On the 4th of November 2016, a Uganda High Court judge (in the case of Bridge International Academies Ltd v. Attorney General Uganda) ordered the closure of 63 Bridge International Schools in that country. The judge cited the use of unqualified teachers, unsanitary learning conditions as well as the fact that the schools were not properly licensed as reasons for ordering the closures. The court also considered the poor quality of education provided in these schools.
Bridge schools are backed by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. The schools claim to have 12,000 students in Uganda and 100,000 students across Africa, mainly. According to their teaching model statement, teachers read scripted lessons from a tablet. The content of learning is standardized and not adapted to the needs of each student or cohort. It has been argued that this is an effective low-cost way of providing ‘quality’ education to a vast amount of learners. However, this presupposes some education is better than none. Forgetting of course, that a little learning is a dangerous thing. Bridge Schools in Africa have been the subject of much controversy (from Liberia to Kenya); the UN has suggested that the UK funding such schools could contribute to violations of international law. Those who suffer the most from this are poor Ugandans. A Ugandan friend said to me, that this group of people are caught at the intersection of a convergence of disadvantage: government education is unreliable, often unsanitary, and almost always underfunded. Private education is unaffordable and inaccessible for most Ugandans. Yet Bridge education is barely education at all.
So why is the Bridge educational structure problematic? To answer this question we need to examine education in Africa from legal, theoretical and historical perspectives. I have previously argued for the decolonisation of education in Africa, and for a general decolonial attitude. The Bridge Schools Case provides an excellent illustration of that argument. I contend that un-decolonised education results in epistemic violence/injustice and is thus pedagogically and ethically unsound – violating the right to education. My argument relies on a deconstructive reading of postcolonial theory, through an examination of the history of education in Africa as well as the purposes of education in any society.
The Legal Angle
One of the problems we encounter in this discourse is that in Africa, the promotion of the right to education has been focused mainly on improving only the availability and accessibility of education. This is because, the right to education has been described as an empowerment right or a gateway right. Consequently, the right should enable the educated to take control of her life and contribute to the development of her state. In its General Comment 13, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides that primary education should be free, and quality education should be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable. However, according to UNESCO, African states are comparatively behind other regions in the provision of education. The inadequacies of the education system are played out against a background of high child-marriage rates, parent illiteracy, poverty and political unrest. While some regional legal instruments attempted to include ‘African values’ within their standards, (to make rights situationally relevant), these provisions failed to be effective, as they are attached to legal norms that seem to be in direct contradiction to those propositions of ‘African values’.
Deconstructive postcolonial theory tries to explain how Africa has arrived at the above point. Post-colonial theory analyses the consequences of colonialism on the colonised. Theorists consider the ideas of hierarchical difference in how the image of Africa is reproduced or represented in literature as well as new and old media. The idea or invention of Africa cannot be divorced from the ideology that drove colonisation – the distinction between the civilised and the uncivilised. That ideology pervades Africa’s current relation with the rest of the world – power structures, politics, language and knowledge. Post-colonial theory recognises that the incompetence and dependence of Africa’s contemporary political and intellectual elite on external approval and assistance result from hybridity of supposed African authenticity and the attempted replication of colonial character, all carried out within an inherited colonial structure. On the other hand, deconstruction asks us to look beyond the text or the ‘representation’ and question the normalisation of the construction of Africa, enabling us to rewrite/reinvent Africa, to de-victimise Africa, to iterate Africa in the context of a possible equal future. Read together, deconstructing the post-colonial speaks of what can be, despite the trauma of colonialism and the incapacity of the post-colonial state.
Due to our inaccurate knowledge of Africa, our discussions of Africa are ultimately and persistently concerned with social engineering (case in point!). Current epistemology is derived in an unbroken line of pedagogy from the precolonial to the post-colonial and used to explain all contemporary African phenomena. Therefore current implementation of the right to education ignores the fact that mimicry of cultural ideology will never become mastery, notwithstanding sincerity of the mimic or the master. By relying on an externally created content, students are being made into mimics of educational material and not masters. As long as they are getting some education, surely that should be enough? No! Substandard education only suffices because our gaze of Africa is seen through its representations rather than its substantiation or any engagement with African humanity or the subjects’ lived experiences; these representations confine our collective memory to one of absolute night, forgetting the existence or possibility of sunrise. Education becomes a tool of conformity, rather than a means of personal development. We limit our vision of possibility, killing dreams before they can take flight.
This results in a dilemma and a paradox. The African is torn between a past lost in the mists of time, and the fear of losing herself in a modern future constructed on an exogenous template. This creates a dilemma from which there is apparently no possible escape: the African cannot be known without the tools of education, yet this education dilutes the authenticity of past experience and makes the knowing superficial. While education may be physically available and accessible, the learner suffers a deficit in epistemological access and availability, resulting in pedagogically unsound learning at a high psychological cost. The type of education offered by the Bridge Schools ideologically dislocates individuals from their society and, due to limited literacy and numeracy, does not equip them for any other. It results in a citizenry with low civil affinity to the state and little technological know-how, depriving African states of the right to democracy and development. The prestige of education becomes the end of education and its only purpose.
The Imperfect Past, the Failed Aspirational Past, and the Fettered Present
Moving on from extremely flawed colonial education, African states have tried to improve the standard of education in their states. Inadequate personnel and research impede continental efforts to reform curricula, while international efforts are uninformed, sporadic and isolated. The Structural Adjustment Programmes introduced to Africa by international financial institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, meant that governmental spending on education was greatly reduced. African attempts to collaborate with the West in this regard are further encumbered by comparatively higher costs of travel, difficulties in obtaining visas or visiting fellowships. This has resulted in epistemic violence (popularised by Spivak.) Spivak argues that epistemic violence can only be defused when the intellectual represents the silenced. However, the African intellectual lacks the structural capacity to represent the silenced; the Western intellectual lacks testimonial competence. Consequently, decolonisation of education has to be focused on research-intensive interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, egalitarian, overt, persistent, capacity-sharing and competence-building. Decolonising education in Africa should have as one of its focuses the liberating purpose of education.
Therefore, I agree with the judge’s decision in the Bridge Schools case. While the case focuses on the schools’ lack of licences, that overshadows a far more important point. The education offered by the Bridge Schools has the potential to violate international law. This is education predicated on a presumed state of the targeted population. Education has to develop people, as people, from where they are to where they want to go, not meet people where you presume they are and take them to where you think they ought to want to go. Conclusively, the education provided by the Bridge Schools cannot be said to be of an acceptable quality, because it does not equip its learners for freedom.