Africa Is A Continent Where Education Reform Is Working

Liberian schools children smile to the camera

Education is both political and complex. There are many who take an ideological position against reform and resist innovation and change. They resist the notion of parental choice, mixed education ecosystems or learning gains for children that have been previously failed. They do this against a backdrop of 330 million children worldwide in school but not learning, and 263 million simply not in school.

There are those such as Bridge who are actively working to achieve change, to offer children opportunity, give communities hope and offer both a future. There are those pursuing new and innovative ideas, developing technology and attracting social impact investment to deliver SDG4. Those with the ambition to scale up, sustainably, and provide a quality education – measured by results. Those who understand the urgency of meeting the challenge and the risk of failing another generation of children.

Then there are those that sit on the sidelines, with no solutions to offer or effort to expand but who just have a critique to make. Those who have changed no lives, helped no communities and made no difference. Recently a poorly researched article by an ideological freelancer, highlighted this divide. The author has never visited a Bridge school nor interviewed those at Bridge. Her allegations lack rigour or independent evidence. Much is an amalgamation of material provided by invested lobby groups who campaign against education reform. As such, the allegations are easy to refute and so, for the record. We will:

1) Independent research that evidences we provide quality education

An increasing body of independent evidence demonstrates the high performance and learning gains of children in Bridge schools – and, importantly, that the longer children are in a Bridge school, the better their academic performance.

In Kenya’s 8th grade national exam (the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education or KCPE), students who had been at Bridge for at least two years passed the national exam at a 63% and 59% rate, respectively, in 2015 and 2016, far above the national average of 49%. For those who studied at Bridge for at least four years, the pass rate was 74%.

In 2014, independently administered EGRA and EGMA assessments conducted in Kenya showed that for reading in the early grades, the gains from attending Bridge were equivalent to 64 more days of learning in a single year. For mathematics, the gains from attending Bridge were equivalent to 26 more days of learning in a single school year.

Read more about the Bridge Effect here.

In Liberia this July, a midline report was published by the Ministry for Education, Pencils of Promise, University of Liberia and Bridge which demonstrated significant learning gains by Bridge PSL students with 15% more pupils reaching reading comprehension benchmarks for the  first time compared to 4% of students in public schools. The Liberian Minister for Education, George Werner, in his foreword to the midline report called this ‘exciting and encouraging’ before adding the results “show that students in Bridge Partnership Schools performed better academically than their peers in traditional public schools, across nearly every literacy and numeracy metric tested, and over a short period of time.”

There are also two randomised control trial assessments of Bridge students and schools underway by Harvard, the Center for Global Development, and the University of California.

2)  Teaching at Bridge

Bridge provides high-quality professional training and support for all of its teachers, both after they are hired and before they enter the classroom, as well as throughout their careers. Recent figures show that an extra 69 million teachers are needed worldwide to meet the UN goals by 2030.

Our teachers are professionally trained at the Bridge international training institute, teachers are prepared to teach interactive lessons, lead small groups and deliver 1-to-1 instruction, and use a variety of effective teaching techniques. In addition, many Bridge teachers are government certified meeting individual country regulations. In Liberia, all our teachers are on the government payroll.

Bridge teachers are paid more than teachers in other affordable schools within their communities and there are no recruitment ‘bonuses’ available. The focus for all Bridge teachers at all Bridge schools, is learning gains, excellent teaching and excellent results are rewarded.

Bridge is focused on using the most effective and proven methods to deliver learning gains. It follows the evidence in making decisions and teacher guides (or scripted education) is widely recognised as an effective delivery method of instruction. Because of its success, it is a cornerstone of USAID early grade literacy programs (Davidson, 2015) in Africa, such as TUSOME in Kenya.

It is particularly effective in developing countries where even teachers from certified training programs struggle with core knowledge competencies. In Uganda, for example, eight out of ten state primary school teachers, can neither read nor solve basic primary-level mathematics questions.  

Bridge works closely with Government on teaching materials based on the curriculum of the host county in which it serves. In Kenya, the Kenyan Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) has announced that Bridge is being used as a partner in the piloting of the new Kenyan curriculum. Read more here.

3) Open and transparent about fees

The global average fee for Bridge is approximately $7 USD per month per child. In countries such as Liberia, where Bridge is part of Government Public Private Partnership, parents don’t pay fees.

Of course, despite the very low fees there will always be those who struggle. However, this is true of parents at all schools. It is important to understand that many public schools in the countries in which Bridge operates are not actually free – they often charge a wide range of fees for “admissions,” “teacher motivation fees,” “PTA fees,” uniforms, etc.

Bridge is understanding and sympathetic towards parents who sometimes need some extra time. Every country has a different policy towards late payments given what is needed by parents, all of which include instalment plans and grace periods that often extend for six weeks or more.

There are also hardship programs where children can attend for a full term before paying when there has been a death in the family or loss of work. Bridge runs an extensive scholarship programme and the poorest 10% of our pupils are on full scholarships and attend Bridge for free. This is equivalent to over 10,000 students.

4) Data and Technology at Bridge

The innovative technology platform that Bridge uses enables a classroom to be open and transparent, even if it’s in the remote and low-tech communities in some parts of Africa. Bridge uses Android based e-ink tablets and is not tied to a specific manufacturer.

The data we collect enables us to make evidence based decisions to improve learning for our children. None of the data on our children and families is for sale.

5) Constructive debate about Education Reform

Bridge is very happy to engage in robust debate about education, and the model of provision we offer, with our critics. However, we firmly believe that those debates are only worth having if they are based on evidence and facts, not emotion.  It is important that those in positions of influence ascribe to the same principles of truth as others. It is absolutely essential that our critics understand and appreciate the historical, political and economic environment in which Bridge operates. Notably, just how incredibly different it is to the reality in which they typically reside daily and in which they have constructed an ideal of what constitutes a “good” school.

Of course, there will be those that disagree with us. Yet, if vested interest groups and their advocates take a particular ideological stance they must defend it with facts and evidence and be held to account if they are unable to. The author acknowledges that “According to the World Bank, 767 million people worldwide currently live below the poverty line of 1.90 dollars a day. Whatever the exact figures are, they are high and education opportunities fall short of what is needed.”

It is therefore bewildering that the campaign against a social enterprise delivering measurable learning gains continues; that those in an ideological echo chamber continually seek to silence the voices of African parents and these same prejudiced actors seek to perpetuate a status quo that is universally acknowledged to have failed.

Africa is becoming an innovator, making independent and bold choices about its future and crying out for partners with solutions, energy and enterprise – especially in education – it is their choice to make, not anyone else’s to undermine.