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Kenya: A Commercial Approach to Slum Education Print E-mail
Tuesday, 04 May 2010
It is a highly standardised, tightly managed, commercially run model: Bridge Academies International aim to ‘become the Walmart in primary education’ to provide quality education in slum neighbourhoods.

Free Primary Education (FPE) was going to be one of President Mwai Kibaki’s legacy projects, and its initial announcement had been widely welcomed. But it has lost a lot of its shine recently following allegations that large part of its budget allocations could not be accounted for, and the US and the British Department for International Development (DFID) have suspended funding until a credible investigation has been held.
 
FPE: Not Exactly Free
But the budget theft is one of the indications that the FPE programme is not managed all that well: The school system was barely able to keep up with the surge in numbers. Not everyone in need of FPE has a school in walking distance – or a school that can still accept students. Often schools are overcrowded, with long waitlists.
 
And FPE is often not, well, free: Even though the government covers tuition, there are many additional ‘fees’ that parents have to pay: A ‘motivation fee’ demanded by the teacher, admission fee requested by the headteacher, a desk fee, a book fee, and so on. Sometimes fees for additional tuition to help students catch up in the afternoon – typically taught by the same teacher who neglected teaching the students during the morning in the first place. In rural areas, children need to bring fuel, i.e. wood or charcoal.
 
It quickly adds up, and means that even the ‘free primary education’ is hardly ever really free. And not just the informal nature of those payments means that parents’financial contributions does not necessarily translate into quality education. As a result, private schools at the low-income end of market still find demand. And it is this market that Bridge Academies International have targeted with a tightly structured, mass-market business model.
 
School in a Box
At the moment, Bridge Academies run seven schools, two of which were opened in 2009, and five in January 2010. Ten more are planned for the second term in May. Their aim is to expand to 150 schools in Kenya, all in slums, areas deliberately chosen for their high population density that is required for this model. Based on extensive research, co-founders Shannon May, Jay Kimmelman and Phil Frei have developed what is effectively a school in a box: Planned in minute detail, standardised and optimised at every turn and after several revisions, intensely cost conscious because there is simply no leeway if they want to create a business model that offers schooling to slum children on a commercial basis: The monthly fees per child are KES295 (about USD4) – which, Bridge Academies estimate, matches or is below the inofficial fees that parents incur when sending their children to FPE schools.
 
The first two schools helped to refine the concept, a tightly run, high volume, small transaction model. Every school is expected to grow to around 1,000 pupils – school size is mainly restricted by the size of the plots available in their target market: there is just not that much spare space in slums. Every school should also become profitable within one year. The company applies a rigorous system of both cost optimisation and incentives to achieve this. Not the tiniest detail is left to chance in running the schools:
 
Local Ecosystem
School managers, like the rest of the staff and suppliers, are drawn from the school’s immediate neighbourhood: Not only does this mean hiring people who understand their market, but it also cuts out travel costs. Base salaries for school managers are, Shannon admits, ‘painfully low’ at around KES5,000. But they receive bonuses on enrolment, on-time payment, and other factors, and the manager of a reasonably well run school can expect to earn KES12,000 a month in the first year, and up to KES35,000 in the fourth or fifth year.
 
That still does not sound enormous, but is attractive in an environment where unemployment or underemployment are widespread and few alternatives exist. Teachers are equally drawn from the immediate neighbourhood. Close community relations help the marketing of the school: Even though Bridge Academies will pay for a few painted walls, most of it happens through word of mouth.
 
Streamlined School Management
It is easy to find someone in the neighbourhood who will prepare lunch for the pupils outside the school building. Bridge Academies will agree the price per meal with the vendor and display it clearly on the wall. More importantly, his is literally the only time cash changes hands in the school:
 
Practically all other payments are done by mobile money transfers, and this is planned down to the tiniest detail. School managers send in their financial requirements by text message, and are sent their financial allocations by mobile payments. Wherever possible, the headquarters will pay vendors to the schools directly by mobile payment. Teacher salaries are paid the same way.
 
That no money is handled in the school is crucially important, argues May: There are phone numbers on all walls telling parents to report it immediately if they are ever asked for cash. This way, the typical ‘desk fees’, ‘motivation fees’ etc will be avoided. It also makes accounting and payments far more transparent and traceable, and finally means that the school holds no cash on site and does not become a target for break ins.
 
When registering their children, parents are given an ID card for their child that has an ID number and, on the back, carries the information which number to send the mobile payment to, or which bank account to pay the fees into. In addition to the payment information, the card even has a brief description in English, so even parents who do not speak English can confidently walk up to a bank counter knowing that their intended transaction is described in all the necessary detail on the card.
 
Teaching Quality
In their head office, the two biggest teams are curriculum development and teacher development. The company works with the Kenyan curriculum, but with an explicit focus to improve the quality of teaching: Bridge Academies test the children against international standards.
 
It is particularly important to Bridge Academies that English and Swahili are taught properly: In many government schools, English is taught as a foreign language for the first three years, and then all teaching switches to English. With a lack of proficiency, pupils then miss out on the entire course content and have little chance of catching up. Bridge Academies work to ensure that children have a good understanding of English.
 
The curriculum and teacher development also involved the writing of a full script for English and maths classes: it prescribes literally every word they say in class. For the other subjects, lesson plans exist, and the company plans to expand those to include more detail.
 
Growth Plans
Bridge Academies is a tightly managed operation with continuous quality checks: every school, every teacher is visited by an auditor several times a week. Feedback loops ensure that systems and processes are continuously improved, and with fastidious attention to detail, the company aims to combine affordability with quality. This also means that if parents cannot pay, their children will be expelled from the school: otherwise, May argues, the model cannot be sustained. As a low-cost, high-volume model, Bridge Academies not only pursue an aggressive plan to launch new schools, but also intend to add a new grade every year so that their first pupils can complete their entire education.
 
The company has also been looking at other countries, but for its model to work, it requires high-density areas. Lagos, once under consideration, has been put on hold because running an informal school is, in contrast to Kenya, where the government exercises benign neglect, illegal. This does not do much to limit the number of informal schools, it just means that bribes have to be paid to keep the schools open.
 
The company was deliberately incorporated as a for-profit as this places no ceiling on expansion and, Shannon argues, also gave them more independence in pursuing their model rather than trying to satisfy the various demands of donors. And if parents pay fees, they have the right to make demands: It was this direct accountability, the intent to give parents a more central role, that also motivated them to pursue a commercial model. Their equity investors combine a commercial investor with more patient capital.
 
Perspectives
Demand for education, and the resultant willingness to pay for it, is enormous amongst even the poorest citizens: Providing children with a good education is many people’s strongest hope of escaping poverty. Since the introduction of free primary education, the public school system has been bursting at the seams, and the mismanagement of the estimated KES9bn per year reflects the governance and corruption issues of the wider public sector in Kenya. And the results have been disappointing: The Uwezo Kenya survey published in April 2010 indicates that almost half of the children in primary school, including in the upper ranks, lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. Uwezo was driven by civil society and the education sector, since the Government of Kenya has, in fact, no assessment mechanism to evaluate the results of the FPE programme.
 
And because the FPE system is so overstretched, private schools remain a thriving business. Bridge Academies try to work with the Kenya Independent Schools Association to strengthen the overall sector – possibly a more pragmatic approach than to wait for an overhaul of the FPE system. After presiding over the FPE scam, Education Minister Sam Ongeri had been briefly suspended by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a move that had instantly been reversed by the president in a tit-for-tat political fight. Not just the dismal management of the education sector, but also the failure to institute even credible minimum inquiries into the theft of FPE funds indicates that little will change in the near and medium future. It is clear that this will have implications for Kenya’s economic ambitions as documented e.g. in the Vision2030.
 
When May did a survey amongst parents on what they liked, she expected to see feedback on teaching quality – which was, after all, what the testing of the students showed so far. However, 70 to 80% of all parents said that their child was no longer afraid of being beaten when going to school – a hangover from the depressingly low standards in government schools.



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