Before I give my opinion, I would like to declare that I had a great opportunity to work with Bridge international schools.
By Silver Mwesigwa
I have followed with great interest the events that have been unfolding in respect to the closure of Bridge international schools in Uganda. The media has been at the forefront of giving us the details of the court proceedings and the accusations and counter accusations between Ministry of education and the management of Bridge schools.
Before I give my opinion, I would like to declare that I had a great opportunity to work with Bridge international schools in Uganda for three months between May and August 2016 as their Procurement Consultant. Because of my strong passion to ensure that rural poor get equal access to quality education, I have been reading a lot and networking with groups that share my vision. So, while I was on the internet, I read about Bridge international schools and their model of reaching out to the urban poor by providing them with affordable quality education. That is how I got to know their operations in Uganda and I subsequently worked with them for three months which now forms my objective opinion that am going to share with you.
I had the opportunity to visit some of the bridge schools in Kajjansi, Kasokoso, mattuga and Kayunga where I interacted with the teachers and some parents. When I visited some of the homes of the parents' homes, one striking similarity is that all the parents were the urban poor who are doing odd jobs in the city, living in the slums and most of them were women who are either single mothers or widows. The model of the bridge schools is premised on reaching out to the poor parents, by providing them with quality education at minimum cost, affordable by the majority in the neighborhood of the schools. By the time I left, the fees were around 77,000 UGX per pupil per term. This covered all the study materials including books, pens and exams and all children were having break tea and lunch at the schools.
As someone who had just finished five years in local government and at the forefront of improving the quality of education in the government UPE schools, I was very delighted to come across an institution like Bridge international Schools which is providing alternative options for the rural and urban poor who have lost all the confidence in UPE schools and at the same time cannot afford the exorbitant fees charged by the prestigious private schools within Kampala and other towns. Just like most government officials are concerned about the structures at Bridge schools, I had the same questions as to why they are international yet with so simple structures, but the logic given was the best explanation. If Bridge invested money in nice big buildings, they would be forced to pass the cost burden to the parents making it hard to reach out to their target population, the rural/burden poor. Contrary to the media impression put out by some government officials, the buildings /classrooms are very strong, spacious and conducive, much better than some schools UPE schools directly under the supervision of the Ministry of education.
The most inspiring story of the Bridge schools was the use of technology as they administered lessons to the pupils. All the teachers had computer tablets, which were remotely monitored to assess class attendance, pupil participation and could evaluate the teacher's overall performance making it impossible for any teacher to miss any lesson. They also had a teacher training Centre in Mukono for all their teachers where all teachers would go very holiday for refresher courses.
I recently saw on TV a key government official addressing a public gathering and stating that the reason why the Bridge schools were closed was because they were teaching homosexuality and sex education in their schools. I personally found that a very unfortunate statement because for the three months spent in these schools, I had never ever come across any teacher teaching such subjects. Besides, most parents would have reported such cases to the authorities since they would be the first to learn of such activities.
All that said, I know that the ministry of education must also be having some valid grounds as to why they tried to close the schools. As a sector regulator, it is understandable that they should take keen interest in what is going in the sector. The real question is whether all available options besides closure were exploited. If Uganda treated all investors the same way Bridge Academies have been treated, am sure we would have very few in this country. I have seen other sectors trying to engage foreign investors even in areas which seem more serious so as to find a permanent mutual benefit. Bridge schools are currently employing over 500 people who are bread earners in this hard economy.
Am also aware that Bridge international academies are the leading private sector players in the Kenyan education sector since 2007. They have operations in Nigeria, Liberia and India. Am informed that the government of Liberia has entered into an arrangement where Bridge will handle all their primary education system under a private public partnership arrangement. Why would such countries trust their children to such an institution if they were as evil as they have been portrayed? I would have expected the ministry of education here in Uganda to make consultations from such countries where the schools have been operating for over ten years.
During my tenure as a district speaker and councilor, I spent most of my time advocating for quality education for the poor at a minimum cost because am fully convinced that without cost sharing the government can never solve the current quality crisis in primary schools. I came across government schools where pupils were under trees and over 100 pupils being handled by one teacher. I also came across private schools licensed by ministry of education with classrooms in owners' private houses, next to bars, in the middle of trading centers and some with teachers with very minimum education. In fact in our last council sitting, we recommended the closure of over 70 schools in our district due to dangerous operating conditions. Coming from that background, the bridge schools model is the perfect gift to the urban and rural poor who want the best education for their children but cannot afford to pay the over 500,000= per term and at the same time have been betrayed by the current UPE status in our government schools. The same ministry of education has in the recent past admitted that the current UPE has failed to deliver the education quality desired. I would therefore expect them to welcome any player that is coming to provide a helping hand and instead of shutting them up, provide capacity building and guidance. At the end, the children in these Bridge schools are Ugandans and not Americans. Statistics have shown that over 80% of the students who access government scholarships are the same kids who went to the best primary schools and secondary schools and whose parents could afford to pay the required millions. The coming in of other players like Bridge academies presents an opportunity where the children of the poor can equally compete with the children of the rich for the available university opportunities in Medicine, pharmacy and Law courses that have become a preserve of the rich and the connected class in this country.
I know that the local private schools proprietors and the head teachers of the UPE schools were the first group to de-campaign the Bridge schools because they lost so many of their pupils to these new schools. The parents, just like any other customers went for what was better for their children. In fact, the rumors of homosexuality were started by some of these proprietors but the parents ignored such messages because they knew the truth.
Some of the school inspectors were so suspicious of teachers holding mini laptops in classes as they taught the pupils. These were alien gadgets to them and they would be heard saying that these teachers must be teaching something else so far away from the national syllabus. In my opinion, this was just the fear for change, since Bridge pupils would be sitting the same exams with the rest at the end of Primary seven.
Lastly, we must admit that the current UPE education cannot deliver to the expectations of the majority of our parents. That is why almost all government officials including those prosecuting Bridge schools have their kids in the Kampala prestigious private schools. Therefore it would be so selfish of any Ugandan who has abandoned these UPE schools to block an opportunity for the majority poor in this country to take their kids to a fairly better school where they can pay fees within their means, because at the end of the day, whether rich or poor we all want the best for our children.
I therefore argue all the stakeholders involved to come on board and work out a solution to ensure that the Bridge schools remain open. If there are serious concerns which the management of Bridge schools must address, let them be given time to do so. It will be a great loss if these schools are permanently closed, while other countries are busy opening their doors to them, tapping into the great opportunities the schools present.
Let all parties swallow their egos and comeback to the round table, because at the end of the day, it will not be the Ministry officials and the Bridge management at loss, it will be these urban and rural poor whose candle of hope is about to be blown off.
The writer is a procurement consultant/Former District Speaker for Isingiro District