More than 60 Bridge Academies—low-cost schools that favor a technological approach to pedagogy—have been ordered to stop operating by a high court judge in Uganda. The legal issue stemmed from complaints by education officials who accused the Bridge International Academies of providing substandard facilities and unqualified academic staff. Although the court ruling was issued in November 2016 and received confirmation from the bench a couple of months later, one of the founders of Bridge International explained on March 28th that the Ministry of Education in Uganda will continue to operate for the time being since the appellate process was still ongoing.
Bridge Academies are backed by two tech giants: Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In addition, funding is provided by the United Kingdom’s International Development Select Committee, as well as the World Bank. Although the Bridge Academies are private schools, their model of education is more closely associated with community institutions. The standard lesson plans are delivered to the Bridge Academies via tablet computers, and the facilities tend to be spartan in the sense that they provide just the basics: a classroom, an outdoor break area, a kitchen, and latrines. The school administration is streamlined by means of tablet apps, and the curriculum is very regimented. The tuition fees are less than $30 per term and are often waived since Bridge International operates on a charitable philosophy.
More than 20,000 Ugandan families have chosen to send their children to the Bridge Academies, but these schools have been coming under fire not just from education officials but also from the United Nations and international teaching organizations that have criticized the bare-bones approach to education. The complaints lodged against Bridge International range from inadequate facilities to unlicensed teachers, and from scripted lesson plans to the scarcity of teaching materials. However, in an incisive opinion piece written by Stephen Tumwesigye for The Independent, a major newspaper in Uganda, the author points out that these institutions serve an existing need. It so happens that Bridge International, which also operates in Kenya and Liberia, intends to lobby African governments to outsource their public elementary education. This would create a situation similar to the American charter school system, which happens to be favored by controversial President Donald Trump.
In other words, there may be some protectionism behind the complaints that moved the aforementioned Ugandan court to shut down the Bridge Academies. Still, with the alarming dropout and absenteeism rates in the Ugandan public school system, any efforts such as the Bridge Academies should be welcomed. Those students currently attending Bridge schools may be the very same ones who have already dropped out of the public school system.