Education in Africa

The Uberfication of Education by Bridge International Academies

How a US for-profit, data-driven, education experiment is failing children from poor African families and exploiting private data.

Despite huge improvements made this century, the challenge and scale of providing an inclusive, equitable and high quality education for every primary school aged child on the African continent shouldn’t be underestimated. Between 1990–2012, according to UN data sources, the number of children enrolled in primary schools more than doubled, from 62 million to 149 million children. Since 2000, in sub-Saharan Africa, 15 countries have abolished school fees enabling more children to attend primary school.

Yet despite these gains, no African country has achieved universal primary education. Of the 58 million children of primary school age who were out of school in 2012, 38 million children were in Africa. About half of all out-of-school African children will never step foot in a school in their lifetime. Two-thirds of these children will be girls.

“Since the end of the civil war Liberia has gotten 1.5 million kids back into education, but over 70% of the women and girls are still illiterate. That is a crisis.”

Robin D’Alessandro, CEO, of Vitol Foundation tells me.

Vitol Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Vitol, a Dutch oil and energy commodities company founded in Rotterdam 50 years ago and now headquartered in Switzerland with an annual turnover of more than $160 billion. Prior to heading up Vitol’s philanthropy operations D’Alessandro was a successful oil trader with the firm that has significant investments on the African continent including Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Ghana, South Africa and Nigeria.

Vitol Foundation is also one of the key organisation’s who, along with Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the UK & US governments, as well as commercial backers that include Pearson, are supporting the rapid growth plans of Bridge International Academies (BIA) on the African continent.

BIA is a for-profit “edubusiness” founded by Shannon May and her husband Jay Kimmelman. Both graduated out of Harvard University around 2000; May with a social studies degree, Kimmelman with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering. May went on to complete a PhD in Anthropology at Berkeley whilst Kimmelman with Dan Yates, also graduating from Harvard, co-founded an EdTech business called Edusoft, a web-based K-12 student assessment platform. They sold Edusoft to education and trade publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt at the end of 2003 for an undisclosed sum although the company was reported to be worth $20 million. Not a bad return for the price of a Harvard education.

May’s PhD research was focused on the modernisation of rural China, particularly failings of primary schooling for poor families in Liaoning. It was this research, according to a report in The Atlantic, that sparked the idea between May and Kimmelman for BIA’s “school-in-a-box” idea that has been translated to the African continent.

BIA is a wholly-owned subsidiary of NewGlobe Schools Inc, a corporation registered in Delaware, USA, that May, Kimmelman and Phil Frei, a MIT graduate and former business unit head from IDEO, co-founded.

NewGlobe Schools Inc has received significant investments from the World Bank, via its IFC subsidiary, in addition to investments from the US and UK governments. A Freedom of Information request to the UK governments DFID revealed that nearly £4 million of the UK’s public purse was given to NewGlobe/BIA. At the time of writing it is unclear whether this investment in BIA by the British tax payer is in addition to a $6 million investment by the UK govt’s Development Finance Institution (CDC) made in 2014.

These foreign government investments in BIA have recently attracted the condemnation of the United Nations who, in an unprecedented statement made public on 9 June 2016, expressed concerns about the UK “funding of low-fee, private and informal schools run by for-profit business enterprises”. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) recommended that the UK “refrain from funding for-profit private schools” and “prioritise free and quality primary education in public schools.”

Global dissent aside these government investments have, nevertheless, triggered significant investments from the commercial sector. BIA’s largest commercial investor is Pearson followed by Omidyar Network, Khosla Ventures, NEA, Novastar Ventures as well as a host of what can only be described as “venture philanthropists”.

Commercial investors like all businesses have shareholders. They invest financial capital in order to receive a return on investment that is measured in multiples rather than the kind of meagre % they’d get from putting their cash in a bank. It’s not without risk but it always helps if the risk is shared by the public purse even if the public aren’t really aware of it. Essentially the public purse is subsidising the commercial risk. Investors then realise their investment in a number of ways that include a trade sale where their stake in BIA is sold to another buyer at a premium or a floatation on a stock exchange such as the NYSE where stock is publicly traded like commodities.

Venture philanthropists invest the money that they have accumulated typically through their business interests, which may include natural resource exploitation or technology businesses with sophisticated taxation arrangements, in projects that can further their interests. The return on investment is these interests rather than direct financial return from the business or organisation in which they have donated to.

This kind of philanthropy has been going under the microscope recently with high profile cases such as US billionaire Peter Thiel claiming his financial support to WWF wrestler Hulk Hogan resulting in the bankruptcy of Gawker Media was “philanthropic”. In the UK, where for-profit education in the state sector is presently illegal, an investigation by The Guardian showed how investments in non-profits were making venture capitalists rich.

I contacted Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Adviser, Pearson for comment about their investment in BIA. I asked him whether he thought that BIA’s activities were in line with his vision for affordable learning or if they brought them into disrepute? Responding swiftly but declining to comment he put me in touch with Mark Chernis, SVP/Strategic Partnerships & Investments for Pearson in New York who said:

“Bridge runs their own affairs and our role isn’t to comment on or be actively involved in their operations. It’s probably best for Bridge to speak for themselves on the questions you raise.”

Skype interview with Shannon May

So I contacted Shannon May, BIA’s co-founder, chief development officer and chief strategy officer, who generously granted me a 90 minute telephone interview where I agreed, with BIA’s PR handlers, to provide questions in advance.

May explained to me a little of the background to BIA and that the objective of her organisation was to “provide every child with the chance to have a high-quality primary education regardless of their family’s income”. In circumstances where families are living on less than $2 per day, “a market size of 2.7 billion people” May informed me, and that BIA was “providing schooling for around $6 per month or less than $100 a year”.

By anyone’s estimation that is one heck of an ambition that can only be achieved by radically reducing costs and operating at an unprecedented scale for a commercial organisation that must create value for its customers and a financial return for its investors. To breakeven BIA has to enrol at least 500,000 children but as May explained to me this is still an unknown quantity given that:

“it depends on lots of things. If we no longer have to build schools because we’re able to operate in facilities that are already built, then we don’t need to invest as much. Then it would be a lower number. Some of that relates to how many markets we’re in, because it costs a lot to create national curriculum-aligned materials and to work with the government to create the system that will work best for them.”

May’s plan is to expand to 10 million children within 10 years. In any commercial business, achieving scale and maintaining an affordable price for your customer base, especially at this lower end of the market, relies on a high degree of standardisation whilst minimising financial outgoings. As a result this calls for some tough decision making. It’s these tough decisions and their impact that have generated the most questions and concerns around the approach that BIA has deployed. Presently BIA owns just under 500 schools most of which are based in Kenya and with schools recently opening in Uganda, India, Nigeria and soon, Liberia.

BIA’s approach leverages digital technology to distribute scripted educational content created by curriculum designers in Boston, USA, with tweaks for regional curriculum variations, via low-cost tablet computers to teachers in BIA schools. This approach has a commercial advantage in that it is possible for BIA to hire comparatively unskilled, non-union, teachers at a reduced wage with a reduced investment in training. May tells me that:

“We’re agnostic as to who will make a great teacher. We’re willing to work with all sorts of different candidates and find the people who are going to deliver really effectively in the classroom. Of course there’s different context for that. Across all of the countries we now work with teachers of very different backgrounds. University graduates, government teacher training college graduates, folks who haven’t been through a government teach training college but have the qualifications to have gone.
When we look at the back end, you look at the data that comes out related to how children are performing, there isn’t a measurable difference. The teacher’s previous preparation before they go through our training program, doesn’t have correlation to the learning gains of the kids. That’s some of the data that we also share with our government partners.”

Teacher hires by BIA receive around 200 contact hours of training to learn the BIA system and how to deliver the scripted lessons they receive from the tablet. The teacher also submits key data via the tablet that in addition to monitoring learner progress back at BIA HQ also ensures that the teachers are actually present in the school delivering the lesson. According to May, the challenges that BIA solves is teacher quality and attendance which has been a historical problem in harambee or community schools particularly in rural areas that don’t receive full funding from government.

BIA teachers receive, on average, USD $120 per month in Kenya and USD $100 in Uganda. May tells me that:

“We pay almost three times what other low fee private schools pay their teachers. We pay far above market. The reason we do that is because we want to find the best talent”.

This claim doesn’t bear scrutiny, however, when compared to teacher salaries in the government system where teachers, who have received a two year training programme to get their licence, earn a minimum of USD $160 per month plus benefits.

The majority of BIA teachers do not hold a government licence to teach nor have they completed a teaching qualification and nor are they members of a national teaching union. This undoubtedly means that BIA can reduce one of the most capital intensive aspects of school provision, i.e. the teaching staff costs, while at the same time maintaining a level of quality as a result of their digital platform.

The result however is that staff turnover is high with May suggesting the figure running at around 25% with higher numbers in their call centres which run at around 50%. May points out that this is a problem because it then creates a new cost to the business of hiring and training new staff let alone the impact on student learning outcomes. By comparison teaching staff turnover in the UK is on average 11% rising to nearly 30% in certain PPP academies as recently reported in The Guardian.

Bridge School in Kenya

BIA make cost savings in the construction of school buildings which, despite the glossy pictures of happy smiling kids in the tidy schools featured in BIA’s communication materials, set a new level below basic. These schools aren’t the showcase ones that appear in their marketing communications or opened to foreign visitors or researchers making official visits to BIA. A problem with their Kenyan building works in 2013 meant that BIA “pretty much had to remove the entire construction team” as a result of “embezzlement going on, there was falsifying of records, lots of those serious things”.

Reality Distortion Field

Given the eye-watering speed at which BIA plans to expand, 10 million children in 10 years, I wondered what independent academic research had been conducted to provide evidence of efficacy in their approach. It’s here where things become less clear and May’s “reality distortion field” kicks in.

Given that BIA are deploying a radical approach to distributed teaching one would expect that collaborative engagement with the academic community across the spectrum of opinion would have been welcomed. Yet there has been very little by way of concrete evidence that demonstrates efficacy in the BIA approach.

The metrics for efficacy that BIA use are the EGRA/EGMA baseline assessments for literacy and numeracy developed by US-based RTI International under a development contract with USAID. When I enquired about published research I am directed to what can only be described as a “canned” white paper produced by a third party assessment firm called Decision Management Consulting (DMC).

http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Bridge-International-Academies_White-Paper_The-Bridge-Effect_Nov-2014_Website.pdf

On studying this paper a number of alarm bells start ringing. First, the sample size is incredibly small based on just 26 BIA schools against 2 third-party harambee schools, all selected by BIA. There are no randomised samples chosen by an independent researcher here. The research methodology is based around “Difference in Difference” estimations that have many well-known and documented deficiencies in their assumptions:

Second, the firm contracted to produce the data, DMC, were contracted by BIA. Furthermore, it seems that nobody other than BIA have heard of DMC. DMC are a ghost on the internet which seems strange for a management consulting firm. Requests to BIA for a contact name at DMC initially presented the cryptic description of “development economists based at universities and international research institutions”. I had to push BIA to explain who DMC were and it turns out that DMC is in fact a gentleman called Isaac Cherotich. Isaac is the Senior Education Specialist at, the aforementioned, RTI International who have an office in Nairobi. Over a third of RTI’s business, including the design of the EGRA/EGMA baseline assessments, comes from USAID, a US agency that provides aid to support US geopolitical interests, and another indirect supporter of BIA.

Charles Kenny in an article published by Bloomberg describes USAID thus:

“In practice, the foreign aid system, and in particular, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), work very well in accomplishing what Washington politicians want them to do. But that includes a range of purposes that have little to do with helping the world’s poor.”

Third, there has been no peer review. Ever.

A second white paper, an impact evaluation report titled “The Bridge Effect: : A Comparison of Early Grade Learning Gains in English and Maths”, will be published shortly by BIA but having read the document myself I can confirm that it suffers from the same weaknesses of the first. Furthermore it laced with misleading and reality distorting hyperbole. The executive summary opens with the canard that:

“This study, spanning 13 counties in Kenya and adopting quasi-experimental methods to assess the efficacy of Bridge, represents one of the more rigorous studies conducted by any practitioner educational or development organization to date.”

It goes downhill from there on in reading more like the kind of white paper that a silicon valley marketing department might prepare, obscuring facts with a blizzard of irrelevance.

Reaching out to a number of people in the academic community with whom I shared these white papers confirmed my concerns. Harvey Goldstein, Professor of Social Statistics, University of Bristol, found numerous flaws within the papers. He told me that,

“The key issue is the income one — without any adjustment for this the results are pretty useless.”

On the methodology of the data hidden amongst the hyperbole and “weasel words” Goldstein explained that:

“The DiD model is beloved of development economists yet has serious flaws. The first problem is that it is scale dependent — thus any monotone (order preserving) transformation will produce different estimates — so that at the very least different scalings need to be tried. Since all educational tests are on arbitrary scales anyway this is important.
Secondly, even ignoring scale dependency, the difference may in fact be (and usually is) a function of initial test score, the latter needs to be included in the model, otherwise the DiD will reflect the average difference and if, as is the case here, the baseline score is higher for Bridge schools, and for the scale chosen the higher baseline scoring pupils tend to make more progress in Bridge schools then DiD will automatically favour the Bridge schools.
Thirdly, the claim that DiD effectively adjusts for confounders is only true if there are no interactions between such confounders and treatment. Surprisingly this point appears to be understood yet is still used as ‘evidence’”

A detailed critique of BIA’s data can be found here

On request for other academic research I’m directed to a number business school case studies about BIA; one from Harvard Business School dated 2010, one from a consultancy promoting broadband networks and another from Stanford Graduate School of Business dated 2014 that is a rehash of the Harvard case study. None of this is research and it is unclear whether the authors had actually visited a single BIA school although it’s worth noting that Matthew Bannick, lecturer in management at Stanford, is also on the board of BIA. All of these reports simply quote from BIA’s marketing material and white papers that have been described as worthless.

The fourth case study I’m directed to is the “Millions Learning” report produced by US think tank, the Brookings Institute and authored by Rebecca Winthrop and Jenny Perlman Robinson. This one interests me because I’ve known Winthrop for years and respect her work and insights. However, I’m disappointed to learn that the data presented by Brookings in this document has simply been culled from the white papers produced by BIA and again it is unclear whether any BIA schools were visited in the creation of this case study. I reached out to Winthrop who confirmed that:

“We were very careful to state that case studies were not an endorsement but used to demonstrate pathways to scale and learn lessons”.

So bottom line. No reliable evidence of efficacy supported by independent academic research conducting randomised school trials.

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that BIA hasn’t improved learning outcomes for kids in low income countries but the impact overall hasn’t been proven. For a business that wants to be turning a tidy profit and a healthy return for its shareholders servicing 10 million fee-paying children in 10 years, that is a problem.

I don’t know if May is attempting Jedi mind tricks but tells me that:

“The economists agree that these are proper quasi-experimental, justified and statistically significant learning gains. People who are experts in the field don’t question that data, and it’s on the basis of the data and it’s really significant learning gains that have been proven. Michael Kremer, who’s one of the most famous economists working in education today, is now doing a randomised control trial on Bridge”

Kremer, also from Harvard, is a data driven, quantitative, economist so it will be interesting to understand his methodology when he crunches the numbers on the baseline assessments bearing in mind the data only tells us the what rather than the why. I remain baffled that BIA remains resistant to accepting the offers from the academic community who specialise in education, teaching and learning. By reducing education to a numbers game we are seeing a version of teaching to the test as a production line in a way that would make Frederick Taylor, the late 19th century manufacturing guru, proud. It should be noted that Taylor’s theories originated from methodologies learned from plantation slavery that transformed craft production to mass production.

Curtis Riep

I was interested to speak to an independent academic researcher who had experience of the region and had actually visited a BIA school when I connected with Curtis Riep, a doctoral student from the University of Alberta. Riep’s research focus has for number of years been for-profit affordable learning programmes including research and presentation of findings on programmes including Omega in Ghana and APEC in the Philippines. His most recent research took him to Uganda where he was investigating BIA’s work there.

In the short time Riep was in Uganda, a matter of weeks, he visited 10 BIA schools of which, due to school holidays, only 1 was open. He used this time to speak with teaching staff and review BIA’s facilities in preparation for a meeting that had been pre-arranged with Mr Andrew White, BIA’s regional expansion director and UK expat. An internet search on Curtis Riep presents an immediate background to his research work and reputation. Thus Riep is not an unknown to those interested in or whose business is based on providing affordable learning. White had agreed to a meeting with Riep in Kampala on May 30th to discuss Riep’s initial observations about BIA’s operations in Uganda.

Within minutes of arriving at the meeting with White at a cafe Riep was approached by 3 men, one in plain clothes who introduced himself as a detective, the others dressed as uniformed, armed, police officers. The detective advised Riep that he was being arrested on charges of impersonating a BIA employee and criminal trespass. Both the detective and police officers refused to present proof of identity. Riep asked White for an explanation of these allegations to which White denied any knowledge. Before leaving with the officers Riep managed to inform the Canadian Embassy in Kampala of his wrongful arrest.

In addition to the 3 officers a fourth person was awaiting Riep in the police vehicle. Upon Riep asking for the identity of the additional passenger, who initially introduced himself as a lawyer representing the government, it was confirmed that he was a lawyer working for BIA. Riep was then driven for some 90 minutes and beyond the city limits of Kampala passing numerous police stations, including Kampala Central Police Station, before arriving at Kyengera police station. On arrival Riep was met by 4 separate media outlets who were photographing and filming his arrival.

Riep was joined at the police station by legal representation provided by the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), a Ugandan civil rights organisation. BIA sent two lawyers that made accusations against Riep, specifically impersonation of a BIA employee and trespass. It also transpired that BIA had taken out advertisements in the local newspapers with a photograph of Riep suggesting that he was a “wanted man”.

“Advertisement” placed in Ugandan new paper by Bridge International Academies

During Riep’s interviews with the police it was disclosed that Riep had been investigating BIA practices as a result of various reports that the Ugandan Ministry of Education had concerns about BIA’s operations in the country. Riep also disclosed that every visit to a BIA school was arranged with the academy manager by phone or when unavailable by phone he would arrive and explain his purpose for being there including signing the visitors book in his own name.

Riep was released on bail returning the next day when he was supported by legal representation from the Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU) and the Honorary Vice Consul of Canada to Uganda. Unable to support the accusations made against Riep, BIA’s lawyers made the claim that Riep was simply “an enemy of BIA”. School visitor books that showed Riep’s identity and signature along with other testimony ensured that the case against Riep was thrown out and Riep was free to leave.

A statement from Richard Mwebaze, legal officer, UNATU:

“It’s true Mr. Curtis was arrested and questioned by police in Uganda. This was after Bridge International Academies Limited reported a case of impersonation that Mr. Curtis was was holding out as an employee of Bridge Schools whereas not. He was questioned by the police and on further investigation, the file was referred to the Director of public prosecutions who advised that the case should be dropped since there was no evidence of impersonation as alleged.
They also sought to allege that he criminally trespassed in their premises. The charge could also not stand because Mr. Curtis was at Bridge Schools legally to conduct research with the knowledge of Ministry of Education.”
Curtis Riep, released without charge

The Washington Post described BIA’s behaviour in this matter as “one for the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up files

Having interviewed Riep myself and reviewed relevant documentation supporting his story I asked Shannon May whether BIA were intending to make a public apology to Riep. I asked May to explain why BIA had placed adverts in newspapers and conspired to have Riep arrested on trumped up charges replete with media in attendance.

May was unapologetic and continued with her reality distorting defamation of Riep even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. May told me:

“We had no idea who this person was. Local Ugandan citizens who were terrified of a foreign white man who lied about his identity and who was harassing schools did what they thought was the right thing and we support them. They went to their local police precinct, they reported a strange man who was lying about his identity, and who refuses to say what he’s doing or who he’s working for. He said he works for Bridge. He kept harassing teachers asking what they were doing. This was not any attempt at a formal or proper or ethical learning outcome study. This was someone, no one had any idea who he was. Local teachers protecting themselves and their children reported to the police.”
Shannon May discussing the arrest of Curtis Riep

BIA went on to publish a statement that is completely unsupported and contradicted by the evidence presented to the police in the presence of UNATU and Canada’s Vice Consul.

May promised to furnish me with evidence supporting her version of events however nothing has been forthcoming.

Kid denies playing with yellow paint despite overwhelming evidence

This made me curious about BIA’s relationship with the Ugandan and Kenyan governments. May told me that,

“There are many levels of government. The Ministry of Education does not ask anyone to open schools. They don’t ask private parties or Harambee schools to do that. They regulate it and they govern it, which is a good thing, but no, I did not say that the Ministry of Education itself asked us to open schools, but that’s why … government is at many levels. We have local government, we have county government, we have the executive branch. We have been asked by members of parliament and governors to support them in bringing better schools to their neighbourhoods. We’re talking with them about those public-private partnerships, as well as parent-funded Harambee schools and we’ll find the right thing that works for each of these communities.”

When I showed May that I had a letter dated April 6th 2016 from Uganda’s Permanent Secretary to BIA demanding that they cease expansion May claims that she had not seen it. May said:

“In Uganda, we were very surprised by a newspaper reporting a letter which we had never received, so we went to go see the principal secretary, who said she didn’t know anything about this said letter.”
Letter to BIA from Uganda’s Permanent Secretary

By this time May had exhausted my suspension of disbelief so I asked her again and again whether the Ugandan government had called for BIA to cease expansion before finally she said:

“They asked”

An interview with Education Ministry spokesperson Patrick Muinda Emmanuel, broadcast by Uganda Radio Network, says the academy got permission to open a single academy but went ahead to open other centres.

You can hear excerpts from the interview here:

Radio interview with Patrick Muinda Emmanuel, the Education Ministry

Having interviewed the Education Minister of Liberia, George Werner, I wanted to know more about BIA’s intention in regard to the Partnerships for Schools programme.

It had been suggested to me during my meeting with Vitol Foundation’s CEO, D’Alessandro that it was Jim Kim, President of the World Bank, who had promoted BIA to the Liberian Minister. Indeed in his speech of 7th April 2015 titled “Ending Extreme Poverty by 2030: The Final Push” Kim, praised BIA.

However May describes a more prosaic version of events where, invited by D’Alessandro, she reluctantly attended a meeting in New York and by coincidence found herself seated next to George Werner, Liberia’s Minister for Education. Also attending the meeting was Katie Meyler, who founded More Than Me, a non-profit tuition-free K-6 girls school providing high quality education and holistic services like healthcare, family planning, psychosocial support, and a feeding program for the most vulnerable girls in Monrovia.

Meyler was exploring ways of scaling her operation in Liberia to meet the needs of the Liberian education system. May explained that,

“after talking with them about it, Katie turned to me and said, ‘We don’t know how to do this at scale. We want to do this for the minister because someone needs to do this. Someone needs to help him.’”

Thus the wheels were set in motion for BIA to gain a position in the Liberian education system, one which by most accounts is one of the most vulnerable in the world.

According to May, Vitol Foundation convened a meeting in London a couple of months later in November 2015 inviting the Minister and other parties including BIA. Funded by Vitol the Minister went to visit BIA in Kenya where he visited no active schools as they were on break. Werner was advised by his ministerial counterpart in Kenya to proceed with caution should he choose to invite BIA to open schools in Liberia. Funded by Vitol the Minister managed to visit a small number of active schools in Uganda but was not advised of the Ugandan governments concerns with BIA. May told me that:

“We were asked to do this as part of Vitol Foundation’s program. They specifically requested to President Sirleaf to support the minister in investigating multiple programs across East Africa. That’s my understanding of it.”

I found this curious given that one of my reasons for interviewing D’Alessandro was that it had come to my attention that Vitol Foundation’s philanthropy was contingent upon Liberia working with BIA. D’Alessandro denied categorically that this was the case but also confirmed that should Liberia chose not to work with BIA their philanthropy might not be forthcoming. To me it seemed strange that a philanthropy organisation would rather support specific, for-profit, education providers rather than the Liberian programme itself. D’Alessandro defends her philanthropic position as:

“We believe that there is enough evidence base for us to invest in the bridge model, it’s a bit like we’ve done in healthcare. Rolling out a community healthcare model in Liberia with Last Mile Health, we’re just making an investment in a great provider.”

Only it’s not really because Last Mile Health is a non-profit, founded by a Liberian native and is predicated on building local healthcare capacity.

By contrast BIA is a for-profit organisation, that has run into problems in the territories in which it operates, that has no reliable evidence base for efficacy, and whose business-model and shareholder value is based on selling education as a product in perpetuity.

When I interviewed Werner his justification for working with BIA as a pilot was that Liberia would have the opportunity to learn from the BIA system so that in time they could deploy their own homegrown variant. However as a commercial business with commercial investors none of the material produced by BIA for the Liberian Partnerships for Schools programme will belong to Liberia. As May says:

“Exactly like any other publishing firm, Bridge owns the copyright. The same way that Dimension Education in Liberia just purchased multi-million dollars worth of Pearson books. They own the physical book once it’s purchased but Pearson still owns the copyright.”

Interestingly, for an affordable learning programme, the first major hire that BIA has made in Liberia is former politican Benjamin Sanvee as their corporate spindoctor in charge of public relations, communications and, no doubt, lobbying the Liberian government.

So there you have it. BIA is an unapologetically commercial business. It’s aim is to generate sustainable profits and shareholder returns by scaling its business to 10 million children within 10 years and then who knows the extent of their ambition beyond that. It might just work but as with any commercial purchase, buyer beware, because this one doesn’t come with a guarantee.

artwork credit @bryanmmathers with kind thanks CC-BY-ND


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An entertaining & thought provoking slayer of sacred cows, Graham Brown-Martin works globally with senior leadership teams to help organisations adapt in the face of rapid change & innovation. By challenging entrenched thinking he liberates teams to think in new ways to solve complex challenges. His book Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury and he is represented for speaking engagements via Wendy Morris at the London Speakers Bureau.