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Bridge academies are falling down

SOLOMON HUGHES spotlights Bridge International, which provided teacherless, IT-led ‘education’ for Ugandan kids in unsanitary schools – until the government closed them down

A BRITISH government-funded plan to run for-profit schools in Uganda, with “tablet technology” replacing skilled teachers, has ended in failure.

At the end of November the Ugandan High Court ordered the 63 profit-making schools, which charge Ugandan parents for their kids’ education, to close because the teaching was poor, and the conditions — ramshackle, unsanitary buildings that sometimes lacked toilets — were worse.

The US-based Bridge International Academies had a host of fashionable right-wing plans for the Ugandan schools, which appealed so much to privatisation-happy Tory — and Lib Dem — ministers that they spent some of our aid budget on the failed plan.

First, Bridge International is, as its website makes clear, a “profit-led education” model.

Bridge says its “for-profit academies” can make money educating kids in the developing world by charging “at a price point accessible to families living on $2 a day per person or less.”

It says it can make a profit from these very poor families by running schools cheaply because “we have re-engineered the entire lifecycle of basic education, leveraging data, technology, and scale.”

Behind that jargon lies another fashionable right-wing idea: expensive skilled teachers can be replaced by cheap unskilled tutors thanks to a “highly efficient delivery mechanism.”

That “delivery mechanism” is unskilled tutors using computer tablets to “display scripted lessons.” The tablets also “record attendance and assessment scores and track lesson pacing and pupil comprehension in real time, thanks to our proprietary software.”

The dream of replacing skilled teachers with IT-led “tablet teaching” is an international right-wing fantasy.

It is so powerful that Rupert Murdoch tried to launch a profit-making “tablet teaching” company called Amplify in the US.

Presidential wannabe Jeb Bush (and brother of former president George “Dubya” Bush) has been pushing the “electronic classroom of tomorrow,” a virtual digital school system.

Another Bush brother, Neil Bush, helps to run Ignite Learning, which wants to replace trained teachers with “curriculum on wheels” or “Cows.”

These are purple plastic computerised lesson-delivery trolleys intended to replace properly qualified teachers.

Many of these mad dreams to get rid of teachers have stalled or failed

— Murdoch had to sell his failing education firm Amplify as his dream that he could get rid of teachers in the US and Britain hit up against angry parents and crashing systems.

But Bridge International was allowed to try out this popular right-wing scheme in Africa.

Bridge was founded by Harvard-educated Jay Kimmelman, who previously worked in “educational technology.”

He got funds from techie millionaires Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Vinod Khosla (Sun Microsystems).

But Bridge International is also funded by our Department for International Development (DfID). Under then development secretary (now Education Secretary) Justine Greening, DfID started putting millions of our aid money into Bridge International.

It wasn’t just a Tory plan. Under the coalition, Lib Dem development minister Lynne Featherstone particularly supported DfID funding Bridge for its African operations.

The dream soon turned sour. First, Bridge charges parents about $100 a year (excluding lunch fees). That’s big money for Uganda.

But conditions in their “academy-in-a-box” schools were not good.

Education International — the global teaching union federation backed by Britain’s National Union of Teachers — put a great deal of effort looking into what was happening at the schools. It was bad.

The Ugandan government soon agreed with the Education International findings.

Uganda’s minister for education said Bridge International’s tablet teaching “could not promote teacher-pupil interaction.” Teachers were only “trained” by Bridge itself. The curriculum had not been approved by the government. In addition, the poor hygiene standards “put the life and safety of school children in danger.” Some Bridge “academy” sites had overflowing pit latrines. Others had no latrines.

In August the government ruled the 63 schools should close. After an appeal, the Ugandan High Court backed the closure — although the schools have been allowed to stay open until December to finish the pupils’ term.

Uganda’s state schools are not in a good condition. But that doesn’t mean the nation should be open to every crackpot market-driven solution.

The mad right-wing tech dream of replacing teachers with tablets has so far failed in the US and Britain.

It was a disgrace that Tory and Lib Dem ministers paid valuable development money to push the same for-profit schools model on Uganda.

There is one footnote to this story: Bridge International’s DfID-funded failure in Uganda has been quite fully reported by the right-wing Mail. But it has not been reported by the “liberal” press, like the Guardian or Independent, or the “centrist” Times.

The Mail is reporting this story because it sees it as proof that the government should not fund overseas development at all. Really the Bridge International failure shows we shouldn’t be giving our aid money into dubious right-wing, snake oil salesmen, whatever they say from the back of their covered wagon about the beneficial effects of their patent profit-driven medicine.


• TRANSPORT Secretary Chris Grayling is in serious trouble over rail. When one of his own backbenchers, Bob Neill (a former junior minister who has held some serious Tory Party positions), says he is “not fit for office,” then something is going on.

Neill was bothered by Grayling’s slimy party political attempt to keep suburban rail lines out of the London mayor’s control.

But Grayling (pictured) has bigger problems. He’s proposing crap rail firms get more control of track, taking it from Network Rail. Putting the people who run Southern Rail in charge of the tracks is obviously risky.

But you would not know this from BBC News. It called Grayling’s plans the “biggest shake-up for 20 years” on rail. It didn’t say why the last “shake-up” happened.

Back then private company Railtrack ran the tracks. What a judge called “shocking negligence” by Railtrack subcontractors supposedly maintaining the track caused major crashes. Eleven were killed.

A maintenance subcontracting company called Jarvis, run by former Tory minister Steven Norris, was behind one of the accidents, at Potters Bar.

Norris tried to blame his own firm’s track safety failure on imaginary “sabotage” by “vandals.” The track maintenance firms could not guarantee safety so 30mph speed limits were imposed across the network.

Privatised, subcontractor-happy British Rail had to be renationalised to save lives and stop the rail system seizing up. Any move by Grayling back to those conditions would be crazy. But all that — quite recent — madness is lost in the BBC phrase “shake-up.”


• Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter @SolHughesWriter.


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