Denying poor parents the choice of school; is it moral?

Recently there has been a debate playing out in international education circles. The question is what, if any, role do low-cost private schools play in improving failing education systems in developing countries?

It is, of course, important to invite debate on how to improve access and quality of education in developing countries. It is frustrating however when the media present a one-sided picture and ignore key points from opposing opinions.

The most recent example of this has been the reporting around the operations of Bridge International Academies, the world’s largest education organization in this space. The reporting has referred to reports by education advocates who have never visited a Bridge International Academy (there are 500 of them in 5 countries – it’s not hard to do!).

As an advocate for the rights of the child to a high-quality education, and someone who started life in a rural school in Malaysia not dis-similar from a Bridge school, I would like to address the misrepresentation.

Let me start by painting a picture. A typical family in a low-income community in Bridge’s communities in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and India earns approximately $1.60 per person per day. Most parents – or parent – work in the informal sector, are income insecure, and often have little to no formal education. Like many parents across the world, they value a good education for their children because they know that if their children are literate and numerate, the opportunities for their future will be significantly better than their own.

And yet when it comes time to send their child to school, their options are limited. Very often, there is no public school to serve them. In Nsumbi, a slum area of Kampala, there is no public school. Parents have to pay for a bus, or often, a dangerous motorbike ride, to get their children to the nearest school. In areas where there is a school, the classrooms are overcrowded, the learning materials limited, and teachers are absent most of the time.

In the meantime, a school opens down the road that costs around $6 a month per child. Teachers are in the classroom for over 8 hours daily and there are books in every classroom. The parents decide that they can afford this cost and make the decision to enroll their child. This is what thousands of families across the developing worl have decided to do. Hence the proliferation of these private low-cost schools.

And the investment is worth it. James Tooley, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, among others, has shown that fee-paying primary schools in the slums performed better than government- run schools. This was true of schools in the slums of West and Central Africa as well as India. This is hard research data which I at first rejected because of my strong belief in universal free education. But I’ve been converted after repeatedly witnessing the positive impact of such schools on learning outcomes, notably Bridge International Academies.

At Bridge International Academies there is a teacher in class for 8.5 hours a day, every day. The teachers are equipped with a lesson guide following the national curriculum of the country of operation for each lesson and trained in how to best deliver that content through active engagement of the classroom. They are banned from hitting the children (which rare in these countries) and encouraged to have an open relationship with parents and pupils.

Studies show that Bridge pupils receive over 32% and 13% more schooling in one academic year for English and Maths respectively than their peers in neighbouring schools. Their first cohort to graduate from primary school in Kenya had a 40% higher chance of passing the national primary exit exam than the national pass rates. Their two longest running schools, where pupils have had the full seven years of schooling, had 100% pass rates.

If you were a parent in a low-income community, which school would you send your child to? Not surprisingly, parents are choosing to send their children to Bridge. Bridge would not have opened over 500 academies in Uganda, Kenya, India and Nigeria, if the parents didn’t demand it.

Like everyone, I strongly believe that children have a right to a good free education from which they can go on to build a better future. But that is not the reality on the ground. There are precious few good free government schools in the slum and rural communities. And parents want a solution now!

Many of those critical of Bridge went to elite private schools themselves. Or send their children to private schools. What rights do they (and we) have to deprive these parents the choice to give their children a better education? The poor have the same aspiration as we have. Parents are making sacrifices for a better education for their children and we should not deny them the choice. We should stop imposing our western views and diktat.

Those who criticize private schools in the slums have no idea how bad the state education system really is. I ask them to come to the slums and see. Speak with parents from Bridge before you start criticizing. 200,000 parents can’t all be wrong. Bridge has been the target of the criticism because it is tackling a problem that education activists have failed to solve and they are doing it efficiently, at scale and with better educational outcomes.

We should debate how to educate children. We should be talking about how we can take some of the lessons learned from Bridge and use them to strengthen public school systems, like the government of Liberia has done. But we should do so with the facts. Not with misinformation, prejudice and ideology.

Disclosure: I am a Malaysian who benefited from the ‘free’ government education system in the UK. But my first school was in rural Malaysia in classrooms not dissimilar to Bridge schools – only it was government and church run and ‘free’. I have had to set aside my prejudices as an advocate of universal free education in light of the data and the reality on the ground in Africa. I am proud to have been an early investor in the Bridge schools. The fact that the governments of Liberia, Nigeria and Andhra Pradesh are forming partnerships with Bridge is an acknowledgement of the inadequacies of their school systems and the need to try something that has been shown to work in Kenya.

A teacher at Bridge International Academies in Nigeria guides a pupil during independent study
A teacher at Bridge International Academies in Nigeria guides a pupil during independent study
Bridge uses low-cost learning tools to assist learning, like these counters made from egg cartons and bottle tops
Bridge uses low-cost learning tools to assist learning, like these counters made from egg cartons and bottle tops
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