Campaigners have called into question the UK’s decision to spend millions of pounds funding private schools overseas after the World Bank decided to halt its investment in such initiatives.

The International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private sector arm, announced last week that it would stop making direct investments in for-profit nurseries, primary and high schools.

“This landmark decision by the IFC illustrates the emerging understanding that for-profit commercial schools may do more harm than good,” said Magdalena Sepúlveda, executive director at the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. “We have seen years of damaging impacts of commercialisation on the right to education.”

The UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) has invested millions in low-fee private schools, in countries across Africa and Asia, including Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and Pakistan, which are designed to fill significant gaps and address failings in public school systems. Other governments and large foundations founded by the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook pioneer Mark Zuckerberg have also invested in private school chains in developing nations.

But the state’s involvement in such projects has proved controversial. Taxpayers’ money has been channelled into Bridge International Academies, which has been criticised by respected bodies including the United Nations and the UK parliament’s International Development Committee over the quality of its curricula, compliance and fees.

Campaigners say that the IFC’s decision, which will be subject to a review and could be overruled, is a sign of doubt in the efficacy of Bridge International Academies and other low-cost private schools. “DfID and CDC must now reflect on their continuing support for for-profit education despite significant evidence these projects exclude marginalised communities and have questionable impact,” said Daniel Willis, a policy and campaigns manager at Global Justice Now.

Campaigners’ views were reported by the Guardian.

The British newspaper reported that a spokeswoman for Bridge International Academies said: “A decision to freeze investment at this critical time for education in the developing world is an unfortunate one when global leaders are campaigning to increase resources and investment.”

Last year, this publication reported that European recommendations to stem the flow of development funding into commercial education initiatives were targeted specifically at Bridge International Academies.

Some calls for African governments to scupper Bridge schools crystallised: in late 2016, Uganda’s High Court ordered 63 schools to close in a move that, at the time, left thousands of pupils without an education.

Date published: 13 April 2020

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