An update on Bridge Academies in Liberia, and why people need dreams - and yes, sweet lies - too

Before long, you might begin to hear that brutal African phrase that people like to use to silence aspiration: “But did you die?”

A FEW weeks ago, we at Mail & Guardian Africa reported how Liberia was looking to contract a private, US-based company to run its pre-primary and primary education, with the eventual aim of contract out all primary and early childhood education schools to private providers who meet the required standards over 5 year period.

It was only a matter of hours before the story picked up momentum and then blew up – it remains one of our most read, shared and commented story this year.

Very early on, it became clear that definitions were very important in the story – the Liberian government, was quick to clarify that it was not exactly “outsourcing” or “privatising” basic education.

“We are not trying to privatise public education in Liberia. What we are trying to do is to have a partnership with private providers to manage some schools on behalf of the government,” said education minister George Werner in an interview with Voice of America. 

“Government will own those schools; government will oversee those schools; the teachers in those schools will be government teachers paid within the regulation of the civil service,” he said.

Werner said that the Liberian government would continue footing the costs related to school infrastructure and teachers’ pay, and that it was time to try “small experiment to a big problem. We’ve tried many things [to fix the education sector] and they are not working.”

Bridge International Academies contacted us the day the story was published, and later wrote a statement on the issue, in which they said they were honoured to “serve the Liberian people as the first of many partners” under what is a public-private partnership called Partnership Schools for Liberia.

Third party

Under the pilot programme, 120 elementary schools would be put under third-party management, if we can call it that; 50 schools have been contracted to Bridge, while local Liberian non-governmental operators are being invited to bid for the opportunity to manage 70 schools.

So it isn’t a one-off, wholesale, single-sourced privatisation, but there is scope for other private education providers to come in – though Bridge International Academies, as of now, is the first of potentially many.

“The only aim of the partnership is to provide Liberian children with the quality education they deserve,” the statement from Bridge reads. “An education that engages their hearts and minds, that enables them to gain employment, start Liberian businesses and to be the successful leaders that the Liberian people need.”

Bridge’s business model, which it describes as “tried and tested”, basically depends on two things – reducing overhead costs, and massive scaling.

The firm reduces overhead costs by using technology in the form of handheld tablets to deliver scripted lessons in class, identical down to the words of encouragement instructors give the pupils. It means that instead of hiring expensive, university-trained teachers, instructors in the Bridge model just have to go through a five-week training programme to learn how to “deliver” the content.

Technology also automates most of the administrative aspects of school, such as monitoring attendance, processing admissions, payments, expense management and payroll. 

Costs are further kept down by the using low cost materials in school construction, usually just timber and iron sheets (in East Africa, we call iron sheets mabati), which also drastically shortens construction time. The result – an average school fees cost of $6 a month.

Dizzying speed

In order to turn a profit, therefore, the firm depends on scale. It needs to achieve, in its own words, “a scale never before seen in education, and at a speed that makes most people dizzy.” By 2025 the company says it plans to have 10 million students in academies spread across 12 different countries.

In Liberia’s case, the approach will, by necessity, be different from what Bridge has been running in East Africa – university trained teachers will remain in service, parents will not directly pay school fees, and the government will continue to meet overhead costs. It remains to be seen how Bridge will tweak its model and what kinds of “delivery” changes this more public-facing approach will necessitate.

The controversy around this partnership, and Bridge’s model more broadly, runs through many layers, but I will highlight what, in my mind, is the most serious – the bigger story on what a model like that is telling people.

Low-cost private schools like Bridge are useful, and often necessary, on a continent where the public education system is very often in shambles.

But when you adopt, as an official business model, teachers that have been trained for five weeks, and mabati classrooms, you are not just lowering overhead costs. You are normalising dysfunction, and in the process taking away dreams in a very substantive way.

Public schools are often terrible, but even if children are learning under trees, you can always argue that there is no money, the politicians are corrupt, local leaders are lazy, there’s a global commodity collapse, etc. In other words, it is clear that the dysfunction is an aberration, a deviation from the norm.

Mabati policy

But when you now make mabati your official policy and the basis of your business model, you take away the possibility of aspiring for something better – for example, that maybe if our son or daughter wins the election we will get better schools.

It’s the reason why I was once told that it’s a drastic mistake, as a wife, to agree to move into an unfinished house, if your husband is the one building the house. Your husband may argue that we will finish it slowly, in bits and pieces, as “we get money to do the fittings”.

But the day you move into a house like that, the likelihood of all those fancy finishings getting done begin to hurtle towards zero. The fact that you are eating and sleeping with all those ‘crucial’ things that need doing begins to suggest that perhaps they are not so crucial after all.

Before long, you might begin to hear that brutal African phrase that people like to use to silence aspiration: “But did you die?”

In the end, you have your best dream (your own house) and worst nightmare (a house you are embarrassed to invite visitors to) all in one.

Efficiency and good grades are one thing. But people need dreams – and yes, sweet lies – too. They need room to hope for possibility of better. 

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