Bridge International Academies, a chain of low-cost primary schools targeting children from low-income households in slums and rural areas, has grabbed global attention after it featured on the front page of The Economist newspaper as an improved alternative to public school education.
Bridge, which charges a fee of $6 (Sh600) a month per pupil, has become popular with low-income households who are dissatisfied with the quality of education in the crowded public schools since the introduction of free primary education (FPE) in 2003 but cannot afford private school fees.
“Bridge’s cost-cutting strategies include using standardised buildings made of unfinished wooden beams, corrugated steel and iron mesh, and scripted lessons that teachers recite from hand-held computers linked to a central system,” The Economist says. “That saves on teacher training and monitoring.”
Use of the centralised teaching materials developed in the United States and sent through tablets also means that content is standardised.
Teachers are monitored through the gadgets which also give them lesson plans developed in the US.
Analysts say use of technology also gives the school an edge over its public rivals as it introduces the learners to the connected world early in their school life.
“The potential of technology to transform education is unlikely to be realised in State institutions, where teachers and unions resist anything that might increase oversight or reduce the need for staff.”
Bridge’s rising profile also centres on its simplified administration, which allows it to cut on non-essential staff.
A typical Bridge Academy has only one employee involved in management — the academy manager.
“The vast majority of non-instructional activities that an academy manager would normally have to deal with (billing, payments, expense management, payroll processing, prospective admissions and more) are all automated and centralised through a combination of the academy manager’s smartphone application and the teachers’ tablet application, all interconnected to a custom backend ERP,” Bridge says on its website.
While in some areas classes are bloated due to FPE, it is not uncommon to find classrooms in public primary schools near or in Nairobi slums empty as parents prefer to take their children to alternative schools.
Nairobi’s complementary primary schools, popular as informal schools locally, had 192,578 pupils in 2013 compared to 204,152 in public primary schools.
The Nairobi county government reported that when FPE was introduced, most parents in slums withdrew their children from complementary schools and took them to the public schools.
But two years later, they took them back to the complementary schools citing quality concerns.
“Some of the complementary schools have registered better performance in national examinations compared to public schools and that has made them attractive to some parents,” the report adds.
The first Bridge International Academy was set up in Nairobi’s Mukuru slums in 2009 by Jay Kimmelman and Shannon May. Today there are nearly 412 schools in Kenya and Uganda, employing more than 5,000 staff.
The chain of schools is designed as a mass-market product that needs at least a half a million pupils to produce returns. Enrolment currently stands at 118,800.
“No small-scale, stand-alone operator can single-handedly make the massive investments required to deliver quality education at a price point accessible to families living on $2 a day per person or less,” the group of schools says.
It adds that the amount of money required to develop world-class curriculum, rigorous training systems, technology to improve and automate core functions, and assessments and research are substantial — meaning that a large number of pupils is needed to enable it break-even.
“Such investments need to be amortised over a sufficiently large number of pupils and would come with astoundingly high risks,” the group says.
The business model and quality assurances have seen Bridge catch the eye of international financiers, enabling it to get funding from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private investment arm, and CDC, the UK’s development finance institution last year.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) signed a $10 million (Sh860 million) preferred equity investment with Bridge while CDC made a $6 million (Sh510 million) equity investment, with additional funding from the US Venture Capital firm New Enterprise Associates.
The Economist said Bridge has the backing of Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates.
The rise of chains of schools like Bridge International has led to suggestions that the government should consider offering more incentives to investors to complement its investments in the struggling education system.
Parents could also be given vouchers which they can top up and send their children to private schools.