The Bridge Academy has set up a network of almost 250 private schools in the shantytowns of Kenya. They currently teach some 120,000 pupils and employ over 5000 teachers.
Everything is standardised and rationalised. The schools are all built to the exact same model and are opened within a month of the start of works. The teachers are trained, partly online, within just five weeks.
The Bridge Academy, the largest chain of pre-school and primary schools based in poor areas, belongs to the Pearson Group, a company listed on the stock exchange, the largest education publisher worldwide and the owner of publications such as The Economist and Les Échos.
On its website, the Group speaks of “democratising the right to succeed” and plans to educate 10 million children across a dozen countries by 2025.
In spite of these impressive figures and goals, widespread criticism is starting to emerge.
“It’s the McDonald’s system applied to education,” says Sylvain Aubry of the NGO Global Initiative for Economic and Cultural Rights, in an article published in L’Humanité.
It is also a real industry. Private education for youngsters in developing countries is a huge market with potential earnings of several billion euros.
The 67 million children without access to education, together with the 800 million illiterate adults around the world, are all potential customers for private businesses profiting from declining state investment and the privatisation of the education sector.
With all the potential pitfalls that entails.
In Ghana, for example, the 20 schools in the Omega network charge €0.70 (US$0.77) a day for schooling. Each child wears a wristband with a chip, to keep track of the payments due.
For parents earning one or two dollars a day, paying for their children’s education is a real sacrifice, but it is one they are ready to make, even though it often means choosing which of their children will benefit from it – decision in which girls often lose out.
Towards “education for all”?
What is the position of the United Nations (UN), and its education agency, UNESCO? Although UNESCO has been promoting “education for all” since 1990, in recent times the organisation’s leaders have been welcoming the private sector’s incursion into education.
“Public-private partnerships are essential,” Irina Bokova, the organisation’s director-general, recently said in a speech on education for all.
Similarly, UNESCO’s 2015 report maintains that public-private partnerships can improve access to education, and even its quality. It is through such partnerships that UNESCO receives the corporate funding that supplies it with the money needed for its programmes – a welcome source of income at a time when the ordinary budget is falling.
In an interview with Equal Times, UNESCO officer, Els McComish, gives us an example of such partnerships: “In our partnership with Nokia, the company provides us with mobile phones for African citizens who have just benefited from literacy campaigns; the UNESCO education programme sends them reading exercises by SMS.”
There is no proof, however, of the programme’s effectiveness. It above all seems to provide Nokia with an opportunity to offload its old telephones and publicise its brand.
“We also launched a partnership in 2011 with GEMS Education,” continues McComish. “It is aimed at setting up training programmes to tackle the shortage of teachers in developing countries, especially Kenya, Ghana and India.”
What Els McComish does not say, and what the UNESCO website also fails to point out in its presentation of the project, is that GEMS Education only works with private schools and the programme therefore consists in reinforcing private education in developing countries.
In an interview with Bloomberg, the head of the company insists that education is a “resilient business”.
A slippery slope
Many civil society organisations have alerted to the risk of sliding from public-private partnerships towards a complete privatisation of the education sector in developing countries.
A report by Education International (EI) warns: “Private money for public education and public money for private education are both part of the movement toward privatising education.”
Furthermore, by promoting such partnerships, is UNESCO not “selling” itself, selling its name, its “brand”, to companies? Are UN institutions not at risk of being used as tools by these firms? Moreover, does the existence of school fees not go against the idea of education that is universal and recognised as a public interest?
There are a number of conflicting views within the United Nations itself. Kishore Singh, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to education, has denounced the growing global trend towards the privatisation of education.
In his view, the training provided in the private sector is of poor quality and does not give pupils the same chance of success as young people from privileged backgrounds that benefit from quality education, thus exacerbating inequalities.
Singh also deplores the complicity of states in the drive to privatise education, with many countries increasingly subsidising private schools.
The rapporteur recommends that states above all devote a more substantial part of their budgets to financing public education.
Education International advocates the same approach. “We believe that education is a human right, a public service and not a commodity. The commercialization of education services carries risks of inequity, discrimination and a deepening of the digital divide.”
“It is the responsibility of all governments to provide all women and men, boys and girls, free quality public education.”
Laetitia Faivre, head of SNES-FSU, the national union of secondary school teachers in France, affiliated to EI, insists: “The phenomenon we are witnessing in developing countries resembles a commodification of education. Education is stripped of its primary goal, that of promoting personal development, to be placed at the service of purely commercial objectives.”
It is essential that UNESCO reaffirm its role, particularly in relation to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as the most legitimate international body in the area of education at global level.
It must also clearly defend a humanistic and progressive approach to education as a global public good, as opposed to the notion of education as a commodity promoted by private companies, which are turning the education of people from the South into a business.
This article has been translated from French.