The new Liberian Education Minister, George Werner, announced in January that the pre-primary and primary schools in the country will move over to be run by 'public-private' partnerships in a $65 million five year deal.
Why this change? In February 2013, the Liberian President, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, called the education system a "mess". The legacy of the civil war means that there is an education quality vacuum in the country: there are almost 50 pupils per trained primary school teacher in the country. According to the 2013 Demographic and Health Survey, only 50% of young women and 68% of young men had completed primary school or, if not, were able to read a whole sentence. The situation was exacerbated during the recent Ebola public health crisis.
It is not yet certain who those private partners may be that Minister Werner is in discussion with. However, if media reports are to be believed, they may include the Bridge Academies, which provide education services in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda for $6 per student per month, and are to branch out in India this year.
Bridge Academies work with teachers who are not subject to the same standards of training as government school teachers. The argument is that they do not need that training, because they are there to read a 'scripted curriculum' that is delivered through data-enabled tablets, explaining what they should do and say during any given moment of a class.
We now have a clear post-2015 agenda firmly anchored in the provision of good quality education. The evidence on the effectiveness and scalability of private entities to provide quality education should be investigated, as we said in a previous blog. This is especially true for the Bridge Academies, which aim to educate 10 million children across a dozen countries by 2025. Indeed, their lack of previous experience in predominantly rural Liberia should further put in question their legitimacy as a key provider in this large-scale privatization initiative.
The way the Academies work rubs teacher unions and other civil society groups up the wrong way. In May last year, a group of 30 Kenyan and Ugandan organisations drafted a joint statement that was supported by a further 116 organisations and was aimed at the World Bank who provide funding for Bridge Academy schools.
"If the World Bank is serious about improving education in Kenya and Uganda, it should support our governments to expand and improve our public education systems, provide quality education to all children free of charge, and address other financial barriers to access," the statement read.
Who is teaching? is one of the key questions that private-sector education providers often face. However, what is being taught is also increasingly likely to be one they will need to answer now that the Sustainable Development Agenda doors have been opened.
Education from now until 2030 has to expand to fit the new and enlarged shoes that the new agenda has laid out for it. This will require going beyond basic skills to ensuring that education builds our children and youth into active, global citizens contributing to an equitable, sustainable world.
With such a vision for education in mind, teachers will need to be trained accordingly, and children and youth challenged to find innovative, new solutions to global issues. Thinking of schools only as places to learn how to read may appear a reasonable idea in a country where most children cannot achieve even that. However, it risks reducing appreciably the purpose of education. Policy-makers need to be aware that good teaching cannot be delivered by just anybody out of a script. Aside from these issues, which Liberia should consider in its shift to any new system, there is also much evidence of the risks that privatization places on the equality of education. So soon after signing the SDGs with their clear emphasis on 'leaving no-one behind', shifting a whole school system, that is already showing large wealth gaps to a private-public partnership seems disheartening, to say the least.
Private schooling is certainly on the rise, as the GMR 2015 showed. And no one is saying that it should be disbanded. But, as academic arguments circle round and round telling already familiar faces of the risks entailed in the private provision, education policy makers - as Liberia is proof - still continue to make public-private deals. What is for certain, however, is that the modus-operandus for education needs to change between now and 2030. If the private sector does not do so too, it is liable to find itself more critics between now and the next development deadline.