A Nation is only as Good as its Schools

By Dotun Adegbite

Human capacity development is a very important measure of a nation’s seriousness in preparing for the future; and the pipeline by which a nation stimulates and develops its latent human potential is education. This is why we should all be quite concerned that Nigeria is facing a crisis in its educational sector with several key statistics in the red and on the decline. According to UNICEF, 40% of Nigerian children aged 6-11 do not attend primary school and about 4.7 million children of primary school age are not in school. The ratio of teacher per pupil is as bad as 1-to-100 in some cases while facilities are in various stages of disrepair and inadequacy. Practitioners and activists are arguing for a state of emergency in the sector to draw attention to its decay and hopefully generate momentum for its redemption.

From stories of unemployable graduates from public schools to complaints from parents of students of private schools, every stakeholder has a tale to share. While these problems seem to have just materialized, they have been decades in the making. Can we do anything to stem the tide of decay or are we doomed forever? First, let us consider how things got this way.

How did we get here?

Many have explored that obvious question – how did we get here? There is no shortage of answers – inconsistency in government policy, poor funding, lack of regulation, underqualified and under-resourced academic staff, lack of critical facilities and amenities, undue privatisation and so on.

There have been workshops sponsored by government, aid agencies and private individuals to find solutions and one recurrent theme is to pass on increased ownership or management of education to the private sector. As well intentioned as this seems, it is worth taking caution and re-examination given the track record of the large majority of existing private institutions. Of course, there are exceptions of a few recent success stories at the tertiary level.

Up to the 1990s, it was pretty standard that nearly every high school student in Nigeria would be educated at a government-funded university. Most high school age children attended federal or state-government owned schools while a few rich kids went private. By the 2000s this had been reversed at the secondary school level where 9-10 year olds were enrolled in private secondary schools most of which operated in environments lacking key facilities such as well-equipped laboratories or sport facilities. Parents were drawn in simply on the promise of better teachers and instructors to aid their wards pass their O’ level examinations.

But the seeds of the decline were already sown even in the nineties when most of those public high school students had come through private primary schools. We should have known that the factors responsible for the public primary schools being unable to meet the requirements of parents (including the primary school teachers who had school age children), would eventually get to the high schools and then the universities. If we’re going to get education right, the strongest argument would be that we have to fix our public schools, from primary school all the way to the universities.

Why we must fix public education in Nigeria

Regardless of how many successes a few private universities record, the bulk of the nation’s future human capital will be trained in the four walls of our public schools. This has always been the case and will continue in the foreseeable future. Even in developed countries, public schools provide the bulk of students with access to education especially at the primary and high school levels. In the US, only ten percent of children in grades PreK-12 attend private schools and this number is declining. The proportion of children educated by independent schools in the UK is 6.5%, the rest attend publicly funded schools.

Nearly every Nigerian above thirty years old was publicly educated from secondary school to university levels at the expense of the state. This group has now lost confidence in those same institutions and have placed their wards at private schools which many times are not as good as the public schools were in their heydays. Whatever policy direction we take as a country we must be able to provide access to good education to children under 15 years of age who account for about 45 per cent of the country’s population. We must lay the foundation and give them the tools to maximize their potentials and become fully contributing members of the society. In a nation with our poverty levels, we must find ways for the public education system to run at acceptable if not best standards to produce a capable and enlightened workforce and citizenry.

Are private schools the solution?

In most environments, private schools are a complement to the established public school system and meant to be an option available to better-off families. They are not a replacement to the entire public school system. In Nigeria today, the norm seems to be that private schools are the only option for parents who can pay more money and live above the poverty line. Unfortunately, a large number of these private schools are poorly organized, under-resourced and struggle to provide properly trained teachers and instructors. This is due to a poor policy and regulatory environment in the nation’s private education sector. In the Pre-school and primary school space, it seems schools are at liberty to make up their own curriculum.

There are schools running American, British, Montessori, Nigerian with a bit of British; and even American-Montessori curriculum with Singapore mathematics syllabus! They may not have any license to confirm this curriculum but can administer it to hundreds of our children. In contrast, to open a day-care centre in Canada that caters to not more than five children, you have to be licensed according to detailed requirements, restrictions, staff qualifications, health and safety as spelt out in the country’s Child Care Act and other guidelines.

Can it be done?

The easy answer is that it is being done elsewhere. When a country finally finds the much needed impetus to invest big in overhauling the quality of its educational system for future competitiveness; it will find a way to start reversing the decay.

Rwanda has famously started reversing the trends in this sector following its reform efforts. It had signed up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and Education-For-All (EFA) goals for universal enrolment and decided to take them seriously. The government rolled out a new educational policy of free nine-year basic education to all children through primary school and three years of general secondary education. Children who reach the end of this are entitled to a further three years either in Teacher Training College, General Secondary or in Technical and Vocational Education.

The government then executed ruthlessly by allocating 19% of the budget to education (60% of which was spent on primary and secondary schools). Schools were provided with qualified teachers, electricity, computers and internet facilities. Publishers were hired to supply a book for every subject to students across the country. Teachers were paid a bonus, free laptops were provided to public school children and a school-feeding program was initiated. Their evolving public school system has had the unintended consequence of several private schools finding themselves unable to compete with some closing down.

Getting started in Nigeria

The future of Nigeria is in its young ones and the means of enabling them to get the tools, learning and exposure to prepare them for being contributing members of society is the educational system.

The bulk of our population will be educated in the public school system and the quality of education for those privately educated will depend on effectiveness of the regulatory environment and the public sector benchmark they’re up against.

We must take up the challenge in this generation of fixing the public school system whatever it takes, and strengthening the policy and regulatory environment for the private schools especially at the delicate primary and secondary school levels.

Dotun Adegbite holds the CFA Charter, an MBA and an Engineering Bachelor’s Degree.