A Bridge Too Far? Bridge International Academies Responds to Ugandan Government’s Allegations and Closure Plans
Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from Education International.
Bridge International Academies, the celebrated for-profit preschool and primary school company operating in Uganda, Kenya and several other countries in Africa, has faced criticism before. Critics have claimed that its internet-based, franchise-like model, in which educators teach from lessons beamed to tablets, makes for unimaginative and rote educational experiences for students.
But previous concerns about Bridge, which markets its services to base of the pyramid families for as low as $4 a month, were mostly related to the quality of students’ education – not their physical safety in the classroom.
Not anymore. On Aug. 9, Janet Museveni, Ugandan minister of education and sports, told the Ugandan Parliament that Bridge failed to properly license many its schools, and that those schools “showed poor hygiene and sanitation which put the life and safety of the schoolchildren in danger.” Museveni said the conditions warranted an urgent response: the schools will be closed at the end of the summer school term, Sept. 2. In her testimony, Museveni said the ministry received “technical inspection reports on many sites” from ministry staff, but did not share particulars.
In a pair of press statements (found here and here), Bridge has called the allegations false, noting “there is no widespread threat to public health at our schools.”
Bridge says it operates 63 nursery and primary schools across Uganda, with 12,000 students enrolled and 800 staffers. Overall, there are 100,000 students enrolled at over 400 Bridge International Academies, according to the company. The firm has been profiled and referenced many times across the social enterprise media landscape. It has embraced technology for both educational purposes and for cashless payments, as an executive detailed here on NB in 2014.
Bridge schools remain open and operating in Uganda. Bridge’s second statement also leveled accusations of its own:
“Parents and pupils were surprised by many of the comments raised on the Parliamentary floor, which were based on false allegations promoted by Education International, the world’s largest federation of teacher unions. Education International had previously hired a Canadian researcher in Uganda to impersonate Bridge personnel in an attempt to steal materials and pupil information and now are pushing the Ministry and Parliamentarians to shut Bridge down.”
For its part, Education International issued a statement today applauding Museveni’s actions. It quoted James Tweheyo, general secretary of Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU), an affiliate:
“As a union, we strongly believe that our learners will have no future if we do not do anything about the quality of education today,” he said.
Bridge aspires to reach 10 million children across the globe by 2025, and the financing necessary to reach that goal certainly has been flowing. The World Bank, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the Omidyar Network, Khosla Ventures, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. and others have collectively invested more than $100 million into Bridge. Greg Mauro, with California-based venture capital firm Learn Capital LLC (also a shareholder), told The Wall Street Journal (paywall) that Bridge could look to go public with an IPO in 2017.
I emailed a Bridge spokesperson on Thursday to clarify a few details of this situation. Here are my questions and Bridge’s responses:
Have you received any written report from the Ugandan government regarding the allegations presented to Parliament? If so, can you provide any reaction to it?
Bridge: We have not received a copy of the written report that details the allegations made against us by the Ministry of Education. We have officially written to the permanent secretary to avail us with a copy, but we have not received any feedback yet. We, however, followed the statement by the Education Minister Janet Museveni on the floor of Parliament raising the allegations, and noted a number of factual inaccuracies in it, including thinking we started operations in Uganda in 2013 (we started in 2015). Furthermore, one of the two schools referenced is also not a Bridge International Academy.
We made an official statement on the allegations, please find attached.
(Note: The statement referenced is here).
What legal recourse does Bridge now have to avoid a shutdown in Uganda prior to the start of the school term in September?
Bridge: The High Court of Uganda issued an injunction to halt the closure notice until the 2nd September 2016. In all likelihood, on the 2nd the court will give both parties time (two-eight weeks) to negotiate and settle the issue out of court, during which time the academies will remain open. If negotiations are not successful the issue proceeds to a judicial review, which could takes months or longer. The academies will remain open during this time, and Bridge remains committed to working with the ministry to allow our schools to stay open, our 12,000 children to remain in their schools, and our 800 employees to keep their jobs before this reaches the stage of a judicial review.
(Note: Bridge sent NextBillion a copy of the injunction, which can be found here.)
Is Bridge conducting its own inquiries as to the sanitary/safety conditions of the schools?
Bridge: We conduct daily sanitary inspections of our academies and we ensure that they are up to standard.
Each school has a caretaker, a permanent staff member whose responsibility it is to ensure the school is clean at all times. The safety, security and health of our pupils is our first priority and we are committed to ensure that our sanitary standards are maintained.
Unlike other schools, we have a 24-7 dedicated customer care line that any parent, teacher, academy manager or member of the community can call to raise any issues and have them immediately resolved. We do this to ensure that we are always keeping our pupils safe, healthy and in the best possible environment for learning.
NextBillion will continue to monitor this story …
Scott Anderson is a contributing editor at NextBillion.
Image credit: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Home page photo: A school in Uganda (note: not Bridge International). Credit: Matt Lucht via Flickr.
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