The Bridge International Controversy: Bridge Schools ‘Undermine the Rule of Law, Transparency and Fundamental Rights’
Throughout the coming year, NextBillion is organizing content around a monthly theme, dedicating special attention to a specific sector alongside our broader coverage. This post, which helps launch February’s focus on education, is by Sylvain Aubry, a research and legal adviser with the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a human rights organisation which participated alongside Kenyan organisations to collect data on Bridge’s operations, which was used by Education International for a report that was highly critical of Bridge’s business model and practices. For a counterpoint written by Bridge Co-Founder Shannon May, click here. Neither May nor Aubry were shown the other’s post prior to publication– we asked them both to make their best cases publicly, and are publishing the posts simultaneously. If additional points of discussion emerge, the authors are welcome to respond to each other’s posts in comments.
The past few years have seen a growing controversy surrounding the development of commercial private schools that target poor households in developing countries. Bridge International Academies, a for-profit U.S. company that operates over 500 fee-charging schools in five countries, is one of the most contentious of these schooling models. While there are many different models and chains of low-cost private schools which are all important to scrutinise, the scale, ambition (Bridge aims to serve 10 million children in a dozen countries by 2025) and controversial approaches used by Bridge make it a particular case, leading to the question: Are concerns about Bridge justified?
Before attempting to respond, let me first explain what are not concerns about Bridge. At the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, where I work as a research and legal advisor, we are concerned with transparency and respect for international human rights law. We do not have a position against private schools, as such; to the contrary, in a recent article I co-authored with Delphine Dorsi of the Right to Education Project, we explain how human rights standards include a requirement for states to respect the freedom of parents to choose or set up a non-state school. Done well and in line with international human rights principles, private schools may play a positive role in the larger institutional ecosystem which makes a successful and robust educational system.
However, parents’ freedom is not absolute and does not mean anyone can set up any school if there are children to enroll. The fact that a school provides an option to families is not enough to make it acceptable under international law. To meet human rights standards, a school must respect minimum educational standards set by the state and, more generally, not undermine human rights principles, such as the rights to equality and non-discrimination.
It is against this quasi-universal, legally binding, nuanced framework, and this framework only, that we assess whether or not there are any human rights concerns with Bridge’s model. And to do so, we form a balanced opinion based on independent data, rather than speculate or rely on businesses’ or investors’ information. A recent, well-documented report, for which we provided a human rights analysis, offers a rich source of data on Bridge’s operations in Kenya. Based on this report, what do we know about Bridge’s operations?
The report shows that there is evidence that the various costs parents must pay for their child to be able to attend a Bridge school come to approximately $20 (USD) a month per child on average, far above the approximately $5-$6 a month usually claimed by the company. Such costs probably (given the limitations on data available) make Bridge schools accessible to, at best, only the wealthiest 50 percent of Kenyan households. This is all the more true because teachers are asked to strictly enforce the fee requirements, and to expel from their classroom any child who has not paid the required fees, even when just one dollar is missing (see p.43 of the report cited above). Failure to do so by the teachers exposes them to having the fee withdrawn from their own (meagre) salary (p.29 and appendix 4). In addition, these high costs also call into question the claims of efficiency and value made by the school chain.
There is also evidence that the working conditions of the staff at Bridge, and in particular the teachers and head teachers (“academy managers”), are deplorable, and probably against international labour law (p.26-37). Imagine working 59 to 65 hours a week, with almost no autonomy, high pressure from your superior, threat of punishment for any deviation from the standardised curriculum given to you – all for around $100 per month, which is, even in Kenya, generally below the poverty line.
There is evidence that the learning conditions in Bridge schools are very poor. Generally, Bridge classrooms are made of iron sheets that do not provide enough protection for the children against the cold or heat, and provide insufficient light. The pupils can hear everything in neighbouring classrooms. Playgrounds are tiny. Most teachers do not have the required training and certification, and the mode of teaching does not promote authentic and supportive interaction between teachers and pupils (p. 22–38). Is this the kind of school you would like for your child? If not, would you really like to promote it as a “solution” for other children? It is not likely that senior Bridge stakeholders, including the owners themselves, have or would ever want to put their children in a Bridge school.
There is evidence that, if Bridge is not making a profit yet, it is trying everything to do so, even if it has to (further) compromise quality or its data about pupils to reach its goal. In terms of quality, we know – it’s in public documents and in teachers’ contracts (p. 69) – that Bridge tries to reach 60 pupils per classroom (although it’s far from achieving this goal – raising another set of questions on the company’s business model). In terms of privacy, we also know that Bridge tried to attract investors by suggesting it could make money by selling schools’ data to loan companies.
There is, thus, contrary to what Bridge often claims, first hand, quality independent evidence about what is going on in its schools. Most of the evidence quoted above comes from a report analysing data for eight communities in Kenya, but the standardisation of Bridge schools, and evidence from other countries such as Curtis Riep’s report on Bridge’s operations in Uganda or Ben Phillips’s visit to Bridge schools in Liberia, suggest that the situation is likely to be the same across all the schools.
While such an amount of evidence should lead Bridge to rethink its approach, or at least pause its development, the problem is that the company tends to consider as research only what it is able to control or what supports its views, and to dismiss any independent critical inquiry. Its response to the aforementioned report, for instance, heavily relies on “internal data” to put forward counterarguments, and questions whether research interviews were conducted at all. Take this example of an argument used by the company: Bridge contests the charge that its staff are unhappy, arguing that internal surveys show that “100 percent” of Bridge teachers “would like to grow with the company”. Besides questions about the validity or methodology for those data (e.g., was it anonymous?), will anyone really be surprised that Bridge staff, desperate to have a job in an environment with high unemployment, will respond positively when their employer directly asks them whether they want to “grow with the company”? This biased use of data is perhaps not surprising given that Bridge is a corporation with very specific economic interests at stake, and it would not be the first corporation that tries to use research to its advantage. It is, nevertheless, what Bridge sells to stakeholders. This means that it is essential – for citizens, governments and investors alike – to have independent information to make an informed judgment about Bridge.
But obtaining independent information is another challenge: There is evidence that Bridge is not keen on transparency and resists attempts to provide independent evidence on its model. In June 2016, in a move that some would compare to the “wanted” posters of the Wild West, Bridge arranged for an advert in a Ugandan newspaper with the face of an independent doctoral student attempting to conduct independent research on Bridge, alleging that he was “impersonating a Bridge employee” and calling on the public to report the researcher to the police. Bridge then set up a meeting with him in such a way that the police arrested the researcher, and organised in advance for the media to welcome him at the police station – though it emerged later that his only crime was to try to find information independently of Bridge’s control. Ironically, while it seems that Bridge had no evidence for the allegations of impersonation made against that researcher, it recently appeared that an active supporter of Bridge on Twitter who introduced himself only as a “Bridge parent” conveniently forgot to mention that he also gets an income from Bridge as a spokesperson for the company.
Of course, some will say that if these schools improve learning outcomes, the other issues aren’t really a problem. This is an understandable argument, and we come to the central question, which is one of reasonable balance: If learning outcomes are improved by a school, how much harm (to the rule of law, to human rights, etc.) from this school, if any, can be accepted to achieve this improvement? For the purpose of the reasoning, let’s imagine Bridge’s results were better than other surrounding schools, as they claim. Can these improvements justify the exploitation of poor teachers, the lack of transparency, the standardisation of education and lack of teaching freedom, and the corporate control over essential democratic institutions such as schools? Of course, public schools also have many challenges, but how far can we go to reach narrow improvements in standardised test results? What is the red line that we do not want to cross? Employees required to work for a very low salary over 60 hours a week may, for instance, no longer be an acceptable way to achieve a learning gain or a profit, however important profit is to you.
In any case, the truth is there is actually no reliable information about Bridge’s outcomes. Take, for instance, Bridge’s alleged good results on the primary exam in Kenya, called the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), that the company heavily marketed. These results do not take into account pupils’ backgrounds, and are therefore of little use to assess the effect of the school. Indeed, the aforementioned report on Kenya showed that Bridge, purposefully or not, may take better pupils than other schools in the same areas as its schools, partly because of the relatively higher fees they charge. That means children come from relatively wealthier families who may be more likely to prioritise education over other activities and provide a supportive home environment for learning. Its results, therefore, cannot be compared to those of other schools which have children with more challenging and impoverished backgrounds. You might have also heard of an “independent” research study about Bridge concluding to better outcomes; it’s been shown to be not so independent, not so rigorous, and open to biases.
Particularly striking is that Bridge hardly disputes the core of the challenges listed above, or when it does, as mentioned above, it refutes it based on its own unverifiable internal data. Even when Bridge went to court to oppose being closed by the Ugandan Government and in Kenya by Busia or Nyeri counties, it did not try to argue that its schools respect national standards; rather, Bridge complained that the process was not fair. Still, the Kampala High Court in Uganda found that due process was in fact followed and Bridge had many opportunities to comply with the law and work with the Ministry of Education – but failed to do so.
Yet despite so much evidence signaling concerns about Bridge, and so little evidence about its true outcomes, why did Bridge expand so quickly to over 500 schools in five countries? How did investors such as Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Omidyar, the United Kingdom, the U.S., the World Bank, and Bill and Melinda Gates put so much money into a model that can potentially be so damaging before any solid evidence of the potential good?
We fully agree that many developing countries face difficult challenges with their education systems, and that there is a need to think of innovative, smart, and even sometimes disruptive approaches to address those challenges. Nevertheless, new approaches cannot be accepted outright; they need to be thought about, piloted, monitored, and assessed carefully, and then sometimes kept, sometimes rejected. At the end of the process, the decision should be the result of a simple balancing exercise: Do the benefits of a model like Bridge outweigh the negatives, and is there any red line being crossed making any aspect of the operation unacceptable?
Not everything Bridge does is to be rejected: cashless payment, attention to some of the people living in slums, or having extra teachers on call for when one is sick, are certainly avenues worth exploring. But when looking at the balance sheet, taking a reasonable balance approach, the column of the potential negatives is too full and the threats to rights too serious not to be worried. This is why, like a broad range of stakeholders, including the Government of Uganda and the county of Busia in Kenya which both decided to close Bridge schools (pending legal challenges from Bridge), the 120 local, national and international organisations worldwide that signed a joint statement in May 2015 about the World Bank’s support of Bridge, and the many other concerned citizens and academics that have raised serious concerns in the past months, we are anxious about where Bridge is going. These concerns are based on real, substantiated, independent evidence that the Bridge business model may be shaky, and that Bridge schools could undermine something fundamental that investors, citizens and companies alike ought to care about: the rule of law, transparency and fundamental rights.
Sylvain Aubry is a research and legal adviser with the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Photo: Students at a Bridge International Academy in Kenya. Image credit: Global Partnership for Education/Flickr.