Liberia is poised to set another first for Africa. The country was the first in Africa to have a female president when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected in 2006.
Now, the country is embarking on what some are calling another first in Africa: outsourcing its entire pre-primary and primary education system to a private American company.
Education in Liberia was severely affected by the First Liberian Civil War and Second Liberian Civil War between 1989 and 2003. It is estimated that 50% of young women and 68% of young men have completed primary school or, if not, are able to read a whole sentence. The situation was exacerbated during the recent Ebola crisis.
Liberian Education Minister George Werner announced in January 2016 that pre-primary and primary public education would be outsourced to Bridge International Academies, a private US-based company, for a five-year period. The government of Liberia will pay over $65 million.
Bridge International Academies describes itself as the world’s largest education innovation company, currently operational in Kenya and Uganda. The company's teaching methodology centers around teachers — who aren't required to have a college degree as they receive five weeks of training — reading the scripted lesson from a hand-held tablet. Class sizes can be as large as 60 students.
Unlike the company's schools in Kenya and Uganda, where families pay tuition of about $6 per term, parents in Libera would not pay for the schools out of pocket.
The move has drawn international and local criticism. Education experts plan to exert pressure on the Liberia government not to go ahead with the plan.
Opposing the plan, Kishore Sing, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, said in press release in March:
It is ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but it can find huge sums of money to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf.
Writing for the South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper, Christine Mungai argued that Bridge International Academies’ approach to teaching discourages exchange between teacher and student and “suppresses critical thinking.” She also took issue with the company’s claim that its students do better than their comparable peers at government schools, pointing out the data comes from a study commissioned by the company itself.
However, privatised public education might be a good bet for Liberia, whose system is currently “in shambles,” she concedes:
In that case, an education system, which is modelled on accountability, standardisation, analytical rigour, and policy changes that can be backed with rich data sets – albeit private – is far better than what Liberia has at the moment.
Reacting to the news, Jan Resseger, an American public education expert and blogger, questioned the motives of the company's investors, which include the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group:
One must also examine the motivation of some of the so-called investors described as backing the work of Bridge International Academies, for example Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Are these tech-philanthropists supporting such an international education venture as part of their philanthropic aid work or is the purpose to expand the worldwide market for the kind of education technology that has created their personal fortunes?
Global Education Monitoring Report, which is published by UNESCO, expressed concern over the issue:
Thinking of schools only as places to learn how to read may appear a reasonable idea in a country where most children cannot achieve even that. However, it risks reducing appreciably the purpose of education. Policy-makers need to be aware that good teaching cannot be delivered by just anybody out of a script.
The National Teachers’ Association of Liberia, among other civil society organizations, have sent a letter to Liberian Education Minister George K. Werner explaining their concerns that the privatisation plan poses a “serious threat” and represents the “commercialisation of education services in Liberia.” Others, meanwhile, have expressed their opinion on social media:
Mind-blowing. Obscene. https://t.co/g6cmuAlpWb
— Bill Michaelson (@UnderBill) April 4, 2016
Update 9 April 2016: Lucy Bradlow, Director of Public Relations for Bridge International Academies, sent a statement to Global Voices explaining why the company is partnering with the government of Liberia.
The company believes that its partnership with the government of Liberia will ensure that children in free, government owned and monitored schools have all the learning materials they need to progress in school and it will guarantee to parents that their children will have a safe and welcoming place to spend the school day.
The partnership will also provide the government the tools it needs to collect data about attendance and learning outcomes in Liberian primary schools.
The statement points out that 42% of children in Liberia are out of school, and only 20% of children enrolled in primary school complete secondary school and that a Liberian girl has a higher chance of being married before the age of 18 than being able to read.
“Bridge International Academies is honored to serve the Liberian people as the first of many partners under Partnership Schools for Liberia. In a pilot program, Bridge will implement its tried and tested model in 50 public primary schools, accessing approximately 20,000 children for the 2016 – 2017 academic year,” the statement reads.