CSOs Call on Gov’t to End PSL Program

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A Bridge school in Monrovia, Liberia. (Courtesy: Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi/The New York Times)
  • Global Protest Hits Bridge International Academies; 174 NGOs Want Support to BIA Ceased
  • Cry out a resounding “No” to MOE’s intent to scale up the program until the pilot can be properly evaluated – Action Aid Country Director Laskhmi Moore

When the Liberian government launched the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) pilot project in 2016 it handed over 94 schools to 8 private service providers. They enrolled approximately 27,000 students through a Public Private Partnership (PPP) initiative, and some proponents, as well as education enthusiasts, thought that the much-needed redemption in the country’s education sector was finally at hand. But major stakeholders such as the Public Schools Teachers Association and many prominent individuals greeted the PSL program with skepticism and said it would do the country more harm than good. As a result, BIA is facing fierce resistance globally when recently 174 CSOs from around the world, including Action Aid and COTAE of Liberia, released a statement calling on investors to cease support to the BIA. BIA runs over 500 commercial private schools in the ‘global south’ including Liberia with the support of international donors and investors.

The signatories to the resistance include human rights organizations, development partners, community, faith-based organizations, and trade unions. At a press conference in Monrovia last week the head of The Coalition for Transparency for Accountability in Education (COTAE), Anderson Miamen, said the statement demonstrates the growing concern about BIA operations. The statement sets out the mounting evidence published in the last two years, including inquiries by independent journalists that raised grave concerns over Bridge’s transparency, relationships with governments, working conditions, and breaches of educational standards. It also highlighted the cases of Uganda and Kenya where Bridge has not only operated schools illegally but also failed to adhere to national education standards. Authorities in both countries ordered the closure of Bridge schools. “The quality of Bridge schools has not been independently assessed. In any case, any claim in its learning outcome could never justify the shocking practices that have been documented in this statement. What can justify, for instance, unlicensed, and unregistered teachers being denied a living wage while working over 60 hours,” Miamen said at the press conference.

Anderson Miamen, head of COTAE

Also outlined in the statement is how Bridge does not only fail to reach the most disadvantaged – the very population it claims to serve – due to high costs, but also negatively impacts families who are accessing the schools. “We want these donors to stop supporting BIA because they are doing more harm than good,” Miamen said.

Miamen is calling on the government not to extend the PPP with BIA after the pilot project though there are reports that MOE has already reach an agreement with BIA for a 5-year extention.

PPP is supposed to operate across scales and through interactions with local, regional, national, and intergovernmental organizations, though this is not the case in Liberia as it is rather submerged in secrecy between the government and the largest partner, BIA, Miamen said. Critics argue that the company’s market-based reforms may exacerbate inequalities and undermine democratic accountability, as is the case in Liberia. Miamen said that more than half of the students that attended schools now operated under the PPP arrangement are currently out of school or forced into substandard structures to accommodate them—most times without adequate teachers. Most of these are led by community initiatives, he said. While the private sector providers manage the day to day operations at the partnership schools and provide a philanthropic subsidy of at least US$50 per student, the public sector is responsible for monitoring and evaluating the program, while matching the US$50 per student subsidy. Miamen indicated that evidence is glaring that the PSL is still far too short of the delivery of good quality, inclusive and affordable education in Liberia—challenges of the sector that MOE described as “difficult to resolve simultaneously,” as it would require multifaceted and innovative approaches to revive the system. “The PSL is of no help to Liberia. It is divisive as it put some kids out of school and it is not sustainable. What these goodwill donors are providing through BIA could help our sector to be strengthened, but Bridge is making a huge profit out of this process…and unfortunately, they can leave anytime whenever they want and no one can ask them. This is how we will be left in this mess and we will [have to] start all over,” he said.

One of the key critics of the PSL is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Kinshore Singe, who blasted the Liberian government for neglecting its core responsibility. Additionally, a new study by Education International (EI) says that with the PSL, Liberia’s public education system is exposed to grave risks. EI’s study, “Partnership Schools for Liberia: a critical review,” by Tyler Hook, a PhD candidate in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, analyzed three areas: transparency and accountability; students and teachers; and scalability and sustainability. The study, commissioned by Education International with the support of Action Aid, raises serious concerns about the project. The report identifies issues related to MOE’s capacity to hold providers accountable, transparency in the commissioning and implementation of the pilot, and potential concerns regarding enrollment, teacher policies, school infrastructure, and funding, particularly between local and international providers. The study also finds that PSL puts increased power in undemocratic, private institutions, that make decisions with little community input and accountability, resulting in inequalities within communities and regions. However, the EI study comes at a time when the Ministry decided to double the number of schools from 94 to 202 in the second phase of its pilot project, despite MOE initially claiming that the project would not be scaled-up in the absence of independent evidence. “We are worried as to what would happen when these funds are no longer forthcoming. This is not sustainable and so we must talk to these philanthropists to redirect these funds to a more sustainable cause,” Action Aid Country Director Laskhmi Moore said at the conference in Monrovia. She indicated further that “certain people somewhere want to make a profit out of poor Liberian children.” Mrs. Moore said Liberia should cry out a resounding “No” to MOE’s intent to scale up the program until the pilot can be properly evaluated. “This project is not in our interest and we will definitely suffer the consequences,” she noted.

Significantly, MOE has denied access to Liberian schools by independent researchers who wanted to analyze the pilot project’s first phase, the report said. This led to over 30 academics from renowned universities signing an open letter to Werner a few months ago expressing their deep concern about “both [his] reluctance to permit independent research of the Partnership Schools for Liberia pilot program and [his] rush to expand the pilot before evidence is available.” However, the Ministry has elected to proceed to expand the program from September 2017. “This includes evidence of children being denied access to their local schools as well as dropping out of school due to a failure to deliver on a promised school lunch program as part of an extended school day. Without clear, independent evidence supporting the PSL program, and given the serious issues that have been exposed in the pilot project, the government should cease its expansion, otherwise it would place the future of Liberian education at risk,” Moore said.

However, a BIA report says that Initial government assessments suggest Bridge schools in Liberia are generally outperforming their state counterparts. The percentage of pupils scoring zero in reading comprehension in Bridge schools fell by 14% among year 1 pupils, while it increased 2% in government schools. However, pupil attendance was higher in government-run schools: 70%, compared with 60% in Bridge schools by the fourth school term.

But the president of the National Teachers’ Association of Liberia, Mary Mulbah, recently condemned the government for pushing ahead with plans to scale up the program in the absence of results from a larger study. “We don’t agree that student test scores alone should be used to decide whether to dismantle our public education system,” she wrote in a public letter.

Responding to the criticism from civil society groups on its Facebook page, BIA said it provides high quality education to marginalized and remote communities across Africa. The company pointed out that it costs an average of just under $7 (£5) a month to send a child to Bridge, and that 10% of students are on scholarships. BIA added that teachers work about 54 hours a week and are given high-quality training before and during their careers.

“Our pupils are outperforming their peers. Our model means that we’re able to attract new investment towards solving one of the world’s most pressing problems: hundreds of millions of children who are not learning,” the Bridge statement said.

“Public schools and Bridge schools can and do operate side by side to serve communities in countries where there are major shortages of nurseries and primary schools. We help governments quickly address the gap between how many schools they have and how many they need.”

5 COMMENTS

  1. The Partnership School of Liberia (PSL) program is geared towards providing poor kids access to high quality education! But the PSL program is seen as a clear threat to the CSO’s,and the National Teachers’ Association of Liberia (NTAL), whose leaders think government schools exist to keep their pots boiling (provide guaranteed jobs and perks for their members)! That’s why they are calling on the government to “end the PSL Program”

    But the Minister of Education (Werner) shouldn’t listen to such nonsense! Why? Because expanding the PLS program means competition among schools and increase parental school CHOICE. The schools will get better and better, and it would cheaper to educate your child because of market place competition!

    Let’s hope the Minister of Education (Werner) keep fighting for the PSL program! It’s a step in the right direction!

    I for one, would recommend abolishing the Ministry of Education altogether and giving that money (school voucher or opportunity scholarship) to parents to allow them to send their children to a private or parochial school of their CHOICE!.

    It can be done in 2 easy steps:

    Step 1 ….Abolish our US$80 million Ministry of Education.

    Step 2….Pass a law stating that “The state shall protect freedom of educational choice of a pupil and a parent…The state shall finance education of a pupil from the central budget by a voucher and every parent has a right to get a voucher for financing the education of a child who reaches school age.”

    That;s it.

  2. Bridge’s Open Letter Response to Those Calling to Stop Investment in Proven Solutions

    We are glad to see the signatories of this letter recognize that investors in Bridge are genuinely concerned about children in poverty, and that they acknowledge the need for significant improvements in education across many low and middle-income countries.

    We stand on common ground with them in wanting to see children in some of the most challenging environments given the opportunity to learn. At last count, nearly 600 million children were being failed, either through not being in school or being in schools where learning is not happening.

    The reasons behind today’s global education crisis are numerous and complex: fragile states, conflict, weak government institutions, school shortages, and ineffective management, to name only a few. In this landscape, there is no single magic solution to the education situation. It will take a full spectrum of actors and influences, across governments, international bodies, charities, companies, faith groups and more to make real lasting change.

    We know that Bridge is only one small part of the overall effort to improve outcomes for children in the
    developing world. Yet, as Bridge empowers children from families living below the global poverty line to
    flourish, and become leaders in their own communities and countries, the work we do disrupts the status
    quo; by demonstrating that schools on limited budgets can still have the resources to support teachers with
    extensive training and learning resources. Today’s status quo of 600 million children either out of school or
    attending schools where learning is not happening is simply unacceptable.
      
    We are very proud of the work we do and I’m delighted that our investors have independently recognized the current and future contribution of Bridge. We believe, as do our investors, that effectiveness should be measured on outcomes and in the case of education, learning gains.

    It should be noted that most of the reports and evidence collated in this report were commissioned by Education International and their affiliates and has largely been rebutted previously. These organisations openly campaign against education reform and are avid protectors of the status quo; the reliability of their assertions is fundamentally undermined by this starting premise.

    To address the issues raised in the letter by Global Initiative, I am pleased to set the record straight:

    1. No government or country is calling for Bridge to be closed.
    In the past there have been misunderstandings about Bridge, due to the spread of misinformation
    originating from those who wish to pursue ideological arguments rather than focus on how to benefit
    children quickly and effectively. False allegations about Bridge are used to try and discredit a model
    of high quality, affordable education that threatens some stakeholders with vested interests. Today, there is no government attempting to close Bridge. We have directly explained and shown African
    ministers and civil servants the reality of our good quality schools and our desire to help governments
    improve education access and quality by complementing their overall mix of nursery and primary
    school provision, and where partnerships exist, serving the government directly in public schools.

    2. All Bridge schools meet local government standards for safety and cleanliness and Bridge fully complies with all national laws.
    All Bridge buildings are safe and meet local standards and legal requirements. But Bridge believes
    that school performance should be measured by outcomes not inputs. We don’t focus on the
    aesthetic appearance of our schools, but rather the teaching that is happening in our classrooms and
    the learning gains achieved by our pupils. Keeping our buildings simple keeps costs low for parents
    and allows us to focus investment in teacher support and R&D of teacher and learner resources.
    Allegations have been made in the past and these were unfounded. That is why no Bridge school has
    ever been closed.
    We take our responsibility to keep our pupils safe very seriously. As should all schools. Any
    individual found repeatedly on Bridge premises using a false identity will be taken very seriously and
    reported to the appropriate authorities. This is not a question of transparency, it is a question of
    safety.

    3. There have been numerous independent assessments of Bridge schools and pupils, which have shown positive results, and there will be many more independent evaluations.
    The growing evidence from internal and external studies shows Bridge students learn more than their peers at traditional public schools. Bridge students do better on tests that matter. Passing the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exam is required to graduate from primary school, and to attend government secondary schools. In 2015, Bridge pupils achieved a 63% pass rate compared to the national average of 49% (44% in public schools). In 2016, Bridge pupils scored 10% more than the national average. For Bridge pupils who have been at Bridge for 4 years, the pass rate increases to 74%. The first cohort of pupils at Bridge Uganda will sit the PLE this year. We are confident that every country we operate in will replicate the success of our Kenyan pupils.

    A report published in collaboration with the Liberian Ministry of Education and the University of Liberia revealed Bridge PSL pupils made more progress toward achieving national literacy benchmarks. In just 4 months, 17% of Bridge PSL second graders met the reading fluency benchmark for the first time, compared to only 4% of second graders at traditional public schools.

    Bridge is participating in two randomized control trials, one in Liberia conducted by the Center for Global Development and Innovations for Poverty Action and one in Kenya led by Michael Kremer (Harvard), along with other economists from UVA, the World Bank, and Columbia University.
    We look forward to continued partnerships with economists and the education research community in the years ahead.

    The President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, said ‘one of the most effective ways to encourage investment in the extreme poor and improve health and educational service delivery is accountability’. He went on to say that in Bridge International Academies ‘after about two years, students’ average scores for reading and math have risen high above their public school peers.’ We support evidence-based decisions and policy-making, and have been supported by shareholders and partners that also look to evidence to solve the world’s greatest social justice crisis today: that 600 million children are either out of school or in school but not learning. We must disrupt the generational transfer of poverty through schools that fulfils their role to close the achievement gap.  

    Bridge is proud of its students and their results.
    4. All Bridge teachers are trained to teach, and we meet or exceed government quotas for use of registered teachers.
    Each country in which Bridge operates has different qualifications and requirements for teachers. Bridge adheres to all of them. We provide high-quality professional training and support for all of our teachers, both after they are hired and before they enter the classroom, as well as throughout their careers.
    Bridge runs a carefully designed pre-service training program, and supports its teachers with continuous professional development programs both inside and outside the classroom. The training prepares teachers in subject fundamentals, conducting interactive lessons, leading small groups and 1:1 instruction, to use a variety of effective teaching techniques, and become comfortable with technology for records, lesson materials, and communication.

    The UN estimated that 69 million extra teachers will be needed to reach the 2030 goals. A recent World Bank report indicated the average teacher absentee rate in Ugandan classrooms was 56%, and in Kenyan 47%, while in Bridge the rate is about 5% and  1% respectively.

    5. Many of our pupils attend a Bridge school for free – 10% are on full sponsorships. All Bridge pupils in Liberia attend a Bridge-managed public school for free.
    Bridge locates its schools in poor communities in developing countries. Bridge’s affordable fees mean that the vast majority of the families near our schools can afford to send their children to Bridge.
    The global average fee for Bridge is approximately $7 USD per month per child. In country fees are clearly and transparently displayed at every Bridge Academy. In countries such as Liberia, where Bridge is part of Government Public Private Partnership, parents don’t pay fees. Of course, despite the very low fees there will always be those who struggle. As such, Bridge runs an extensive scholarship program. 10% of our pupils are on full scholarships and attend Bridge for free. We welcome additional scholarship support.
    It is important to note that many public schools in the countries in which Bridge operates are not actually free – they often charge a wide range of fees for “admissions,” “teacher motivation fees,” “PTA fees,” etc. As such, Bridge is sometimes less expensive than so-called “free” public schools.
    Parents have the right to choose whether or not to send their children to Bridge and decide for themselves whether they wish to invest in education. Parents always know what our low fees are before they decide to enrol a child, and we defend their right to make choices. Our fees are affordable to the vast majority of families that live where Bridge establishes schools, which is why Bridge is popular.

    A Bridge pupil at a Bridge Partnership Schools for Liberia academy, where parents don’t pay fees.

    6. All pupils are welcome at Bridge, we do not have a selective entrance policy, and we do not “cherry pick” pupils to sit national exams.
    Bridge admits children without regard to their previous mastery of material within a wide age-range for each grade. This is necessary since many children arrive at Bridge after having been out of school for months or years, or not yet enrolled in school. Given that children come to Bridge often years below grade level, to support a child’s mastery of foundational concepts, we may advise a parent that it will serve the interests of their child to repeat a grade. This decision is at the discretion of the parent.

    At the end of the academic year, during the parent-teacher conference, a child’s teacher may have a conversation with parents whose child(ren)(s) assessments have demonstrated that their child is unprepared for the challenges of the next grade. Our policy is the same for Class 1 students and Class 7 students alike. Whether a child remains in the same grade level for another year or moves on to the next grade level is entirely the decision of the parent.

    7. Bridge is actively partnering with governments on developing and improving regulatory frameworks and delivering improved education systems
    We are helping the Kenyan government, and other governments, to improve the way they regulate the many thousands of independent school operators.
    In Kenya, Bridge has participated in government-led stakeholder dialogues and conferences on both national education reform and on the guidelines for non-formal schools, now called Alternative Provision of Basic Education and Training (APBET). These guidelines were designed to enable the Ministry of Education to register the thousands of non-formal schools serving 2 million children.
    Bridge is also part of the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Developments’ piloting of the new national syllabus, with our school in the rural village of Kinna, Isiolo County being selected for participation amongst the 470 schools in the pilot nation-wide.
    Bridge pupils shine in various government school competitions, from athletics to choral and drama performances. At the 91st National Music Competition, 170 Bridge pupils performed, 26 scored in the top 3 nationally in their category of performance, and one pupil placed 1st in the nation.
    In Liberia, Bridge is one of 8 government partners delivering the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) initiative, enabling the improvement of the primary education system across the country. Government partnerships in both Lagos, Nigeria and in Andhra Pradesh also evidence the productive relationships that Bridge enjoys with governments across Africa and Asia.
    Bridge believes investment capital deployed toward addressing one of the world’s most pressing problems is a positive force in development. By demonstrating that high performing schools are possible even on a developing country’s limited budget, Bridge has enabled governments to make informed decisions on how to improve learning.

    Bridge pupils in Kenya, outside of a Bridge academy.
    8. Bridge is fully transparent in Liberia and elsewhere.
    The Government of Liberia and Ministry of Education (MOE) asked the world to contribute to improving its public schools through bringing in new donor support. This is an effort to be applauded – and those donors who have come forward to support Liberia are to be celebrated for their commitment to creating a strong, high-performing school system and future for Liberian children. Specifically, PSL and its revolutionary aspirations for education have attracted and enabled new philanthropic money to come into the country. As part of this, Bridge PSL has been able to attract philanthropic support that has enabled us to create visible and measured change in learning for children across the public schools we serve and provided over 29,673 textbooks, 16,000 teacher guides and 3,500+ desks.
    PSL was never envisaged as a single operator program. Bridge was the inaugural partner within the PSL initiative, after having undergone vetting by various offices and Ministries in Liberia. After PSL was inaugurated, the Ministry rightly sought additional partners to grow the program so that more children could benefit from greater spending on education by donors, and greater attention and support to public schools.
    Contrary to the claims, this was a transparent process. President Sirleaf and the Ministry hosted a national education meeting in January 2016, seeking input from all stakeholders in education which informed the creation of the PSL program. An additional national education meeting was hosted in April 2016, and then halfway through the first year of the program, a third major national education meeting was hosted in February 2017. We believe this is demonstrative of the Government of Liberia’s commitment to good governance and inclusive policy making. PSL is a government program, as such teachers are on the government pay roll and class sizes are determined by the Government framework.
    The MOE has also commissioned two essential bodies of research to inform policy on PSL. The first is a study comparing the differences in learning over time at six Bridge PSL public schools and six independently selected traditional public schools. The second study is a randomized  control trial comparing all the partners in PSL with 94 other traditional public schools that is due in August 2017.
    Bridge PSL is proud to be a partner in Liberia and happy to engage in meaningful debate but will rightly seek to correct misinformation about the program. Every day we remember that we are here in service of the needs of Liberia’s children. We stand ready to continue our support for, and work with, the Ministry’s bold and visionary reforms.

    9. A UK Parliamentary committee recommended more learning gains evidence about Bridge be considered prior to further government investment, which we welcome.
    Of course, investors must weigh up the evidence before investing in any organisation that claims to be helping children in developing countries. We encourage all donors to continue to make their investment decisions based upon learning gains and to look at the amazing results being achieved by Bridge pupils across Africa.
    We need to take a step back from this argument and see the bigger picture.
    In many developing countries, millions of children are not in school, and many of those who are, receive inadequate education. Specifically, the Education Commission estimates there are 263 million children and young people not in school and a further 330 million in school but not learning. In addition, UNESCO states that an extra 69 million teachers are needed to achieve the UN education goals for 2030.There is a real need that must be addressed urgently.
    Bridge believes there should be truly great, truly free public schools. However, in reality, this is far from being the case, so Bridge seeks to help address the huge education imbalance between what is available and what is needed right now.
    By demonstrating that high-performing schools are possible even on a developing country’s limited budget, Bridge has empowered governments and others to make informed decisions on how to improve learning. Far from acting separately from government or taking government “off the hook,” Bridge is already an education partner in many countries, helping governments to address educational shortfalls and improve learning outcomes.
    We trust that with the evidence in hand, organisations that may have had false information will now work with Bridge and other schools in partnership to ensure that all children have access to attend a transformational school. We look forward to working with partners across the globe to close the achievement gap for children in the developing world. Let us all focus our efforts and attention on how to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of children.

  3. I am with Martin and the Bridge International on this one! These so-called CSOs and the NTAL are always looking for ways for inclusion for the sole purpose of running an inefficient and corrupt system that has dismally performed. For trying to build the educational foundation of less fortunate children in areas where the needs are, we should be grateful for the partnership programs.

  4. Are these not the same guys who have now metamorphosed into praise-singing advocates and think-tanks of parties in the elections? They would fall anything, as long as they can get a buck to line their pockets. They are fine with medical NGOs, USAID and other people making millions in the name of supporting the health sector. But, when it comes to education, they say ‘hands-off’. Such hypocrisy!

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