are waiting to receive the report referred to in Parliament and a copy of the Parliamentary Hansard to review the Ministry’s concerns,” says Michael Kaddu, Head of Corporate and Public Affairs for Bridge International Academies in Uganda. “We have been working closely with the Ministry to put the needs of the children first and come to a speedy resolution of any issues made known to us.”
“In the meantime, our academies are running as usual as we continue to work with the relevant educational authorities to uphold our commitment to our parents and communities to provide a world-class education to their children.”

The weird story of the arrest of an education researcher in Uganda

Bridge International Academies operates in a few African countries, with most of its schools in Kenya, where some 100,000 students are enrolled. BIA officials and their backers say the schools are meant to provide high-quality nursery and primary education for a small fee, about $5 a month on average, in places where public education is poor or nonexistent.

Critics say that families in poor countries should not have to pay for public education, and that some for-profit schools are run by unqualified staff and teachers in inadequate facilities with scripted curriculums developed overseas. United Nations bodies, including the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, have expressed concern about these schools, noting, for example, in a June 9, 2016, statement that the United Kingdom’s “funding of low-fee, private and informal schools run by for-profit business enterprises” through its development aid could contribute to the violation of children’s rights. The Committee on the Rights of the Child said in that statement that Britain should “refrain from funding for-profit private schools” and “prioritize free and quality primary education in public schools.”

Museveni said, according to the transcript of her remarks, that only one of the 63 BIA schools in Uganda was properly registered and licensed to operate in Uganda, and that investigations found that “the infrastructure of the schools is still in bad shape” after a deadline to fix the problems expired. She also said the curriculum being used did not “promote teacher-pupil interaction” and that “poor hygiene and sanitation” had “put the life and safety of the school children in danger.”

A page on the Pearson website explains the philosophy behind the Bridges International Academies, saying that “Bridge places strong emphasis on scalability.” It also says:

As part of the ‘school-in-a-box’ program, a detailed operating manual is given to school managers who are provided with a scripted planner on how to deal effectively with a range of management activities including finance, enrolments and marketing. ‘School-in- a-box’ also includes paper-based tracking and scheduling tools, an interactive SMS-based data reporting and a unique smart-phone based school management application with a technology equipped field-based support team….
Teaching takes place from 7:30am to 5:30pm Monday to Friday, with many children also attending a half-day on Saturday. Lessons are taught using Direct Instruction. The Bridge team develops a word-for-word, minute-by-minute scripted lesson plan for the concepts and skills to be taught in the classrooms.

Last year, the Kenyan government froze the development of more BIA schools because of some of the same concerns as expressed in Uganda. In January 2016, Kenya issued new regulations intended to improve the quality of education being offered in these for-profit schools, according to the Daily Nation. The paper quoted Fred Matiang’i, Kenya’s education minister, as saying that the alternative schools were using unqualified teachers and that the conditions for children were “hazardous.”

A release issued by the nonprofit Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights quoted Salima Namusobya, executive director of the nongovernmental Ugandan organization Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, as saying:

“This decision, which is backed up by field visits of Ministry officials, confirms the grave concerns we have had about Bridge. We have long been worried that BIA schools did not respect the government guidelines on basic requirements and minimum standards for schools, for example, regarding infrastructure, purposefully used unqualified teachers in order to reduce costs, in violations of Ugandan laws, and were developing a massive for-profit business without the agreement and proper oversight of the authorities.”

It also quoted Frederick Mwesigye, executive director of the Forum for Education NGOS in Uganda, as saying:

“The Ugandan education system suffers from many shortcomings. However, it does not mean that any investors can come in and make profit out of the situation by delivering low-quality education while disregarding national authorities and standards. International treaties and a recent resolution from the UN Human Rights Council make clear that it is the duty of the government to close schools that are sub-standard or that lead to commercialization of education, and we applaud the Government for upholding its obligations.”

The statement released by the Bridge International Academies included this quote from Gertrude Kizza from the Nsumbi area of Nansana, identified as the grandmother of two Bridge children and a member of the local council of the Nsumbi community:

“Bridge has been a great blessing to our community. Prior to Bridge opening in Nsumbi, our children either had to travel a long distance to get to school or pay high fees for the local private schools. As a result, many children did not go to school. Since Bridge opened in February of this year, I have seen great changes in my grandchildren, who are now leaders in English and confidence…. As a Ugandan citizen I should have the right to give my grand-children a better future, which is why I sent them to Bridge. Now the government is taking away that right.”