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Who will save public primary schools?

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The figures are staggering. Nigeria shamelessly but comfortably leads the world in the number of out-of-school children; just as in the congregation of the poorest on earth. No less than 20 million of our children, the entire population of Chile, and twice the population of Sweden, are not in school. It speaks volumes of what the future holds for our dear nation. For without education, a bleak future is certain; and the people will continue to be consigned to a life of perpetual misery and conflicts. The level of education of a nation is a definite indicator of the level of that country. From the North to the South, from the East to the West, pupils are spurning formal education, or put more rightly, poor and illiterate parents do not see the need to send their children to school.

Even in states where education at the primary school level is free (to the extent that pupils are not charged tuition) and compulsory, you still find many children not in school. The situation is worse in the North, where the United Nations Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) says harbours 60 per cent of the population is uneducated; the perennial security situation up north has accentuated the problem, but it remains a national tragedy.

At the launch of the national campaign on out-of-school children in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital, last week, the Minister of Education, Prof. Tahir Mamman said Nigeria accounted for one in every five out-of-school children in the world, and 45 per cent in West Africa. He wasn’t saying anything new as he was merely quoting from the UNICEF numbers. The Minister also stated the obvious when he said that “one of the implications (of having such a large number of uneducated children) is that Nigeria would constantly produce miscreants, who are readymade tools in the hands of criminal gangs”. And that is where his admonishing ends.

Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, there is not much the federal government can do to salvage the system. The government at the centre does not own a single primary school; all public primary schools are owned by state governments but handed over to the already governors’-amputated local government councils to manage. And the states are negligent in providing quality education at the primary level. Where the basic foundations are lacking, children, parents, teachers and the society at large struggle to help a child through life.

To make a very bad situation even worse, public primary schools are in shambles nationwide. From infrastructure, to learning aids, to quality and number of teachers to curricula, nothing is in sync with modern education systems. One can say clearly that it is only children of the poor who attend public primary schools. There is no education commissioner in any state whose child attends public primary school; not one. So, solution is hard to find in solving the hydra headed problem at that level of our educational system.

The infrastructural decay in public primary schools is deep. Most states do not have structures that can support meaningful learning. Apart from Anambra, Borno and one or two other states, there are no modern structures in public primary schools. A few states have schools in urban areas get facelifts once in a while for photo opportunity, while the ones in semi urban and rural areas are left to rot. Some of the pictures of some schools that surface in the public space appear like places for rearing animals; and in other cases pupils receive lessons sitting on floors and under tree shades.

The situation is so bad that even though the federal government has several billions of Naira reserved for sub national governments to access by way of marching grants through the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), states do not invest enough in primary education to qualify them to access the grant. By December 2023, it was declared that N68.7 billion was lying fallow in the Commission due to states’ inability to access the funds. That amount, if well spent, can revolutionise primary school education in at least three states. In fact, the situation is so severe that a human rights activist and senior lawyer, Femi Falana threatened to go to court to force states to invest more in primary education in order to qualify them for the UBEC grant which would ensure they put more money in that sub-sector.

With respect to primary school teachers, many of them are unqualified. The immediate past governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El’Rufai proved this point early in his tenure when he got teachers to write exams meant for pupils in his state. Majority of the teachers flunked it. The problem of poor teachers in public primary schools starts with the recruitment process. In my home state of Akwa Ibom, and I dare say across the country, most teachers are brought in by political office holders and party leaders without regard to qualifications. The qualified, who do not have long legs, end up not getting employed.

Even at that, most government schools lack adequate teachers. Siminalayi Fubara, the governor of Rivers State, who seems to have now started to have a voice, said the other day that 75 per cent of primary schools in his state do not have teachers. It is easy to dismiss this as a political statement meant to discredit his predecessor, Nyesom Wike, who is gradually being dethroned as the political leader of the state. But not many Nigerians will remember Wike commissioning primary and secondary school buildings for the eight years of his rule. He was more into construction of bridges and courts! The regime of Rotimi Amaechi invested heavily in educational infrastructure at both the primary and secondary school levels. It was too glaring. Perhaps, Wike, to discredit his predecessor ensured those structures were not maintained.

The situation is not peculiar to Rivers State. In Akwa Ibom, the case is the same. It is much worse in rural communities. In my village, I understand that there are only five primary school teachers (the headmaster inclusive) in the village school. It doesn’t add up. State governors would rather employ hundreds of aides to stay at home and receive political salaries rather than employ teachers to teach in primary schools.

Even as few as the teachers are, they are very poorly remunerated, and oftentimes owed their meager salaries. I recall Gabriel Suswan when he was governor of Benue State owing teachers salaries several months’ salaries. Of course, the teachers went on strike and the governor said they could stay off school forever! The same scenario played out in Osun State under Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola in 2015. Primary schools in the state were under lockdown for several years. The man got compensated by Muhammadu Buhari to the position of a minister! Just last week, the national president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Audu Amba, berated states owing primary school teachers despite the bitting economic situation in the country. Visit any public primary school and look at the teachers; they appear gaunt, tamed and utterly abandoned. They command no respect, confidence or self worth. They have been thoroughly beaten by the harsh conditions under which they work and can at best deliver half-baked primary school graduates!

In Nigeria of today, it would be asking for too much to expect to see modern learning and teaching aids in our public primary schools. Even if one were to donate these aids to an Alma matter, for example, the aids would be neatly stored in the headmaster’s office as the ill trained staff would not know what to do with them. Which explains the point Governor Fubara was trying to make. He said the discovery of the poor state of education in his state came about because his government was trying to partner with a firm called New Global to enhance the capacity of teachers and in carrying out an assessment of the personnel realized that 75 per cent of the schools lacked teachers, with 90 percent of the infrastructure dilapidated. His Mongo Park-like discovery should also be a shame on him and his commissioner of education as they waited for a certain New Global to let them know what they ought to have known long ago or at the very least within the first three months of assuming office.

Everywhere you turn, there is no appetite by state governments to fix this most basic problem in the education sector. If one equates education with a pyramid, or a high rise building, primary education is the base, the foundation upon which the pyramid or building stands. But in Nigeria, the foundation has been destroyed or at best farmed out to private institutions which explains why we have high number of out-of-school children the size of many nations’ population.

It is not rocket science to fix the rot. All that is required is the political will by our majestic governors to do the right things right. No matter how we may want to slice it, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party in the last presidential election, Mr. Peter Obi has done it before. Under eight years as governor of Anambra State, and with all the political darts thrown at him, he built the base upon which the state’s education system stands. Since his time till now, the state still comes out as one of the best states in the country in terms of educational success. Not even any of the so-called oil rich but money-missed-road states of Delta, Akwa Ibom, Rivers and Bayelsa has been able to compete with Anambra educationally. I will recall when the then governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio decided to launch free education in the state. As was his style, his government perhaps spent more money on publicity than on the real issue of free education. The free education policy could not address the decay in the system as the state could not be educationally competitive.

Once the political will is established, the required amount of money will be allocated, spent and accounted for. The right persons, from the commissioner of education down to the classroom teachers will be appointed and people will be held to account.

One pill that can bring back to the classrooms the out-of-school children, who are now roaming the streets of our urban centres as beggars, is the provision of a meal a day in schools. The urge for free food is universal and attracts even rich adults to places they wouldn’t want to go. If every public primary schools in Nigeria serve a meal a day, the pupils on the streets would return to the classrooms.

Another thing to do is for the government to handover all mission schools back to them and then give yearly funding support to the missions. In fact, this was the hallmark of the strategy that Peter Obi had which brought back the lost glory to the sector in the state. It makes common sense because it will be cheaper for the government to run schools this way; the missions will be on their toes to improve on quality to attract pupils and funding from government. The culture of discipline which left public schools decades ago will be returned. And ultimately the society gains when the quality of life of its citizens improves.

Except that the brand of democracy we are practicing in Nigeria can safely be called anti-democratic democracy.

A short take

The Lagos-Calabar coastal highway

Last week, I had cause to engage a few of my colleagues on this matter. For me, two things are clear: at N4 billion per kilometre ten-lane coastal highway, the price is cheap! Which makes me think that government knows it will soon increase the cost of the road or that it is hiding the actual cost in order to discredit Atiku Abubakar who first blew the lid on the matter. The second point is that there is nothing like the Lagos-Calabar coastal road! What this Government is doing is to use the project as a camouflage to strengthen the development of Lagos State. If President Bola Ahmed Tinubu rules for eight years, contractor may not get to Delta State. With Tinubu as president, Lagos must sustain its preeminent position as a commercial nerve centre of Africa. Not a bad idea.

Esiere is a former journalist

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