Why would anyone who claims to care about the world’s poorest children try to shut down their schools? It’s strange and sad, but several British charities, in cahoots with some British unions, are making a concerted effort to close down hundreds of schools in Africa. They are doing this because they dislike private education, seeming not to care that this will destroy the life chances of thousands of desperate children, forcing them, at best, into state schools where the teachers are often absent, drunk or incapable.
The campaign involves not only an alphabet soup of left-leaning charities from Action Aid to Amnesty International but also Unison and the National Union of Teachers (NUT). Their attacks are directed at Bridge International Academies, a private company backed by, among others, Bill Gates and the British government.
If Bridge set up bad schools that failed African pupils, the campaign would make sense. But it doesn’t. Bridge schools are good and improving education.
Founded by an American husband and wife about a decade ago, Bridge started with a single pilot project in a Nairobi slum and has grown to 600 schools across Kenya, three other African countries and India. Simply built and painted green, the schools are now a familiar sight in the poorest areas. Bridge makes no secret of its aim to one day make a profit by charging fees, albeit very low, but it will reach that stage only when it has grown its student population from the current 100,000 to half a million. The Bridge dream is to one day educate 10 million children.
I visited a Bridge school in the slums of Gilgil in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Gilgil is a mess of rusty tin shacks, open sewers and stinking rubbish. The parents I met were all desperately poor, but equally desperate that their children should be better off. I spoke to a man called Charles Maina, whose daughter had graduated from the school. He just about survives by selling potatoes in the local markets, yet despite their circumstances, he and his wife had spurned the local government primary school because it did not offer a good enough education for their daughter, Anne. Instead, they often went hungry to send her to the Bridge school where she scored high marks in her examinations, went on to a top secondary school and now dreams of becoming a doctor. Asha Said, another Bridge parent, is a hairdresser in a slum salon. ‘The teachers here are better than in a government school,’ she told me.
Inside the Bridge classrooms I visited, teachers conducted lessons on a Kindle-like electronic device using the national curriculum. The teaching is entirely scripted and transmitted from a central office in Nairobi. The students appeared engaged, the teachers attentive, and at least twice a day Bridge’s central offices monitor the performances of every student, classroom and teacher.
All Kenyans I spoke to about Bridge told me the schools enjoy an excellent reputation. Poor parents are keen to send their children to one if they can afford the fees — just over £60 a year. In the countries where it has set up business, nobody disputes that Bridge’s exam results are consistently better than those of children from state-run schools.
Yet a caucus of charities and unions — many of them UK-funded — is determined to shut these schools down. In a recent letter to Bridge’s investors, it urged them to ‘exit in the shortest possible time from their investments [and make] no further financing commitments’. It accused Bridge of a ‘lack of transparency, poor labour conditions and non-respect of the rule of law’.
David Archer, a senior official at Action Aid, told me Bridge was a ‘clever American con trick’ motivated by the founders’ ‘ego’. Sylvain Aubry, another campaigner, condemned Bridge as purely commercial in its aims. He described the schools as illegal and posing a ‘threat to the fabric of society’.
Bridge’s adversaries gave me a litany of their crimes across continents — human rights abuses, health and safety violations — but across 600 schools, very few had led to a conviction or even a fine and none for serious offences. Most of the allegations were preposterous. One was a claim that Bridge violates the ‘sovereignty’ of African countries like Uganda. Uganda’s education minister, Janet Museveni, the wife of the strongman Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled his benighted country for 32 years, has ordered all 63 Bridge schools in the country closed. Her government alleges Bridge schools teach pornography and ‘convey the gospel of homosexuality’. Bridge dismisses these claims.
Bridge’s opponents claim that pupils in Uganda can simply walk across the street and enrol in government schools. ‘There is no evidence that Bridge has improved access to education,’ Archer told me. ‘If they were closed it would make no difference,’ said Aubry. Yet recently crowds of Bridge families took to Uganda’s streets, asking the government where they should send their children when the schools close, because in Uganda some 700,000 children are believed to be out of school.
In a report on UK aid for overseas education compiled last year by Britain’s parliamentary International Development Committee, Uganda’s legendary homophobia got no mention. Instead, the committee, headed by Labour MP Stephen Twigg, described the UK’s support for Bridge schools as ‘controversial’, while endorsing the expansion of aid to state schools overseas.
Archer says Bridge aims to lure talented children away from state schools in order to boost their exam scores. He also told me that although Bridge children did not come from the very poorest families, they still faced sacrifices to cover Bridge fees. From what I have seen, this is true — but the fact that a poor African family values its children’s education above anything else is surely admirable.
Education International is a global coalition of unions of which the NUT is a member. It is a leading attacker of Bridge, and its core policy is to oppose the privatisation of schooling. These organisations stick unstintingly to the line that privatisation of education in Africa is evil because it saps the will of governments to make their state school systems function properly.
On Twitter in February this year, Winnie Byanyima, the global executive director of Oxfam (and a Ugandan), praised Museveni’s government for closing down Bridge schools. ‘Well done,’ she gloated, claiming the company’s schools ‘take advantage of poor people by offering low-quality education leading kids nowhere’.
In private, Byanyima apparently believes the opposite. In October 2015 she wrote an email, which I have seen, in which she conceded that ‘Bridge and other low-cost private schools are … delivering education where public schools are — or are perceived to be — low quality’. This, she accepted, was due to ‘unacceptable failures of public policy, the result of political and financial neglect of public education’.
While Byanyima celebrates the closure of private schools for the poor in her homeland, she had no problem with sending her own son, Anselm, to the elite US Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. Ugandan media photographed Anselm puffing on a Toro Grande-sized cigar at his school graduation last year. One box of his Montecristos would cover the annual fees for two poor Ugandan children to attend a Bridge school.
With cruel hypocrisy, Byanyima and our own education activists argue that the way forward is to tell African governments to build more state schools, train more teachers and deliver better education services. They are hoping African governments will suddenly see the light: they will cease looting state coffers and purchasing fighter-bomber aircraft and invest in state schools instead. But after decades of failure, there is no evidence that schools are the top priority for African governments.
And while they try to close down Bridge schools, these are ever more needed. Even now in my home district of Laikipia County in Kenya, nearly half the boys from semi-nomadic families are sent out to herd cattle at the age of seven. At 13, the chances are that a girl will not be staring at a blackboard but at the knife about to circumcise her before she is married off to a much older man. Globally, more than 250 million children never see the inside of a classroom, the majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Among those who do, the majority of African children will fail to learn basic reading or arithmetic because many state-school teachers in Africa collect their salaries but do not bother to go to work.
A recent American study of African education found that ‘no public primary schools in these countries offer adequate quality education’. A few years ago, the UK’s main aid watchdog criticised British aid to education in African countries as ‘poor value for money’ because not enough had been done to prevent ‘a large majority of pupils failing to attain basic levels of literacy or numeracy’.
Things will get tougher. Thirty years from now, one quarter of all humans will be in Africa. To keep up with the number of new children reaching school age in Kenya, we will need to build hundreds, if not thousands, of new schools each year.
Leftist ideology created the utopias in which countless millions perished. Today’s crime of denying untold multitudes of African children a decent primary education is probably just as evil.
Aidan Hartley is the author of the Zanzibar Chest. This article originally appeared in the Spectator.