In Uganda parents must choose between government schools or private schools – both have their problems

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In Uganda parents must choose between government schools or private schools – both have their problems

Can a US chain of profit-making schools really help the poor? Patience Akumu writes about the Bridge schools in Uganda.


Education by e-book? A teacher and her class at low-cost private school Bridge in Mpigi, Uganda. By Jon Rosenthal/Alamy

70-year-old Veronica Akumu is very happy that there is a Bridge school near her village in Tororo district, Eastern Uganda. Thanks to Bridge, she says, her five-year-old grandson, can speak English. Her other grandchildren who went to the nearby government school can nearly only write their names.

It is hard work for Akumu to raise several grandchildren. Many have no parents because of HIV/AIDS. She works hard to feed them from land that is exhausted because of rains that sometimes come and sometimes do not come. She is exactly the kind of person Bridge want. Bridge is a chain of low-cost private schools in Africa and Asia. It says it gives quality education to children of low-income families. These families are the rural and urban poor who really want to find a way to send their children to private schools – even if it means they will be hungry.

And that is the problem education activists have with Bridge and other low-cost private schools. The problem is that parents do everything to get this education for their children when we do not know if it really works. Salima Namusobya is head of Ugandan NGO Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) and she is one of the activists.

Bridge is happy to talk about its success in bringing what it thinks is quality education which is cheap enough for poor families. It is a big company with over $100 million from people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and others who want to help from around the world.

Bridge works with large numbers. Bridge sends out standardized lessons, planned in the US, to its 500 or so schools around the world. Teachers read the lessons word for word from e-readers. The teachers are often high-school graduates without teaching qualifications.

With about $3 million, Bridge has built 63 schools over two years in Uganda, and has very well planned marketing. From Liberia to India, there are stories of happy parents and children with very good results.

But critics say it is too early to see how much success the Bridge schools have after less than 10 years. In most countries, including Uganda, no children from Bridge schools have taken national exams. Bridge’s own studies show high scores, but Bridge so far does not seem to want outside testing or criticism in general. Last year Bridge asked for the arrest of a researcher in Uganda. In Kenya, Bridge is suing the National Union of Teachers for criticising them.

Namusobya says that uneducated parents like Akumu cannot always judge the quality of their children’s education.

‘They will tell you that their children speak English, but there is great value in teaching young children in their first language. Also, education is not only about reading, writing, and maths, it is about the whole person. There is no evidence that Bridge schools are offering a full education,’ Namusobya says.

Bridge says that educating a child costs parents about 5 per cent of their income. But a 2016 report by Education International, a group of teacher unions, found that parents spend closer to 25 per cent of their income educating one child at Bridge.

‘They should stop saying they are low cost,’ says Namusobya. Bridge schools charge about $7 dollars a month but with other costs such as uniforms and materials, it can rise to over $15. ‘Also, they never start schools where people are really poor or where there are no schools at all. They go to places where people have some money to give and where there are already government schools.’

Namusobya is also worried about Bridge’s standardised lessons. ‘Teachers are not comfortable with the things they are talking about – places that are far away and that they have never been to,’ she says. ‘They tell us that the lessons they read out leave no time to explain. Sometimes in rural areas, teachers need to explain in the local language but this is not possible.’

Bridge appears to have difficult relationships with East African governments. Last November, the Ugandan High Court ordered all Bridge schools to close because they had no school licence, unsanitary conditions, and unqualified teachers. Bridge appealed, and the Court said no again in August. Kenyan Courts have ordered 10 Bridge schools to close for not ‘meeting national education standards’.

Parents have asked for the schools to stay open. Victoria Achieng is 26, with a six-year-old nephew at a Bridge school. She says the buildings are basic but that they are better than some government schools. She is tired of what she sees as a government that wants its own rules but does not want to give people a good education.

‘If you take a child in primary four at a government school and compare him or her to my nephew at Bridge, you will see the difference,’ she says.

It is not a surprise that parents who have the money do not send their children to the government schools. Universal primary education (UPE), introduced in Uganda in 1996, should have given more poor people a chance to get an education and better life. But UPE does not have enough money and has bad management. In 1997, the government spent $2 to educate a child through the school year. This was the same in 2015. Teachers miss up to a day’s work a week, and this costs Uganda millions for the services they are not giving. They often prefer to spend time in their gardens or running their own businesses, such as motor-cycle taxis, to earn more money. Their salaries are some of the lowest for government workers. Close to 70 per cent of Ugandan children do not finish primary school, one of the highest numbers in the world, says UNESCO.

For many parents, it is easier to take a child to Bridge than to demand that the government makes education better.

‘Where can the children in Bridge go?’ asks Achieng. ‘The government schools do not teach but they want money, almost the same money as Bridge. Bridge wants money and teaches. What can we do?’

Namusobya is sure that private schools such as Bridge are part of the problem and not the solution. It is possible that they will be better quality in future but they will make inequality worse. And at the same time the government is using public money to control the private schools.

Bridge says that they are now working with the Ugandan government. The company promises to change the lessons, to have qualified teachers, and improve conditions. But will this be enough? Namusobya is worried that Bridge is selling a lie.

‘In the developed world, where the people in Bridge are from, they would never accept schools such as Bridge. But they are here selling us the lie that quality education can be cheap. Education is not cheap: it needs money and our governments must find the money,’ she says.

Patience Akumu is a journalist who lives in Kampala.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).