By Janet K. Museveni
The media has been awash with news about the intransigent manner in which Management of the Bridge International Academies (BIA) which were recently renamed Bridge Schools are acting when faced with closure by the Ministry of Education and Sports for lack of licenses to operate in Uganda.
It must be puzzling to the public particularly when all they see, as a result of the aggressive media campaign by Bridge operators, are pictures of children that look fairly "organised" as they match on streets and demonstrate at Parliament to protect the interests of the proprietors - at the risk of simply being used as pawns in a game they hardly comprehend.
I should start by restating, what should fairly be obvious, that in a very democratic and patient dispensation, which the NRM Government has shown itself to be, the rule of law reigns supreme. The Ministry of Education and Sports has both constitutional and statutory mandate to oversee, and accordingly regulate, the delivery of education services in Uganda; and it is, therefore, duty bound to uphold this responsibility to ensure that all schools and Institutions even when they are private sector run abide by those rules that govern education in Uganda.
The Constitution of Uganda, under the National Objectives and Directives Principles of State Policy, XVIII Educational Objectives is very clear:
(iii) Individuals, religious bodies and other nongovernmental organisations shall be free to found and operate educational institutions if they comply with the general education policy of the country and maintain national standards.
The Education (Pre-primary, Primary and Post-primary) Act of 2008 gives full effect to the above constitutional provisions by assigning, the Minister responsible for Education, powers under Section 3 to "…ensure that national policies and objectives as enshrined in the Constitution are implemented and observed at all levels of education"; and while recognising under Section 4 the fact that "provision of education and training to the child shall be a joint responsibility of the State, the parent or guardian and other stakeholders [including Bridge]" assigns specific responsibilities to each stakeholder under Section 5. Government is among others, responsible for "setting policy for all matters concerning education and training" but also "regulating, establishing and registering of educational institutions", and specifically the "development of management policies for all Government and Government aided schools and private schools."
Section 5 (4) sums it all by stipulating that "…the responsibility of Government … shall be to ensure that private education institutions conform to the rules and regulations governing the provision of education services in Uganda".
Therefore for all the Bridge Country Director, Mr. Rwakakamba's ranting and chest-thumping to the effect that Bridge Schools will not close because, as he says, they have submitted to the Ministry "42 health inspection reports fully endorsed by districts … [and] have 42 architectural blueprints approved and corresponding occupation permits issued by District Physical Planning Committees" to support their licensing applications whose fate has not been communicated to them, does not justify running announcements to state that they will maintain all their 63 Bridge Schools open without licenses!
The Requirements of establishing and operating a private school in Uganda are clearly stipulated in Sections 31-32 of the Education Act, and among others include engaging qualified and eligible personnel for the level and type of school (i.e. Head teacher and teachers), adequately providing for the physical, health and moral welfare of the learners, and ensuring that the school environment is conducive. Most importantly, however, is the fact that "permission to operate a new school shall be given in the first instance, in the form of a license to operate a provisionally classified school for two school years".
The public deserves to know that Bridge International Academies (BIA) was licensed by Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), and not the Ministry of Education and Sports, on May 29, 2015 on the strength of a commitment to invest $26.3m and create 5,700 jobs. Bridge International Academies started with seven schools in 2015 in Eastern Uganda and when they first applied for licenses, the Ministry advised on what they needed to put in place before being granted licenses to operate. Bridge did not return to complete the licensing process and instead in 2016 hurried to open more Academies, bringing the total to 63!
To date, and for two years, none of the 63 Bridge Schools are licensed. While its proprietors claim to target families of low income, Bridge schools charge an average of sh80,000 per pupil per term, ranging from sh53,000 to sh108,000, depending on class and location. Pupils also pay a one-off flat admission fee of sh10,000 and a Uniform Fee of up to sh30,000.
The claim by management of Bridge Schools to be following world standards prescribed by the Health Organisation (WHO), National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), and Public Health requirements for sanitation and occupation but not those prescribed by the Ministry of Education and Sports called the Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards for all schools in Uganda is ridiculous.
The law obligates all private education service providers to observe rules, regulations and standards prescribed by the ministry responsible for education. Needless to say that these are as much as possible consistent with other nationally and internationally prescribed standards but what obtains in the Bridge Schools is actually far from what its Management presents on paper, as our investigations have indeed established.
Concerns were initially raised by the Ministry to Bridge Management as early as April 2016 and on June 10, 2016 instructed them "to stop expansion of the schools arising from issues of legality, quality of infrastructure, teacher qualification and competencies, methodology and curriculum".
The same Local Governments that Bridge Management claims to have recommended that Bridge Schools be issued with license to operate, were required by the Ministry to assess and report about the existing schools. In their feedback, the Local Authorities confirmed "the sorry state of affairs in terms of staffing, legality of the establishment, conformity to Ugandan curriculum, teacher professionalism, infrastructure and adherence to the academic calendar. For emphasis, the sanitation situation was so bad that the health and safety of children in those schools is at risk."
On July 25, 2016, the Ministry invoked Sect. 36 (4) of the Education Act, to order Bridge to immediately cease all operations in schools around the country, "until such a time when the Ministry is satisfied that it has complied with the requirements of the Law. In a letter to BIA Expansion Director for Uganda, dated 1st September 2016, the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Education and Sports, deferred any further licensing of Bridge Schools/Academies due to the unresolved issues already outlined.
Around the same time (September 2016), and while sharing with Parliament findings of research entitled Schooling the Poor Profitably, done jointly by Education International (EI) and UNATU, Hon. Margaret N. Rwabushaija (Workers' Member of Parliament) highlighted the alarming state of Bridge schools. The Honourable Member, who described herself as one of the whistle blowers on the alarming situation in these Bridge Schools undertook, on behalf of the Parliamentary Forum on Quality Education and UNATU, to "continue to champion the campaign of mobilising all stakeholders.
Bridge Management sought redress from Courts of Law but on November 4, 2016 the Attorney General, while representing Government in this matter, successfully obtained an Order from the High Court upholding the decision of the Ministry to close the Bridge Schools "on the grounds that they were in operation contrary to the law and granted costs to the Government of Uganda". BIA filed a Notice of Appeal to the Court of Appeal on this same day, and followed it up with a Court Order on January 12, 2017 "halting the implementation of the Order from the High Court to close them pending the disposal of their Appeal".
As a result of parallel efforts spearheaded by the British High Commission (Kampala) and DFID, I met the Bridge co-founder (Dr. Shannon May) and its head of the Uganda Office (Andrew White) at a meeting on the sidelines of the Education World Forum in London (January 22-26, 2017) where Dr. May apologised for the mistakes made by BIA in Uganda and for the manner in which they had handled this whole matter. She committed to finding a constructive way forward including withdrawing from Court in order that they amicably engage with the Government - a request I granted and assigned a team to engage with the Bridge Schools Management in Uganda. By implication, we allowed the Bridge Schools to remain open during Calendar Year 2017 with a view that they would improve in the areas that had already been highlighted to them.
The Ministry immediately set up a multi-disciplinary team to investigate further the allegations against the Bridge Schools comprising experts in curriculum, pedagogy, teacher education and construction, whose findings were relayed to representatives of Bridge Schools Management in a face-to-face meeting at the Ministry Headquarters (Embassy House Building) on August 8, 2017. BIA was afforded an opportunity to respond to and clarify on a number of concerns. Owing to the importance attached to this matter, this meeting was also attended by the Minister of State in charge of Primary Education, Hon. Rosemary Seninde.
Key findings of the multi-disciplinary team that were brought to the attention of the Bridge team during this meeting are summarised hereunder:
Issue #1: - Curriculum
Early childhood Development (ECD):
Children are kept for long hours at school without any designated resting places; did not use the approved ECD Learning Framework and the Caregivers' Guide; administered written examinations which are against Government Policy.
The preparation, language of instruction and pedagogy were not in line with the approved curriculum.
Curriculum Content, Schemes of Work, Lesson Plans, Textbooks, Schools and Class timetables did not conform to the approved Ugandan curriculum which they purport to implement. Many teachers were not free to adjust what they received on the tablets to teach from a central source and appeared to live in fear; claiming to be underpaid and lacking a forum for airing their grievances. Most of the Head Teachers, referred to as "Academy Managers" were not professionally trained and could not provide instructional leadership.
Issue #2: - Teacher Qualification/Competence
There were no clear documents on teachers' qualifications in the Managers' (Head Teachers') Office; most teachers had no contracts; and about a half had no authentic Teacher Registration numbers.
Notwithstanding the well-known benefits of introducing technology into the delivery process, teachers should have the freedom to adapt their classroom schemes of work, lesson plans, assessment and remedial activities to the practicalities of the specific teaching-learning context rather than be enslaved to the restrictions of centrally prepared and delivered lessons.
Issue #3: - Bridge Schools Infrastructure
All the facilities were temporary with School structures made of roofing sheet material (both walls and roof) and wire mesh, which are unsuitable for students during very hot weather conditions. The structures have no windows and battened wooden doors were used without proper framing. Sound-proofing between Classrooms is inadequate. There is no protection against lightening on any of the structures. Sanitation facilities are shared amongst students (boys and girls) and teachers. The facilities were not fit to be a school.
Based on the findings/observations outlined above, specific and general recommendations were made on curriculum, teachers and facilities to enable them meet the basic requirements and minimum standards.
On October 26, 2017, the Ministry's Top Management considered the Report on the Bridge Schools and resolved that like other unlicensed schools, Bridge should meet the basic requirements and minimum standards and be licensed if the schools were to operate in 2018. Against this decision, the Permanent Secretary on November 8, 2017 gave advance notice to the Bridge Country Director, three months to the opening of School Year 2018, to the effect that:
… all unlicensed schools, including Bridge International Academies, will not be allowed to open and/or operate for school year 2018. This position is in line with my Circular/Press Release No. DES/50/14 of September 22, 2017 captioned Unlicensed/Unregistered Schools. A copy is herewith attached for your ease of reference.
This meant that Bridge Schools would not be opening, come February 5, 2018, if by that time the requirements were not fully met, not only for the 42 schools whose application for licenses had been received by the Ministry but for all their 63 schools. Throughout the year and up to this point, the Ministry had engaged exhaustively with Bridge Management on this very matter.
I should add that I am even more disturbed by unsolicited submissions that have been made to me by persons, which raise very serious moral and ethical questions over Bridge's operations here in Uganda and elsewhere. There have been claims about Ugandans being subjected to gruesome procedures and unethical practices under a nine weeks' training in some "Bridge House" located in Mukono and for corporate staff allegedly taken to Boston, Nairobi, and Liberia for induction sessions which last three to five weeks.
We are still investigating these chilling allegations, which is one of the reasons I wish to appeal to the parents and the country at large to take the safety of your children as top priority. I also ask you to trust the decisions taken by the Government of Uganda through its Ministry of Education and Sports. These decisions are guided by our legal frameworks, policies, facts and for the good of the little unsuspecting children in these Schools.
I should, however, add that the impunity being exhibited by Bridge Management, and its likes, will not be tolerated and that Government will spare no effort to use all legal means to enforce the requirements of the Law to protect our children and our future, as a country.
I, therefore, wish to remind the Local Governments to seriously implement the Circular by the Permanent Secretary (MoES) of September 22, on closure of unlicensed schools. These schools are operating illegally and no one can guarantee the safety and security of children in the hands of unknown adults (proprietors and head teachers). You may recall that the first circular on closure of unlicensed schools was issued in January 2017. After the outcry by various stakeholders that it was issued late, the Ministry restrained from closure in order not to disrupt the learners. However, after the Parliamentary Committee on Education had upheld to MoES decision on closure based findings, a similar Circular was issued to CAOs, Town Clerks and Executive Director KCCA on September 22, 2017, followed by press release in New Vision, Monitor and all the major local newspapers instructing unlicensed schools to do so before the end of December 2017 or not to open for Term 1 of 2018. All schools that meet the basic requirements and minimum standards were given adequate time to get licenses. There is no single excuse for not closing illegal schools.
As you may recall, last year around this time, there was a lot of public outcry on the continuously escalating school fees. In response, I appointed an independent committee to investigate the issue and review the fees structure. The objectives of the review were to establish the current fees structures for government and private schools, find out the cost triggers of the escalating fees, propose any other salient issues necessary in the management of fees and recommend ways of controlling the escalation of fees.
The findings showed that almost all schools regardless of whether they are UPE, USE and UPPOLET or Non-USE, or private for profit institutions demanded some form of unregulated non-core academic charges and non-cash items that made it very difficult for the less privileged to access secondary education. The fees structures in schools vary according to location, type and status of school. The major cost centres in both primary and secondary schools were similar and influenced by market forces on food, infrastructure construction, inflation, salaries, and utilities with minor variations. In some cases it included school bus, loan repayment, utilities, computers and other administrative expenses.
The most critical among the Committee's recommendations was that the Government should regulate fees by designing guidelines, which schools must abide by and in the Long Term provide the unit cost for each category of education. It was further recommended that in the meantime, schools should maintain the same level of fees unless they get permission for specific critical projects with permission from the Permanent Secretary (PS/ES).
It is against this background that the PS/ES issued a Circular on 24th October 2017 giving "Guidelines on School Charges". I wish to remind all Headteachers, Boards of Governors/School Management Committees, CAOs, Town Clerks, Executive KCCA, DEOs, Inspectors of Schools, Directorate of Education Standards and other key stakeholders to ensure adherence to the guidelines.
The writer is the First Lady and Minister of Education and Sports