Teachers’ unions call controversial for-profit education firm to account in Kenya


The slow pace at which Kenya’s Education Ministry is responding to pressure from education stakeholders to have the controversial edu-business Bridge International Academies (BIA) shut down in Kenya, continues to elicit concern.

Bridge International is the largest chain of primary and nursery schools in the world, targeting – according to its website – the “700 million families [around the world] who live on less than US$2 per day”. It owns hundreds of schools in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and India, teaching more than 100,000 children using a “technology-enabled academy-in-a-box approach [that] allows us to keep costs so low”.

Last month, the global teachers’ trade union federation Education International (EI) together with the Kenyan National Union of Teachers (KNUT) released a report Bridge vs Reality: a study of Bridge International Academies’ for-profit schooling in Kenya looking at the commercialisation and privatisation of education in Kenya, where Bridge International has more than 400 academies and employs more than 4200 workers.

Researchers found that Bridge International education “is of poor quality, is inaccessible for the very poor and students with special needs” and that students are taught by “unqualified, overworked teachers using teaching scripts (developed in the US) read from tablets”.

The report called on the Kenyan government to ensure that the registration of schools operated by non-state actors is fully compliant with national standards.

“The national standards must mandate the employment of qualified teachers and the delivery of a curriculum in accordance with national requirements in educational premises and facilities that satisfy national school infrastructure and safety standards,” it said.

At the launch of the report in Nairobi last December, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Education, Science and Technology Fred Matiang’i said that the government was still in talks with the US company.

“We have an ongoing intense engagement right now with Bridge International schools. We are moving towards the conclusion of our action…and you will hear us soon. Just watch this space,” said Matiang’i.

Speaking to Equal Times in a phone interview, KNUT secretary general Wilson Sosion expressed his concerns over the ministry’s response.

“We should not be discussing Bridge International. The chain of schools ought to have been closed. The Cabinet Secretary must act quickly before we leave the education sector to rot,” said Sosion.


Unsanitary schools, unqualified teachers

The EI/KNUT report follows the closure of 63 Bridge International schools in Uganda in November, where some 12,000 students had been enrolled, by order of the country’s High Court.

Judge Patricia Basaza Wasswa ruled that the schools were unsanitary, improperly licensed and staffed by unqualified teachers.

In addition, in March last year, the Liberian government announced controversial plans for a pilot scheme which could eventually see the country’s entire primary education run as a public-private partnership by edu-businesses such as Bridge International along side various NGOs.

Bridge International receives funding from the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development (DFID), as well as high profile investors such as the world’s biggest private education company Pearson PLC, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the Gates Foundation. However, teachers’ unions have long discredited claims that it provides a magic bullet for the problem of educational access for the poor.

In May 2016, Canadian education researcher Curtis Riep was arrested in Kampala, Uganda for investigating Bridge International’s work in the country, which, according to the Washington Post, “put a spotlight on the company and how it works”.

In the EI/KNUT report on Kenya, trade unions claim that while Bridge International says that its schools in Kenya are low-cost, the reality is quite different. One senior Bridge International staff member admitted that while the company says it only charges US$5-6 per month, it actually works out at about US$20-25 per month for each school year.

Like many countries in the Global South, Kenya’s education system is in crisis. School places are oversubscribed, teachers are overworked and underpaid, while school infrastructures and facilities are inadequate and under-resourced.

In September 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted to great fanfare. One of the key targets was a stand-alone education goal, which calls for inclusive and quality education for all, as well as the promotion of lifelong learning.

In addition, the Kenyan government has outlined its own plans to see the country develop into a middle-income country that provides a high quality of life for all its citizens over the next 20 years in Kenya Vision 2030. To meet its education targets, the government has promised to improve teacher training, recruit more teachers, build more schools, improve and rehabilitate existing ones and modernise the curriculum.


Coherence and quality issues

It is against this backdrop that the Kenyan government has looked to for-profit companies to help educate its young.

But in Bridge International schools – which began in the Mukuru informal settlement in Nairobi in 2009 – coherence has been a massive issue, with teachers failing to adhere to the education ministry’s curricula via the use of Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) books.

“We are not allowed to use KIE books. If we are found using KIE materials, our salary is deducted for that day (approximately 471 Kenyan shillings, or US$ 4.60). The restriction given to only rely on the notes given to me doesn’t make me explore, but if you are caught by the quality assurance then you will be penalised,” one Bridge International teacher said in the EI/KNUT report.

The training of their teachers has also been called into question. The report cites research which reveals that “in order to save money, BIA primarily employs unqualified staff – largely high school leavers – who have not completed an officially-recognized teacher course, and are provided with a two to five week BIA training course prior to commencing their positions”.

This, Matiang’I admits, contravenes Kenyan law. “No one is allowed to teach in a school in the country if they are not registered by the Teachers Service Commission (TSC),” he said. “Even the teachers who come from the international schools are supposed to go to the ministry and have their credentials reviewed before getting registered.”

Angelo Gavrielatos, a project director at EI, told Equal Times that the rapid growth of education corporations is driven by the desire to make money.

Education is viewed not fundamentally as a basic human right but as a potentially lucrative, relatively untapped market valued at approximately US$4.5 to US$5 trillion per annum, a figure predicted to grow to US$6 to US$S7 trillion per annum over the next few years.

“This is not for altruistic reasons but rather, to profit from the poor, by exploiting the aspirations of parents and children themselves,” said Gavrielatos, adding that this is a segment of the population that spend an average of US$80 per year on low-cost private education, resulting in a US$64 billion parent-paid market.

“Bridge International’s ‘academy-in-a-box’ model is meant to drive down costs, scale-up services rapidly, and increase rates of profitability. But it also involves the neglect of fundamental legal and educational standards including the employment of qualified teachers, the delivery of nationally approved curricula, appropriate teaching methods, adequate school facilities and proper registration of schools,” Gavrielatos told Equal Times.