Bridge Schools can’t be the solution to the poor state of public education in Nigeria

This blog post is a response to “The push for “free” universal education in Africa often falls short – here’s a better way” by Efosa Ojomo published on Christensen Institute.

“I grew up in Nigeria where nearly half the population still lives in extreme poverty” says the writer of the article: The push for “free” universal education in Africa often falls short—here’s a better way. Likewise, I grew up in Nigeria and I had all my education from primary up to university level in the Nigerian public education system, at a time when there were very few fees-paying private schools in the country. This meant that I had the opportunity to be in the same classrooms with children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Hence, during my compulsory education school days, I had schoolmates whose parents were traders, artisans, junior public servants and I also had schoolmates whose parents were federal government’s ministers, senior civil servants, company executives etc. As such, I was fortunate enough to have had an equitable and socially inclusive educational experience.

While I agree with the writer “that many universal education programs in Africa are failing”, I do not agree with the argument that Bridge International Academies (BIA) offer a solution model that will address the problems that are bedeviling public education in these African countries. More importantly, BIA have been found wanting on many grounds in different countries where they have operated, particularly on issues that border on equity and social justice.

Firstly, there are numerous articles that have been written on the operations of BIA in different parts of the world. For example, you can check the list below:

Secondly, there is the issue of equity. Poor, unemployed or low-income families are made to pay for their children’s education at the expense of other important basic/essential daily needs like food and healthcare in most countries that BIA have operated and this is contrary to the main goal of BIA to serve as a bridge to accessibility to quality education for children from poor families and communities, as stated in their mission statement that they “…believe every child has the right to education. So, we work in partnership with governments, communities, teachers and parents to improve or deliver high quality nurseries and primary schools in underserved areas.” because there are research evidence that show that poor families make important and un-just trade-offs in sending their children to low-fees paying private schools in poor communities as against their other pressing daily needs. For instance, the study by Harma (2013) in a poor fishing community – Makoko- in Lagos, Nigeria is a good case study that comes to mind. For more information on the study, you can check “Access or quality? Why do families living in slums choose low-cost private schools in Lagos, Nigeria?”, and my blog post titled “Why Are You Not in School? The Story of a Young Boy in Nigeria”. However, PISA (2018, p.13) states that “…Successful education systems…have found ways to allocate resources so as to level the playing field for students who lack the material and human resources that students in advantaged families enjoy…” and this is contrary to the challenge that a model like BIA brings into the education system. Furthermore, poor, unemployed or low-income families are made to trade-off between sending a particular child to such low-fees paying schools as against sending all their children to such schools due to limitations in their financial capabilities; the girl-child and children with special educational needs and disabilities can easily become victims of models like that of BIA for vulnerable children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Thirdly, the writer claims that “Bridge’s education programs not only leverage technology where possible, but they also develop standardized curriculum that enables the organization to ensure quality control. This has led to better learning outcomes for students that attend Bridge and some governments are taking note.” However, this is contrary to evidence, for instance, PISA (2018, p.13) sates that “Granting schools more autonomy over the curriculum may give teachers more opportunities to adapt their instruction to students’ needs and knowledge. Students score higher in science in education systems where principals exercise greater autonomy over resources, curriculum and other school policies – but especially so in countries where achievement data are tracked over time or posted publicly, or when principals show higher levels of educational leadership.”  Also, BIA in Bridge vs. Reality (2016, p.46) (PDF) were accused of conducting “…placement tests, end-of-year tests mean that admitted pupils could be asked to repeat a year. An additional year of schooling due to repetition requires additional funding, also acting as a de facto selection system. This also helps to organise the pupils according to academic level, rather than age…”

Fourthly, the example of the Liberian government partnering with BIA is a case of a government that failed in its basic duty and responsibility while at the same time justifying it by neo-privatizing its public education sector. However, Romero, Sandefur and Sandholtz (2016, p.50) in a Preliminary Results from Year One of a Three-Year Randomized Evaluation of Partnership Schools for Liberia states that “…so far in its first year PSL is not a cost-effective program for raising learning outcomes. “ (PDF) Also, there is evidence that BIA have been funded by the UK government through UK aid in the past. For instance, the Guardian reported in 2017 that a coalition of 174 civil society organisations urged the UK “to stop funding ‘ineffective and unsustainable’ Bridge schools”.

Likewise, the claim by the writer that South Africa spends higher percentage of its GDP on education as against other OECD countries and still the country’s “results are abysmal” does not mean a failure of universal education but a failure of the South African public education system,  because all OECD countries provide universal education, at least at the primary and secondary education levels,  and the top five performing nations – Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Chinese Taipei and Finland – in science, reading and mathematics on the PISA table in 2015 were countries/economies with higher performance or greater equity than the OECD average (check table on p.5) and they all have education systems that promote equality and social justice, as shown in the PISA (2018) report.

As for the writer comparing the success of business organisations like Andela to the failures of the education systems at the compulsory education level in some of the African countries; the writer seems to have conflated the role Andela plays in the education system as an employment recruitment agent, mainly serving employers in a niche sector – IT, with that of government at the compulsory education level, which is to address the multiple educational needs  demanded by the major stakeholders in the sector: parents, governments, children and young people, educational institutions, international donor organisations and businesses. So, a public education system is not just an economic good BUT a social good that is of important public value and as such a direct comparison between a public education system and an employment training and recruitment agency like Andela does not address the peculiar differences and needs of the two systems.

Furthermore, governments as custodians of public education provision in their countries are saddled with the need to balance multi -dimensional needs that can be conflicting at times in order to meet the expectations of the main stakeholders within the sector. Hence, the question we need to ask is – are Sub Saharan African countries independently making their educational needs decisions? For instance, the Nigerian National Policy on Education 2013 mentions institutions like UNICEF, UNDP, DFID, JICA and KOICA are some of the sources from which the policy derived its implementation resources.

Recently, in order to address the issue of lack of employability skills among secondary school leavers in Nigeria, the government introduced, through West African Examinations Council (WAEC) – as part of a World Bank project, the mandatory inclusion of one vocational subject in students’ subjects combination at the senior secondary school (SSS) level. However, the government have not invested appropriately in this policy decision by investing in the much needed infrastructure, facilities, recruitment and training of teachers within the vocational education sector.

Finally, while the article attempts to contribute to the much needed and ongoing debate on the poor state of public education in Nigeria, it does not address the underlying fundamental issues that affect the sector, and these are important issues like: accessibility; equity; social justice; inclusion; and culturally, functionally, locally and globally relevant and appropriate curriculum at the compulsory education level in the country.

N.B: After I published this post and shared it online – in which I tagged the writer of the article I wrote this post on – there was an exchange of views on the two articles by both of us. You can check out our Twitter conversation with the link below:

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