Economy & Politics

Ministry stops expansion of low-cost schools

Bridge International Academies co-founder
Bridge International Academies co-founder Shannon May (R) interacts with one of the school's pupils during the signing of the Bridge International Academies Equity Investment on January 21, 2013. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA 

A low-cost chain of private schools backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has frozen its expansion in Kenya after the government issued an order stopping the opening of new non-formal schools.

Bridge International Academies – which operates 405 nursery and primary schools in Kenya with a population of 100,000 pupils – has run into regulatory headwinds that have stopped plans to open additional 100 schools this year.

The Ministry of Education early this year asked non-formal schools not to open any new centres pending the issuance of fresh rules governing the sub-sector, which were first drafted in May 2009 and are yet to be finalised.

Bridge co-founder Shannon May said the government’s directive is making parents “nervous” about enrolling their children in the schools which charge Sh640 per month payable through Safaricom’s M-Pesa or Equity Bank.

“They asked that no more schools be opened until new regulations are released,” said Ms May, who co-founded Bridge with her fiancé Jay Kimmelman.

“Many parents across the country have been nervous about coming to Bridge, given that the ministry still hasn’t released the regulations,” she said.

The first Bridge school opened in January 2009 located deep in the heart of Nairobi’s populous Mukuru kwa Njenga slums. It opened 46 new schools in January this year before the ministry order froze its growth plans.

Ms May started Bridge in response to the many challenges of Kenya’s public primary school system which is plagued by teacher absenteeism, low motivation, crowded classes and rundown facilities. Her idea was to deliver affordable and quality education to households earning about $2 per day, using economies of scale.

“Those living on minimum wages are willing to pay to have their children get a better education,” she said in an interview at a Bridge school located in Kingeero village in Kiambu.

The Kenyan-born chain of schools is an innovation that has been likened to the success of mobile money platform M-Pesa and Equity’s micro-banking model in terms of promoting inclusion among those who need it most: the poor.

The new legal hurdles come at a time when Bridge has exported the franchising model to Uganda, Nigeria and India.

The Education ministry last year took away test centre codes given to informal schools by the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec), pending fresh registration of such centres under new rules yet to be published. Knec had previously allowed all informal schools to act as test centres.

Bridge will this year present its first cohort of 2,900 pupils to sit for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations.

But only 900 learners will sit for their exams at Bridge centres that have been approved as examination centres. The remaining 2,000 pupils will sit the summative test in neighbouring public schools.

“The government hasn’t given us a pathway to register. The sooner it happens the better,” said Ms May.

Informal schooling

The draft Alternative Provision of Basic Education and Training policy (2009) is meant to make Kenya’s non-formal school system comply with the Basic Education Act of 2013.

The Kenya Independent Schools Association – a lobby of non-formal schools – said government should hasten to put the regulations in place to safeguard investments in the sector.

“There is a serious gap. The government is yet to come to terms with the fact that the poor want to access education outside the public education system,” said George Mikwa, the group’s chairman, in an interview with the Business Daily.

He said the lacuna leaves about 1.5 million primary school children in informal schools in uncertainty about their future.

Ms May said Bridge needs to enrol 500,000 pupils to break even, and the current fees paid by parents is subsidised. The new regulations may delay the achievement of this milestone.

“We have proven that it can be done, and that it is scalable.”

There are fears that the ongoing impasse threatens to grind to a halt the operations of informal schools which have striven to offer cheap but high quality education to poor communities.

High profile investors

The ministry order is likely to rattle other high profile investors who have put their money in Bridge such as the International Finance Corporation, Commonwealth Development Corporation and Omidyar Network.

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Mr Zuckerberg in March this year invested $10 million (Sh1.05 billion) in Bridge, the Wall Street Journal reported.

IFC, the World Bank’s private sector lending arm, in January 2014 invested $10 million (Sh1.05 billion) in the mass-market education provider. In the same period, the UK government’s CDC also invested $6 million (Sh634 million).

Bridge received a $10 million (Sh1.05 billion) long-term loan in December 2013 from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the US government’s development finance institution, to help scale the project.

Omidyar Network, created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, invested $1.8 million (Sh190 million) in Bridge in 2009. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, has also invested an undisclosed amount in Bridge. He hails the enterprise as key to fighting poverty and achieving gender parity.

“Education is a great leveller,” Gates said in his 2015 Annual Letter.

Bridge targets to provide cheaper education to 3.5 million learners from low-income backgrounds by the year 2020.

The chain buys land in high-density, low-income communities where it sets up schools. A typical Bridge school sits on a half-acre plot, Ms May said.

Bridge employs a total of 5,000 teachers and only 30 per cent are trained, Ms May disclosed. The draft regulations require that at least half of teachers in informal schools have a practicing licence.

Teachers at Bridge earn a monthly pay of Sh12,000 which is lower than the average Sh16,000 paid to primary school tutors in public schools.