The following is part three of a five-part post about education in development and Bridge International Academies
The Bridge model is a fundamentally libertarian idea. It is premised on the belief that school choice is a good thing. Many organizations, including development titans like UNICEF, believe that education should be a public good, provided free by the government. This may be true in theory, but, like most development theories, it is rarely true in practice.
For example, Kenya already technically has a free primary education system, where all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, are guaranteed the right to an education at no cost. Yet, in the slums, where the houses built illegally, few government schools exist to serve the communities. And even in areas where public schools do exist, additional fees payable to the head teacher and others mean that parents are paying almost as much for school as they do at Bridge. Outside of Nairobi, many of the government schools are as close to free as a school can get in Kenya, but they are often overcrowded, far away, and staffed by complacent teachers who are either overburdened with too many students or complacent when it comes to teaching.
Much of the free primary education system in Kenya was subsidized by foreign donors. But these donors eventually decided to scale back funding after massive corruption scandals were exposed. In the main Kenyan daily newspaper, the Daily Nation, every day exposes a new corruption scandal. Needless to say, the state of the government education system is underwhelming at best.
Because of the failures of the government system, thousands of non-formal schools have sprung up throughout the slums to serve these communities. Education entrepreneurs, churches, NGOs, and other groups build and operate schools to fill the void left by poor state-run education. While UNICEF and others would like to believe that these schools do not exist, they are everywhere.
When people speak and write about Bridge, they credit the company with a radical new approach to education, offering private education as a means of providing quality education. But Bridge is hardly innovative in this respect. Non-formal schools like Bridge have existed for decades. It was not until the early 2000’s that a British academic named James Tooley began seriously researching education in the slums of India, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and other countries, and finding bustling schools with hard-working teachers. He published a book called The Beautiful Tree and several articles for the Cato Institute detailing his findings, which were influential in seeding the idea for Bridge.
Rather, the real innovation Bridge brings to this sector is its relentless pursuit of efficiency gains and systematization of the day-to-day running of a school. Technology as a means of creating scalable payment and performance monitoring systems, a scripted curriculum written by subject-matter experts, modular school construction using low-cost materials – these are all key innovations that have the potential to revolutionize this sector. But the concept of a low-cost private primary school for the poor is nothing new.
In the next post, I will address some of the criticisms of Bridge’s model of education. If you have questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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