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Bridges Academy: reinventing education in Kenya – a response to Friedman

Josh Friedman correctly notes that Kenya needs new ideas for education in Kenya in his  PopTech blog article titled Reinventing Education in Kenya, he writes

“A new venture called Bridge International Academies is reinventing the model for education in Kenya by taking a page from franchise-based corporations”.


As a Kenyan I read this article thinking it would be a mind shift, something innovative, different, exciting. But all I felt was my temperature rising. What the Bridge Academy is doing is not really new, but sounds actually like more of the same – hundreds of NGO’s, companies, churches, mosques and other groups are already in the business of low cost schooling for poor Kenyans.

Friedman touts the Bridges System as new and innovative, and the answer to the crisis facing Kenya’s education system.

To avert corruption payments are made through M-Pesa or to a bank – nothing new there I can tell you. Visiting Lamu last weekend, every mosque school had such a system in place. Many schools around the country do.

The school is affordable for  parents – yes but so are all cheap schools in christian missions, churches, mosques, companies.

The school system comes in a box – well that’s only about administration, the curriculum is the national curriculum – nothing new about education there.

It’s not free therefore it’ll give a better education – what?

First, the idea of free primary school education is not a bad idea.  Friedman suggests it has led to “doubtful education results”. I’m sorry but I don’t agree. For the first time in history, every Kenyan child was in school. If results were so doubtful then why are Kenyan parents up in arms about the fraud by the Ministry and withdrawal of donor funding? Because their kids will lose out on education. A massive burden was lifted from parents and while it wasn’t always perfect, every single child had a place, even a 96 year old Mzee Kimani enrolled in class 1. Free education in Kenya gave many of us  me hope. Read this blog post called “Age is nothing but a number” by By Elijah Dianga, Student,  Kisumu Day High School In Kenya and you will undestand why.

Mzee Kimani was able to go to school because it was free.  He said “I have waited more than 80 years to go to school. Then, last year, Kenya introduced free primary education and I knew it was my only chance. At first, the school refused. But once I decided to come, no one was going to stop me.”

The Bridges Academy will not replace free schools. It will however compete with other cheap schools which are also a great idea for Kenyan familes, but it won’t help those that need free education. There are millions of Kenyans who will not afford even the low prices at the Bridges Academies, especially where the average family comprises 4 – 6 children, often plus orphaned relatives.

What gets me about Friedmans article is that he suggests that the fraud in the Kenyan education system is the reason why we need to reinvent education in Kenya by creating cheap schools. I disagree. First it was not the concept of free education that was a bad idea, it was the way that the funding was handled that was a bad idea. And the international donors (UK, USA, Sweden and others) only paid for 5% of the total free education budget.

That  the funding for free education has been abused is hardly surprising.  This is Kenya after all, the land of impunity. I hate it to the core and I would never put money into a corrupt institution. Only an idiot would because it’s  like pouring water into a bucket full of holes. So, what on earth were the donors thinking when they poured money into an already corrupt school system? Why did they do this instead of reforming the education sector? If you ask me, they actually sabotaged their own work, and they must have known this from the get go. With due respect for Michael Rannenberger, he has not always stood up for doing things the right way and American money for the education program was not improving education but building classrooms probably because they look good and you can plant a whopping huge sign outside to remind everyone that USA built this. Go to Manda Island in Lamu where you’d have to be blind to miss the sign about he US funded rehabilitation of Manda Island school as you leave the airport…it’s got less to do with need, and everything to do with trying to look good in a place where the presence of an American Marine base is not all that welcome …(no such thing as a free lunch).

According to Friedman, one of the innovations of the Bridges Schools is that they are low cost, and yet they are still “for profit”.

Ok, lets look at the math. It costs 295 Kenyan shillings a month to send a child to a Bridge school. Thats around $4. Sounds like nothing! The school in the article has an enrollment of 119 students.  That’s Ksh 35,000 (US$500) per month to run the school. That’s a budget of less than Ksh 5,000 (US $ 80) per class per month  (there are 8 classes in primary school).  Children don’t wear uniforms and that the learning materials are simple, classrooms are stark, students sit on benches not desks. Ok it’s clearly low cost, but how on earth can$80 a month pay a good trained teacher, and keep him or her motivated, plus pay for materials, training, power, water etc. Maybe my math is up the spout,  I would love to see how a school can be run at these price, turn a profit, AND provide quality education.

Finally, I’m a bit tired of foreign imports to replace rather than fix existing infrastructure. The Bridge school system, private schools in a box, nice idea, but it’s another import that still depends on donor funding. There are hundreds if not thousands of good private schools, religious schools and donor funded schools in Kenya. They all cost something and perhaps there is a need for more low cost schools. But make no mistake, the Bridges Academy is not for free, therefore it cannot replace the free government system which caters for many millions of Kenyan.

In my view what we need is not another new foreign import, but support to conduct a total overhaul of the government system, to root out the corruption and provide the quality education that Kenyan children deserve. Parents want it, children want it…why don’t the donors want it?

Like all African countries, Kenya is inundated with well wishers trying to save the people from a greedy, murdering, inept and outright illegal government. We keep bypassing the government systems, when in fact, what we probably need to do is to work on fixing these structures and make them work properly. Otherwise we keep going around and around chasing our own tails. I’m not saying I have a solution  in hand, but there have been some much more exciting proposals made that are far more innovative than the Bridges School Academy in a metal box. Why not create internet based school systems that allow children (and adults) to learn the curriculum at their own pace and time and still work if they have to? Those Kenyan born ideas however, are unlikely to attract the mega funding of donors like the Omidyar Foundation. Like many of Americas biggest private donors, you’d need to be American to get that support.

Instead of funding a completely new set of  schools that may or may not work, perhaps donors like the Omidyars should consider paying for children in impoverished areas to go to already established and proven schools in the country.

Having said that, I genuinely  wish the Bridges Academy well, I hope that they can sustain these schools but I take issue with Friedman suggesting that these schools are reinventing education in Kenya. Kenyans need to reinvent education in this country, fix the curriculum, root out corruption, pay teachers appropriately, and get quality education to every single child. Only then will the changes stick.

What do you think?

January 31, 2010 Posted by | corruption, Crime, education | , , | 10 Comments