The dream is wonderful: provide a good education to millions of children growing up in poverty. That’s why Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the World Bank and the Dutch Ministry for Foreign Affairs are pouring millions into a company that aims to turn that dream into reality. Investigations show, however, that both the children and their teachers get a raw deal.
Shannon May is clearly emotional when she walks onto the stage in early February 2017. The founder and strategist behind the world’s largest chain of kindergarten and primary schools is about to speak to a room full of women. She will talk about education, motherhood and the reasons why she founded her company, Bridge International Academies, with her husband Jay Kimmelman in 2008.
May and Kimmelman are in Nairobi, the city they live in and where Bridge has its headquarters.â€¯About 70 percent of the more than 100,000 pupils attending Bridge schools live in Kenya and around 6,000 staff work and live there.â€¯It was also the company’s base for expanding into Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria and India.
In her speech, May tells the story of the founding of Bridge: “I was speaking with mothers and with fathers, about their struggles… two things came up across hundreds of conversions I had… the first was health… the other thing was education.”
This made May think about her own childhood: if she hadn’t had good teachers, she would never have been admitted to Harvard and she would probably never have worked at Morgan Stanley. She would certainly never have come up with the idea of â€‹â€‹setting up Bridge, the “edu-business model” that aims to provide affordable, high-quality education to millions of children from families who have to live on less than US$2 a day. When the couple founded Bridge in 2008, their dream was to emancipate these children.
The exact number of children involved is unclear. â€¯Sometimes her husband talks about 700 million children, at other times it’s around 700 million families.â€¯â€¯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. There are not enough good state schools and private schools are often too expensive. May and her husband have spotted a gap in the market: education needs to be better than what state schools offer, and provided at only 30 percent of what the state currently spends per student.
May, close to tears, continues her speech in Nairobi: “Bridge is different because it exists for only one reason, it’s so that every child, not just the rich kids, not just the kids in the cities, not just the kids who have mothers and fathers who can look after them and teach them at home but every kid no matter what else is going on in their lives can go to a great school.” She is even more positive in an interview: “We fight for social justice, to create opportunities.”
And for profit. According to her husband, the “global education crisis” is worth about US$51 billion a year. In 2013, Kimmelman explained in a presentation how, for less than US$5 in tuition fees per pupil per month, Bridge could grow “into a billion-dollar company” and “radically change the world.” Earlier he and May promised that they could do this for US$4 per month per pupil.
Big dreams and even bigger promises. However, my research and research done by others shows:
- that their quality claims have not been supported by any independent research;
- that the education provided turns out to be more expensive than promised;
- that underpaid teachers have to recruit additional pupils;
- that they have dismissed criticism from non-governmental organizations and trade unions;
- that critics are silenced;
- that a PR offensive has been launched in order to continue selling the education services provided.
Furthermore, €1.4 million of Dutch taxpayers’ money has been poured into the company. Dutch support was provided because Lilianne Ploumen of the country’s Labor Party, currently caretaker Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, believes that Bridge uses an “innovative and cost-effective education model, which is able to keep tuition costs per child down.”
How do you improve education, make it cheaper and also make it profitable? May and Kimmelman have come up with an “innovative pedagogical approach.” The possibility of setting up a few thousand standardized schools within a few years is to be the first innovation. The profit made from each school may be low, but once half a million pupils are recruited — the number of enrollments that Bridge needs to break even — business really takes off. The plan is to reach two million pupils by 2018 and 10 million by 2025.
This rapid growth would be made possible by using Bridge’s second innovative method, namely its very own approach to the role of teachers and their salary scale. May believes that “qualities such as kindness” are more important than diplomas and this allows for significant savings. In Kenya, where the starting salary for qualified teachers is around US$116 dollars a month, Bridge teachers usually earn less than US$100 a month. However, as Kimmelman explains in a presentation, teachers can earn bonuses by recruiting new students themselves. Marketing is a core task for both teachers and school principals.
A third innovative aspect, explains May, is the smart use of technology.â€¯It works like this: a team of “master teachers” designs digital “master lessons” that are so detailed that all a teacher needs to do is read them from a special Bridge tablet (know as the Nook).
Leaning how to use the Nook is therefore a key component of the crash course that Bridge teachers must complete. Over three to four weeks, they learn how to download new lesson material, how to present it, and how to record daily scores and progress made with the lessons.
This last skill is crucial, says May. It allows Bridge to see “hundreds of thousands of assessment scores” every day and to find out “what works and what doesn’t.” The “extremely robust data” can then be used to “continuously improve the teaching material.”
Setting up schools from scratch, paying teachers and developing and maintaining technology all cost money.
“One of our challenges when we were first pitching Bridge to investors was getting them to… see people living in poverty not just as beneficiaries but as customers,” May explains in a 2015 World Economic Forum video. It must have been a convincing argument because May and Kimmelman have attracted more than US$100 million in support since Bridge was set up in 2008.â€¯Supporters range from venture capitalists, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, to development agencies such as the World Bank.
My request for information under the Dutch Freedom of Information Act revealed that the Dutch government, too, invested nearly €1.4 million in Bridge between 2015 and 2016 via contributions to the Novastar East Africa Fund. Minister Ploumen says that this “indirect support complements the weak public education systems in these countries.”
Support is not only provided through funding. In 2015, the World Economic Forum named May “One of Fifteen Women Who Changed the World.” That very same year, the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim lauded the Bridge business model as one for the future. And a few months ago, Bridge won the Global Shared Value Award, a prestigious prize awarded to companies that have a social mission.
It has made May and Kimmelman extremely self-confident. We have “definitively proven that it is possible to provide high-quality education […] and in doing so solve an increasingly urgent crisis for families, communities and countries,” May wrote in February of this year. Kimmelman even believes that international research shows that Bridge “students already perform better than others in six months.”
If that would be true, why have they still not reached those millions of pupils? Anton (a former academy manager with Bridge, who did not want his real name published) is familiar with the darker side of Bridge’s “innovative pedagogical approach.” Anton was fired after a year in the post when a quality assurance manager and a regional manager made an unannounced visit to his school and discovered three pupils attending in contravention of school fees policy.
The children were registered with Bridge, but were no longer allowed to attend classes because their parents had fallen behind with the payment of tuition fees. Anton knew that he was supposed to turn pupils away if their parents had not paid. He had already had his salary docked once and was at risk of losing his job if he continued to allow those pupils to attend.
Apparently, the children had returned because their parents were not at home and they didn’t feel safe outside. So, their class teacher had allowed them back into the classroom without getting Anton’s permission. But the visiting quality assurance and regional managers did not agree that this was a good enough reason and Anton was told to clear his desk.
On reflection, Anton says he is relieved that he is no longer working for Bridge. He was under too much pressure to attract new pupils and the “rigid payment system” put him in uncomfortable waters with parents. Every month, about half of the parents couldn’t pay their fees on time, and would get upset with Anton when their children were, again, sent home from school. These tensions made it even more difficult to attract new customers and to persuade existing customers to bring in new ones.
“We promised them heaven” says another former academy manager. John (name changed) says it was the only option, “otherwise, you lost your job.” He worked at Bridge for two and a half years before he handed in his resignation. The low salary and the heavy work load (60 hours a week, according to John) were contributing factors. His pangs of conscience were the deciding factor: he felt that he was “constantly deceiving parents.”
It wasn’t because Bridge had directly instructed him to “only mention the basic price to new customers and avoid mentioning additional costs, such as exam fees and uniforms.” But since his salary was partly calculated on his success rates, he often told half truths.
If parents weren’t happy with the strict payment arrangements and threatened to transfer their children to a school with more flexible system, John would think up an argument in an attempt to keep them, telling them for example “that there would soon be a sponsor for them who would pay the tuition fees on their behalf.”
How representative are these reports from these two former academy managers? Juul (name changed) can tell us more. Juul, a researcher, was part of a team that in early 2016 completed nearly four hundred interviews with Bridge parents (128), pupils (65), teachers (21) and academy managers. The research was carried out on behalf of Education International, an international trade union for teachers, which is not a competitor of Bridge.
The academy managers and teachers who were interviewed expressed the same frustrations as Anton and John. They described the marketing work as annoying, demoralizing and underpaid. The Nook script was considered to be restrictive and almost half of those interviewed said that they did not use the Nook as intended or sent “meaningless data” to the headquarters.
“You hear such sad stories,” said Juul. “Some parents took out loans to pay the tuition fees and were evicted from their homes because they were unable to make payments on time.”
Bridge, however, doesn’t agree with the research. In a statement, the company called the report nonsense.â€¯It claims:
- Bridge internal data shows that 64 percent of Bridge teachers enjoy teaching in Bridge classes;
- 100 percent of them would like to grow with the company; and
- 96 percent of teachers appreciate the community engagements responsibilities assigned to them.
According to May, the study is therefore proof of the witch hunt that Education International started against her company. The organization had already published a similarly critical report on Bridge in Uganda. May continues to believe in her dream: “Changing the status quo is inherently a challenge to entrenched interests and existing models.”
But those “entrenched interests” aren’t finished with Bridge yet. Angelo Gavrielatos led the Education International research project. He shows me a short film in which Kenyans from various national educational institutions and former Bridge staff criticize the company’s infrastructure, facilities and teaching materials. For example, a former staff manager says that “people are being misled” with promises about an “excellent lesson package.”
A package, it should be noted, that has never been approved by the Kenyan authorities. A leaked letter from the Ministry of Education reveals that a Kenyan inspection had deemed Bridge’s teaching material “largely irrelevant to Kenyan teaching objectives” and that the teaching methods don’t allow teachers enough room to tend to pupils with special needs.
Education International is not the only organization to criticize Bridge. At the start of 2015, 116 non-governmental organizations sent a letter to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. They stated that there was no evidence at all that Bridge had succeeded in delivering better results than competing state schools and criticized Kim for blindly accepting Bridge’s unverifiable “internal data.”
What’s more, Bridge is by no means as affordable as the company claims. In Kenya, the cost per student is between US$9 and US$13 a month once exam fees, uniforms, books and administration costs are included. The situation is similar in Uganda, the organizations write.
According to Bridge, the organizations’ calculations are entirely wrong. However, when asked, the company does not deny that, in practice, tuition fees are higher than the promised fees of US$4-6. May, meanwhile, continues to insist that Bridge’s prices are reasonable. Because, she writes, by sending their children to Bridge, parents have “determined for themselves that Bridge is affordable” and that they feel that the tuition fees charged by Bridge “are an appropriate rate.”
However, voices within the United Nations have also started to speak out against the Bridge model. When it was announced at the start of March 2016 that Liberia was considering outsourcing its entire primary school system to Bridge, the Special Rapporteur on the right to education stated that “public schools, their teachers, and the concept of education as a public good, are under attack.”
Questions are also being raised by the Ugandan government. Following an inspection, the Ministry of Education found that Bridge schools “showed poor hygiene and sanitation which puts the life and safety of the schoolchildren in danger” and decided that the company had to close 63 schools. May puts this setback down to troublemakers who have “sold lies to the Ugandan government.” Lies that “unfortunately the government has taken seriously.”
It’s Kenya where May’s dream really begins to turn into a nightmare. In August 2016, the Ministry of Education sent the company an ultimatum. Bridge was given 90 days to adapt the curriculum to Kenyan guidelines and ensure that at least half of the teachers had a diploma. If they didn’t meet those requirements, Bridge was at risk of having to close down all of its schools.
But Bridge won’t be beaten. It is trying to silence Kenyan critics, as shown in two leaked letters. One was addressed to the head of the national teachers’ union, the other addressed to the director of a national school association. The first was sent by Bridge’s law firm, the second by Bridge’s in-house lawyer. In both letters, the recipients are threatened with a defamation lawsuit if they continue to speak out against Bridge and portray it as a company that “is only interested in profit.”
Steps have also been taken in Liberia to counter negative reports. Anderson Miamen from the Liberian Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education described the situation to me in an e-mail. When he wanted to interview Bridge teachers at the start of this year as part of an assessment study, he discovered that they had apparently been “warned against speaking to visitors or researchers. Especially not about their welfare or that of the children.”
Bridge has also launched a PR offensive. The company opened a London communications office earlier this year and has advertised several vacancies for PR professionals who should have good contacts with the media in order to “promote and protect” Bridge’s reputation.
Since then “Bridge’s success” has been widely praised on Twitter. For example, “A survey shows that 87 percent of the Bridge parents believe that Bridge teachers are well trained and that their teaching method is the best.” There is no link to the survey, only photos of smiling pupils in Bridge uniforms. The new PR manager, Ben Rudd, did not want to send me the survey either. He did, however, send promotional material that refers to the same internal data and mysterious studies. He also offered to arrange a “high-level quote.”
And the data that May earlier described as “robust?” They are up for sale. At least, that’s what a leaked Bridge presentation, meant for investors, from 2016 suggests. In this presentation, Bridge outlined new profit-making opportunities, including the sale of customer information to lenders and insurance companies, and increased profit margins on school lunches and student uniforms.
What has happened to May and Kimmelman’s dream? Opposition from governments, non-governmental organizations and trade unions seems to have slowed down Bridge’s growth considerably. It also looks like the company is not going to reach its planned target of two million pupils by 2018. The company wrote me that it currently has just over 100,000 pupils.
Not all of Bridge’s innovations are bad, of course. Absenteeism among teachers appears to be lower at Bridge schools than at state schools. Juul says that other schools could also take Bridge’s electronic payment methods as an example as a way to tackle corruption.
As for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its investment of €1.4 million, spokesperson Herman van Gelderen informed me by e-mail that compliance with quality standards and affordability are part of “our involvement and dialogue with Bridge. The findings in the article serve as a basis for discussing these issues with Bridge.” The same applies to the teachers’ workload and remuneration.
Van Gelderen points out that the quality of the education provided is better than at state schools. To back up his argument he refers to a national test in 2015 and 2016 on which Bridge students apparently scored slightly higher than the national average. But even if Bridge performs better than state schools, it still doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the education provided by Bridge. Because — and May also admits this herself in an article — the poorest and, therefore, often weaker students, who bring the average exam scores down, mainly go to state schools. Moreover, Bridge is a private school and can therefore also influence scores by not accepting weaker pupils or by unnecessarily making them repeat a year. In Education International’s report, teachers admit that this kind of selection occurs.
High-quality education cannot simply be provided using a universal script, and meaningful learning outcomes cannot be summed up in self-assessed evaluations. Especially not if they are part of a business model that does not tolerate transparency or independent evaluations, and where profit incentives, branding bluff and promotional spiel are rewarded more than honest, critical reflection.
* This is a translation of an article originally published in the Dutch news magazine De Correspondent.