29 January 2016

Liberia: Education Minister Negotiates Public Private Partnership Deal

Liberia's education sector is one of the publicly criticized with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf describing it as messy in one of her many public speeches. The President following her harsh condemnation of the sector, appointed Mr. George K. Werner to serve as Minister and the new Minister promised to help fix the system, presenting an ambitious plan of action.

But the Minister who has been serving the position for less than a year instead of helping to fix has turned to outsourcing reform in the sector to a private institution with negotiations ongoing for the private entity to manage the primary and early childhood education for a period of five years. Bridge Academies which runs education projects in Kenya and Uganda has record of using android mobile phones in providing classroom lessons to pupils.

Under the Bridge Academies project, the notes and other lectures materials are stored on an android mobile phone and the teachers use the phones to teach, a method where the teacher does not have to be sophisticated to teach. The institution charges US$6 per student per month in Uganda and Kenya as part of its project and also charges other fees for feeding and others. Some in Kenya and Uganda believe that $6 plus other charges by Bridge Academies is a lot of money for the millions in the two countries. In Uganda, many say the amount requires poor Ugandan families with many children to borrow in order to keep all their children in school or to choose which child goes to school.

Despite charging fees, the World Bank through its sector investment arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) invested US$10 million in bridge Academies in 2014 in order to increase the number of bridge schools in the country and expand to three countries including Uganda. The IFC also approved a loan of US$4.1 million to Merryland High School, a private, fee-charging secondary school in Entebbe, Uganda in December 2014.

Bridge continues to get criticisms from the Governments of both Kenya and Uganda for its method of using Android mobile phones to teach students where most of the teachers used only use what is placed on the phone as Bridge resulted to using teachers who are not qualified to teach since the teaching materials are placed on a phone and the teacher only needs to teach what is available. The entity teaching method is seen in the two countries as discouraging the employment of qualified teachers who will interact with the students while teaching instead of using fixed materials downloaded on a mobile phone.

Minister Werner's voyage

Current Education Minister Werner whom many described as reformer, instead of working to revamp the education sector, took off time visiting East Africa mainly Kenya and Uganda where he started negotiations for Bridge to come to Liberia and manage the primary education sector on a private-public partnership program. FrontPageAfrica has gathered that Bridge officials are in Liberia to conclude arrangement for a pilot project of the first 50 schools to begin using the Bridge project beginning school year 2016-17.

As part of the project the PPP providers will design their programmes (curriculum materials, etc., from April to September 2017 while phase two will rollout contracting out the remaining schools over 5 years, with government exit possible each year dependent on provided performance- September 2017 onwards. Eventually the Ministry of Education is aiming to contract out all primary and early childhood education schools to private providers who meet the required standards over 5 year period. According to the tentative timeline the by February/March 2016 the memorandum of Understanding for the pilot 50 schools will be signed and by September 2016, the first 50 schools launch, with baselines and performance measures.

Why five years?

With the tenure of the Unity party led government expected to end in less than two years the Ministry of Education is working to begin procurement process for 5 year contract. The timing of entering into an agreement for 5 years raises more concerns especially when the government has short time and could obligate another regime to a long term contract.

In a breakdown of the budget for the program, the Government of Liberia is expected to pay more than US$65 million within the five year period. The Center for Transparency and Accountability in Education, COTAE in statement has indicated that giving the program to manage the primary and early childhood education to a for profit entity presents numerous challenges related to quality, long term sustainability and value for money.

Liberia

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