January 31, 2017
WAKISO, UGANDA — Students at the 63 branches of Bridge International Academy in Uganda aren’t sure whether classes will resume in early February, when the rest of the nation’s schools are expected to open again for a fresh academic year.
Over the past three months, a government directive, a roller-coaster series of High Court rulings and another legal hearing that ended without a decision have led to confusion for parents and uncertainty for students.
“Come beginning of February, my children should be at school, but now I am confused on whether I should wait for Bridge to be allowed to operate or go to another school,” says Faridah Nansubuga, a parent with three children at Bridge Kyebando Nsumbi, a Bridge International Academy branch in Wakiso District near Kampala, the capital city.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Bridge International Academy is a for-profit education company with branches in Kenya, Nigeria and Liberia as well as Uganda. The company claims to educate more than 100,000 nursery and primary school students for $6 per month, including 12,000 students in Uganda in schools that opened beginning in 2015.
Investors include Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Zuckerberg Education Ventures, the education investment firm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The trouble for the school’s Uganda branches began in August, when Janet Museveni, Uganda’s minister of education and sports, announced during a parliamentary session that the government planned to close the academies. She indicated that the decision was reached because technical reports showed that the schools did not respect national standards. For example, according to the reports, the curriculum didn’t promote student-teacher interaction, and poor hygiene and sanitation put students’ lives and safety in danger. Patrick Muinda, head of communications and information management at the Ministry of Education and Sports, declined Global Press Journal’s request to view those reports, citing confidentiality.
In addition, the schools aren’t licensed to operate in Uganda, government officials say.
“Until they are licensed by the ministry, they should not operate and [should] stay closed,” Muinda says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
According to a November press release from the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Sports, the ministry had several meetings beginning in June with Bridge school officials, during which they were told not to open any schools other than the seven that were open in 2015 until the company had completed its licensing process. But the company opened 54 other locations in 2016, the release noted.
The school’s actions “seemed to indicate that they never wanted to go through this process in the first place, despite the agreement reached with them,” according to the statement. “This situation, following several reminders, led the Ministry to invoke section 33 (4) of the Education Act 2008, to close Bridge International Academy.”
Bridge school leaders asked the ministry to operate the schools until the end of second term in December, and that request was granted, Muinda says, but then the company filed its case in court.
The High Court ordered the schools to close in early November, then a week later allowed them to reopen under an interim operations plan.
A third decision was expected to be made on Dec. 8, but the state attorney general failed to arrive on time, so the hearing stalled. The judge did not confirm another court date, so it’s unclear whether a decision will be made before early February, when the schools are scheduled to reopen.
“If school starts and the judge doesn’t give a ruling by then, we will still be operating under the interim order,” says Solomon Serwanjja, a spokesman for the Bridge company.
Meanwhile, the government maintains that the schools don’t comply with national standards. Muinda says the schools don’t follow the standard national primary school curriculum, among other concerns.
“The ministry has asked Bridge schools administrators to show them the curriculum, but they haven’t complied to the ministry’s demands,” he says.
Andrew White, the Ugandan country director for Bridge International Academy, says his company has taken steps to prove that the schools are compliant, but the government has not been responsive.
“We have tried to get an audience with the both the ministry and the National Council for Curriculum Development,” he says. “We have written them letters to show them our curriculum and the qualification of our teachers since July, but we haven’t gotten any responses from them.”
The schools have clean water and proper bathroom facilities, he says, and the teachers are qualified.
As for being licensed to operate in Uganda, White says that’s a process, not a one-time event. “At Bridge International academies, the licensing process started before the schools were started, and that starts at the local level. In Uganda, the licensing is primarily done at local district governments,” he says.
The company has written application letters to district officials and has submitted all the necessary requirements, White says. Thirty of the schools have been inspected, and the company has stamped, signed application documents endorsed by district education officials, he says. Those documents have been presented to the Ministry of Education, but the ministry has refused to accept them, he says.
White declined to show copies of those documents to Global Press Journal.
Lule Ibrahim, a parent with a child at Bridge Katooke, believes her child’s education is jeopardized for reasons other than academic standards at Bridge schools.
“There is more to this story than both parties are willing to share publicly, because if it’s about sanitation and curriculum, [the] government has schools with worse sanitation than Bridge, worse structures where children sit under trees for studies, poor teacher attendance,” she says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.