Uganda’s High Court has ordered the closure of a chain of low-cost private schools backed by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, respectively the founders of Microsoft and Facebook.
Judge Patricia Basaza Wasswa ruled on Friday (4 November) that the 63 Bridge International Academies provided unsanitary learning conditions, used unqualified teachers and were not properly licensed.
The ruling is a blow to Bridge International, which has expanded rapidly since its inception in 2008. The organisation offers cheap, standardised, technology-driven education in countries in Africa and Asia.
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Under the Bridge International model, teachers read scripted lessons from a tablet computer that also records student attendance and assessments.
But Bridge International has courted controversy, with Liberian teachers threatening to strike earlier this year over government plans to outsource all primary education to the private US-owned company.
In Uganda, government inspectors said children were being taught in sub-standard facilities and unsanitary conditions.
But James Black, a parent who chose Bridge International for his six children, said he appreciated the low fees of about $28 (£22) a term – one-third of what he used to pay – and disagreed with the decision.
“The government says that the facilities are not clean but when I visit the school I look at the kitchen and latrines and they are fine,” he said.
“Bridge schools are mushrooming and many of the officials in the ministry own private schools, and I think that they are scared that they will lose pupils and their fees.”
Bridge International, which claims to have 12,000 students in Uganda, said it would challenge the high court ruling. “We are extremely disappointed for our pupils and disagree with this ruling,” said liaison officer Matsiko Godwin Muhwezi.
“We plan to appeal, on behalf of the more than 20,000 Ugandans who have decided to send their children to our schools.”
Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now said:
“UK aid money could and should be used to develop robust public education systems that would help lift people out of poverty. Instead DfID seems to be hell bent on throwing money at schemes whereby private companies profit by making people in countries like Uganda pay for what turns out to be a shockingly substandard service.
“The British government is a world leader in using aid money to push privatised education on Africa and Asia. They treat these continents as guinea pigs for a model which is also being increasingly pushed here – running education for profit rather than need. It’s shocking that the aid budget is being used to fuel the profits of education multinationals.”
The UK’s new aid minister has promised to keep the country’s aid target of 0.7% of GDP, despite herself once campaigning for the Department for International Development (DfID) to be shut down.