- 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.
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.”