What happens when you take up Bridge on their call to visit their schools?

It is said that one difference between British English and American English is that when Americans say “you really must visit us sometime” they hope and expect that you will, but when British people say it, they are certain you won’t and they will be appalled if you ever do.

Bridge, a large and controversial education corporation, has recently found itself facing even more criticism over its operations after it concluded a deal with the Liberian government to take over some of its schools (earlier mooted as a plan for all schools). Bridge has responded to critics (who include the UN, teachers’ organisations, NGOs and education experts) by suggesting that such criticism is based on ignorance. Their call: Come see our schools, and then talk!

So I did. Together with Liberian colleagues, I visited at random a school that had been passed from the government to Bridge. We declared up front exactly who we were and that we had come to learn about how their school had changed after becoming a Bridge school. The Principal and his Vice-Principal welcomed us, and we spoke at length with them and also briefly with some of the older students. The Principal and his Vice-Principal were very open and proactively brought up a range of issues of which we had not previously been aware. Towards the end, they worried that they had said too much and would get in trouble with Bridge. We promised not to share their identities, a promise we maintain.

I was shocked by what I heard and several times repeated my questions or their answers to confirm I had heard it right. In each case they confirmed. Because what I heard shocked me, and in the spirit of transparency in public debate, I wrote down the summary and shared it in a series of tweets as soon as I had internet access whilst we were still in the car getting home:

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The next day we took part in a public meeting on education and privatisation where government, teachers, NGOs and private sector were all present. We shared our account of the visit.

Bridge was at the meeting too – indeed I had personally spoken with the Bridge representative about his attendance – but Bridge said nothing throughout the whole event, either to rebut any points made or even to let people know they were present.

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The government and political representatives did speak, but did not defend Bridge or challenge any points made about them. Instead they argued that Liberia had no choice as some donors would only fund Bridge, and insisted that this was only a temporary decision that they might reverse.

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Meanwhile, my tweets on the trip had started to go viral. And finally a Bridge voice responded – to criticise me for visiting a school when I should have instead got my information from Bridge HQ. I reminded them of Bridge’s call for people to go and see the schools.

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And then Bridge sent me a letter. It is one of the most extraordinary letters I’ve ever received because it was actually more incriminating than anything I had written. I share it in full in this post, so you can “see for yourself”, as they say.

First of all, they said that I shouldn’t take the Principal’s word for how the school is run because he may not know what happens.

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Consider that statement. They organise their schools on the basis that the Principal does not know about, let alone determine, how lessons are run. Remember this is not a critic writing, this is Bridge defending their model.

Secondly, they denied that the Principal (who they say doesn’t know what happens) actually told me what he told me, and claimed instead he had said “he was proud to be part of Partnership Schools for Liberia”. This struck me as odd because not only he did not use the phrase “Partnership Schools for Liberia” but no one does outside of official spokespeople. Indeed the government representative at the next day’s Monrovia meeting complained  “everyone calls it Bridge schools but that’s not the proper name!” Neither did we hear anyone we met in that whole week ever use the phrase “proud to be part of”. The words struck me as sounding rather like a media release, so I checked and found that that entire phrase is identical to the phrase they put out on launch. Compare them below.

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Not only that, they quote the Principal as having apparently said to me that the reason he was proud was that he was making “meaningful impact”. Again, no one we met in Liberia used that phrase either, which sounds also more like something from corporate statement, and indeed matches exactly the phrasing of Bridge’s corporate summary of their self-evaluation. Compare below:

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So, according to Bridge, teachers working for them after just a few weeks of training then use in colloquial conversation the exact PR phrases of the corporation, word for word. Critics have said the Bridge system is too scripted and pushes out creative and independent thought but no one has ever implied it goes as far as Bridge’s own letter suggests.

Lastly, while framing the letter as rebuttal they make some powerful admissions of the weaknesses in their system. For example, they “rebut” our revelation that uniforms had not yet been delivered with the statement “Bridge is now distributing uniforms.” But they had earlier publically claimed that uniforms had been given out at the beginning. Compare.

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This is the logistics equivalent of the taxi company who calls you to say “your car is waiting for you” and then when you call them from the outside on the deserted street says “I told you, it’s on its way“.

Of course, no one doubts that the uniforms will arrive. But the admission highlights two weaknesses. Firstly, spin over actual delivery, a challenge around “truthiness” that jeopardises both the provision and the evaluation process. Secondly, that delivery of materials is the least complicated part of school management, and the easiest to measure, and so failure on it means that other more important but harder to measure failures are inevitable. This is important because the justification for Bridge is their supposed management expertise. When you scratch the surface, the gold seems to peel off.

They also “rebut” our account of the Principal saying he had had only “17 days” training from Bridge with the statement that Bridge provides “three weeks” training, i.e somewhere between 15 and 21 days, remarkably similar to the number we quoted and really very little as a basis for turning around a public management system that Bridge says is broken. If it’s broken, can someone with no experience of running a school before fix that with 15-21 days training? A training which Bridge says leaves him not knowing how his school lessons are run?

Bridge denies that any kids who had been at the schools they took over have had to leave. But they also say that an attraction of Bridge schools is that they are smaller. (“Do the math”, as Americans say.) The Principal, and the Vice-Principal, and students, all reported this to us. It’s vital that the Government now publish how many children were in each class at each school before it was handed to Bridge, how many are there now, how many of those are students who were there before, and how many former students no longer attend each year group at each of those schools, and why. These numbers should be opened up to public scrutiny. Furthermore, the Government should issue an instruction that no child who was a student in 2015 at a school handed over to Bridge can be turned away if they now try to enter. As Bridge claims this is no kids at all, it should be very easy.

Finally, Bridge claims that my tweets disrespect Liberian teachers. I think Liberian teachers manage miracles every day in a hugely challenging context, and that they deserve better than the Bridge solution. However, let Bridge and us agree to ask the Liberian teachers union for their perspective on the Bridge programme, and to respect their advice. Deal? Bridge also claims that they are only in Liberia at the invitation of the Liberian government. Can they confirm that if they are ever disinvited, they will leave, and not as they have in Uganda take the government to court? Deal?

I should emphasise that at no point have I had to experience what the Canadian researcher into Bridge went through (he was arrested, and though he was eventually released without charge, that’s much more scary than an angry letter), and I am grateful for that. I should emphasise too that whilst I am pleased that my visit has shone a light on the crisis in Liberia, it is Liberian voices that most need to be heard. Please read this and this and follow ActionAid Liberia’s Country Director here.

And please do visit a Bridge school yourself. After all, they say you’re invited!


(PS: Bridge’s letter in full)

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76