By Owachgiu Dennis

Right in the middle of the year in August, parents of Bridge International schools’ pupils woke up to the shocking news that their schools had been closed by authorities.The High court in November upheld the directive to close the schools. The high court ruling prompted wailing pupils to petition the speaker parliament over the fate of their school.

While the ministry was literally enforcing its regulatory mandate by demanding a private institution to adhere to the minimum prerequisite standards for licensing, most people conversant with Uganda Education systems wondered whether there wasn’t any other ulterior motive rather than standards per se. To begin with, each parent who took their Children to a Bridge school had ditched a supposedly “free” Universal Primary Education (UPE) school in their neighborhood. That alone implies parents perceive Bridge schools to be superior to UPE schools. In fact even the officials at Ministry of Education cant allow their children to go to UPE schools, because they are know how mediocre it is.

Many parents perceive UPE is a colossal failure, and have been looking for alternatives, as most of the other private schools are expensive for most parents.  In Uganda nearly 67% of the population are subsistence farmers who just live hand to mouth. Such parents certainly cant afford the expensive private schools. To such parents, Bridge was an welcome solution to their problem; providing quality education at affordable rates.

To any astute observer, one wonders how the Uganda’s Ministry of Education gets the audacity to close a private school on grounds of inferior education standards, considering the dilapidated and continuously deteriorating standards of Ministry of Education’s own UPE Schools. Performance standards and literacy and numeracy skills of pupils in UPE schools portrays an education system in an incessant downward spiral in terms of quality.

Another surprising  premise for the closure was that the curriculum at Bridge International schools doesn’t meet the right standards. UPE’s standards itself leaves a lot to be desired. A survey done by Twaweza found that pupils have the minimal literacy and numeracy skills.

The Ministry also hinted that Bridge International Schools utilized unqualified teachers. That draws attention to Ministry of Education’s own quality of teachers. As if their incompetence is not enough, teacher absenteeism is worryingly high in most rural government schools. One wonders if inspectors of schools and Education Standards Agency are doing their work. With all these, not a single UPE is on record as having been closed for failure to meet the minimum standards.

Granted, Bridge might have its weaknesses worth correcting, but from the above, it appears that Bridge international schools greatly exposed the weaknesses of UPE schools. For instance, whereas UPE schools are supposedly free, the fact that parents ditched UPE schools and took their children to Bride schools it itself a vote of no confidence in the quality of Education of UPE schools.

It’s hypocritical that the Officials at Ministry of Education are so fast at detecting faults by private sectors yet they are snail-slow at rectifying the numerous well-known flaws with Uganda’s own deteriorating education standards.

Rather than mudslinging Bridge International Schools, Ministry of Education officials should instead emulate the innovations by Bridge. While teacher absenteeism in UPE schools hovers at a whopping 29% at UPE schools, Bridge devised a smart solution that enables teachers to login when they report to school and log out when they are going home. It’s such an innovative approach that government should consider relocating.

Above all, Bridge International schools has demystified the notion that improvement of education standards requires a ridiculously huge amounts of money. Bridge has deliberately tied limited resources to construction of classrooms, but has instead invested massively in developing systems that fosters learning process. Bridge makes use of technologies such as tablets, which simplifies lesson planning for teachers and offers teachers a platform to access reference learning materials.

Bridge schools may be closed, but merely closing schools can’t improve education standards at school in Uganda. Uganda currently has less than 300 inspectors for all schools public and private schools in the country. Even the few inspectors at the Education agency are underfunded, with a minuscule budget of not more than 4 billion.

Of Uganda’s budget of 1 trillion, over 900billions goes for teacher salary alone, leaving limited resources for other function such as curriculum development, inspection, infrastructure etc. In the vocational Education sector, a new curriculum has been unveiled with a resultant surge in the cost of running public vocational schools, yet the Ministry hasn’t set aside appropriate budget to augment the implementation of the new curriculum.  ICT is an examinable subject at both O and A level, yet most government seed schools do not even have computers, let alone electricity connection.  These are some of the more pressing issues Ministry of Education should delve into.

Known for their cost-effectiveness, private sector actors can be partners towards improvement of Education standards. Bridge has a proactive approach to curriculum development with their own curriculum writers. This is a far cry from the National Curriculum Development Center whose under-funding has stifled their ability to regularly update the curriculum.

Education is one of the most crucial pillars of sustainable development, and investment in the highest quality of education is the entry point for human capital development. It’s these human resource pool emanating from education system who will augment the economic transformation process.

It’s time for different stakeholders in the education Ministry to lead by example by improving standards in UPE Schools. They should also refrain from escapist mentality that has kept Uganda’s education in its current pathetic standards. In any case, donors who are backing Bridge would have committed their resources to other sectors if Uganda’s primary education was deemed to be of adequate standards.