Schools - 'Technically, we're breaking the law'

African academy chain founder speaks up for bending the rules

Stephen Exley

Low-cost private schools in Africa are forced to operate illegally, in breach of "restrictive" laws that stifle innovation, the founder of one of the continent's largest chains has claimed.

Bridge International Academies, which educates 65,000 children in 200 primary and nursery schools across Kenya, routinely flouts the legal requirement to hire government-trained teachers, chief strategy officer Shannon May told TES.

The official state-run teacher training system failed to provide high-quality teachers, she claimed, prompting the company - which aims to educate 500,000 children across four African countries within three years - to establish its own alternative training programmes.

In recent years, a number of for-profit providers have opened chains of schools across Africa, charging low fees to attract the lowest-paid families. Bridge International Academies' fees range from $4.50 to $7 (#163;2.80 to #163;4.40) per month.

James Tooley, professor of education policy at Newcastle University in north-east England, has carried out extensive research into low-cost private education in developing countries and is chairman of Omega Schools, which currently operates 40 institutions in Ghana.

Recent research in parts of Liberia and Ghana revealed that 71 per cent of students attended private primary schools, with the majority being from families living on or below the poverty line, Mr Tooley told TES. "This is a grass-roots phenomenon, caused by growing demand by the majority of poor families. It's not just in Africa, it's across the world; it's been an incredible success story.

"The growth of these schools has been caused by the inadequacy of government education, which leads to poor parents wanting to send their children to private school. However, in some countries the local laws inhibit this sort of school."

Ms May also argued that the conservative policies of governments in developing countries often deterred private sector providers from establishing new schools. "Technically, we're breaking the law," she said. "But so are thousands of other schools who are operating like this in these environments, and millions of children go to the types of schools where things like this are happening.

"You have to be extreme, you have to take real risks to work in those environments. Often there are (laws in place) preventing most companies from trying to figure out how to solve these problems.

"There would be more people and more organisations willing to try and push the envelope and get higher pupil outcomes if the regulatory and legal framework was less restrictive."

Ms May was inspired to set up her own schools when, at the same time as carrying out research into anthropology at a large multinational development in rural China, she was required by the government to teach at a local school.

"I felt it was going to be so distracting, but it ended up being a truly amazing part of my experience there and I was able to be a much more integral part of the community," she said. "It also gave me an incredible view on where the cycle of poverty really starts."

Keen to put the lessons she had learned to good use, Ms May, who last week spoke at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar, decided to focus her efforts on the continent with the greatest educational need: Africa.

The first Bridge International Academy opened in Kenya in 2009; four years on, the firm has 2,500 employees and plans to open hundreds more schools next year. Eventually, it aims to reach 10 million children around the world.

Ms May said that the company's rapid expansion plan was designed to keep fees low while making the project financially sustainable, adding: "The price has to be at a point which parents at or below the poverty line can actually afford. If they can send three of their children while spending 15-18 per cent of their income (on schooling), it's truly affordable for them.

"The urgency is because the only way you can have a price of $5 a month is if you have hundreds of thousands of customers. We need 500,000 pupils to break even."

Bridge International Academies also keeps costs down by using what it describes as its "Academy-in-a-Box" approach. With this, not only are many administrative functions automated and centralised, but teachers also submit student data to central office staff, who then tell them which learners need extra attention.

The first of the company's Nigerian schools is due to open next year. Other countries in line for the next wave of expansion include Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and India.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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