Kindergarten students on their way to lunch at Bridge International Academy in Mbale Town, Vihiga County, in Western Kenya, one of a fast-growing chain of schools providing education for about $5 a month.
Dennis Abudho and his family of five children live in a one-bedroom house without electricity in Bandani, an informal settlement in Kisumu, Kenya.
Abudho is active in the PTA at Bridge International Academy in Bandani, where his four oldest children (three boys and a girl) are in baby level, first, third and fifth grade. You might not expect someone like Abudho -- who said he is a casual laborer, operating a bread machine at a local mill and bakery -- to have four children in private school. But he can afford it -- the cost of school for each child at Bridge, including books and materials, is the equivalent of $5.16 a month.
Why doesn't Abudho send his children to public schools? One reason is that there aren't enough of them in Bandani. Informal settlements in Kenya, and many other places, have few public schools because their inhabitants are unregistered; legally, there are few children who need school.
But even when public school is available, learning may not be. Public schools in poor countries are mostly overcrowded -- there can be 100 or more children in a class. While there are heroic teachers, there are many others for whom teaching is more a sinecure than a vocation -- they are absent half the time, and not actively teaching when present. Since they have no supervision, this behavior incurs no penalty. Materials may consist solely of a chalkboard. Coursework usually consists of rote learning and memorization.
Moreover, public schools are most often not free. Parents everywhere are assessed school fees -- some real, some bribes (like "teacher motivation" fees).
People who can afford it, then, turn to private schools that charge between $2 and $10 a month per child. James Tooley and Pauline Dixon of Newcastle University in England, who research and champion low-cost private schools, found that in the slums of some major cities in India and Africa, more children go to private schools than to public schools. (Tooley is also a co-founder of a chain of them, Omega Schools, in Ghana) The vast majority of the private schools are microbusinesses, run by individuals in their backyards or living rooms.
In my last column, I wrote about schools run by the Bangladesh anti-poverty group BRAC, which give children who dropped out of or never entered school a free education of better quality than the public schools. Most remarkable, BRAC has 40,000 such schools, in seven countries. BRAC, the world's largest nongovernmental organization, can afford this because it has a steady income from the businesses it runs and it is a trusted favorite of large donors, particularly rich-country government aid agencies.
There is only one BRAC. But is there another way to provide affordable education to poor people on a giant scale?
Bridge is betting that there is -- in fact, its business and academic models are based on scale.
Source: The New York Times | TINA ROSENBERG