By Katy Migiro
NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenyan teachers want the government to ban a chain of low-cost private primary and nursery schools, backed by Microsoft's Bill Gates and Britain's aid budget, after it faced criticism from a court in neighboring Uganda for hiring unlicensed teachers.
Uganda's high court on Friday ordered Bridge International Academies (BIA) to close 63 schools in the country for operating without a license, having poor sanitation and for using unregistered and unlicensed teachers, the judgment said.
The company, founded by an American couple, started working in Uganda in 2015 after opening 405 schools in Kenya since 2009 that use an 'Academy in a box' model in which teachers read lessons from a tablet computer.
However, the fast-growing company has faced opposition from teachers unions in Kenya and Uganda, where it often hires staff who have not undergone government training to read scripted lessons, delivered via the internet.
"These academies should not be allowed to operate anywhere in third world countries," said Wilson Sossion, secretary general of the Kenya National Union of Teachers, adding that his union will release a report criticizing BIA in December.
"We want to believe that will open the eyes of the government of Kenya to move a step further to close down Bridge schools."
Kenyan government officials were not immediately available for comment.
Low-cost private schools are expanding across the region, particularly in unplanned slums where there are not enough government schools.
Last year, the United Nations adopted an ambitious set of development goals, pledging to leave no one behind, including the 57 million children around the world who are not in primary school - most of them in Africa.
BIA, which aims to reach 10 million students by 2025, targets families that live on $2 per person per day, keeping its costs down through technology, standardized content and scale among other factors.
Tuition fees in Uganda range from 54,000 shillings ($15) to 108,000 shillings ($30) per term, depending on age and location.
BIA has filed documents to appeal the Ugandan ruling, citing its adherence to government standards, BIA's Expansion Director in Uganda, Andrew White, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Bridge is being singled out by other vested interests who fear the innovation and changes that Bridge could bring to the education sector," White said.
Rates of teacher absenteeism are more than 25 percent in Kenya and Uganda and large sums are lost through the payment of 'ghost' teachers who do not exist, a 2013 report by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International said.
With BIA's tech-based approach, teachers have to log in and out each day, cutting absenteeism to below two percent, White said.
"A teacher cannot be absent in our class," he said. "A ghost can't log in and can't log out."
BIA's entrepreneurial approach has won it financial backing from Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar, the wealthy founders of Facebook and eBay, as well as the World Bank's private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation.
But increased foreign investment in private sector schools, has been controversial, with campaigners calling for a greater focus on the right to free quality public education.
Britain's Department for International Development (DFID) has come under fire for investing $7.1 million of taxpayers' money in BIA through its development finance arm, CDC, and the venture capital firm Novastar.
The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child criticized DFID's funding of private schools in July, saying it could contribute to substandard education and leave behind children who cannot afford even low-fee schools.
"Our priority is to ensure children in the world's poorest countries get the education they deserve, regardless of whether the school is public or private," a DFID spokesman said.
"When state provision is not delivering for the poorest, we work with low-cost privately run schools to provide an education to children who would otherwise get none."
($1 = 3,520.0000 Ugandan shillings)
(Reporting by Katy Migiro @katymigiro; Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)