Each year, we graduate millions of children from our 65,000 public primary schools in Nigeria and we claim they have passed so we send them to junior secondary schools pleased with ourselves for educating the children of the masses. Meanwhile, we all know we are telling ourselves a big lie because we all know that we have abandoned public primary schools for four decades and most of them are today factories for the reproduction of illiteracy and ignorance. We are already paying the price for our irresponsibility, as we shall argue below.
It was one Bolaji Abdullahi who first exposed our collective lie that we are educating the children of the masses. As Commissioner of Education in Kwara State, he decided to test the level of competency of primary school teachers in 2007. Working with top consultants from Oxford, they devised a scheme to administer primary four examinations on the 19,000 teachers in public primary schools in the State and the results were shocking. Only 75, yes 75 of them were able to pass with the required 80% competence threshold. Each year, the student’s pass but their teachers were incapable of passing the same exams. My good friend Kayode Fayemi lost the gubernatorial election in Ekiti State partly because his enemies spread the story that he was planning to run competency tests for teachers in the State if he wins the second term election. The teachers ganged up and mobilised to stop him winning, they did not want to take the risk of their ignorance being exposed. Adams Oshiomhole also got into trouble as Governor of Edo State when he decided to test the teachers.
The Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El Rufai, who has no fear, has just conducted similar exams for teachers in his State. All the 33,000 primary schoolteachers in Kaduna State took the test and 21,780 of them, or two-thirds failed to score 75% or higher on assessments usually given to six-year-olds. The Governor is going to hire new teachers with sufficient skills to teach. When announcing the dreadful numbers this week, he explained that the hiring of teachers in the past was politicised and his plan is to identify and recruit“young and qualified primary school teachers to restore the dignity of education in the state.” May God help him to be successful?
The World Bank has just offered the sum of N30 million to improve teaching and learning facilities at one UBE Primary School with 22, 2400 pupils in Rigasa, a suburb of Kaduna. They were rightly concerned that the high number of pupils had increased pressure on both teaching and learning facilities in the school, which has 70 teachers. The fact that a single primary school could have so many pupils is a testimony to the deeper problem that public schools have been abandoned for decades. Today, it is our development partners such as the World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and UK Department for International Development (DFID), that are running programmes aimed at improving the quality of public schools in the country.
What is disturbing is that for generations, right up to the 1970s, the standards of public educational institutions were high and we all benefitted from the competency available in the schools. For people of my generation, as children, we saw Nigeria us a land of promise and our social mobility was guaranteed because of the solid training we had in our primary and secondary schools, both public and private. We had no worry in the world because our States of origin had offered most of us free education with scholarships and the assurance of post-graduation jobs should we decide to work for them. The conditions under which we studied at that time provided us quality education comparable to the best in the world, comfort and the assurance of a good future.
That has also been the case for most of our children, who have through our personal commitments as parents had the opportunity to get good education that is helping them progress in life. For most of us in the elite, we have heavily invested a considerable part of our income to properly educate our children in private schools. The question before the Nation today is the other children, products of the masses, will they allow our children enjoy their education in peace and harmony? I don’t think so and we only have ourselves to blame. We are collectively guilty of treating the children of the masses with disdain and class violence and there is a price to pay.
Most children of the poor in contemporary Nigeria have had no access to quality education in our public schools, and a massive 11 million Nigerian children, the largest number in the world, have had no access to education at all. They have provided a constant supply of militants for the Boko Haram insurgency, rural banditry, Niger Delta militancy and kidnapping. Those who managed to go to school did not get jobs and have been providing intellectual support for the meltdown that is contemporary Nigeria. The situation is simple. We enjoyed our youth, we got educated while young and as young men and women, and we got good jobs. We then abandoned the majority of our youth, ensured that they are uneducated or poorly educated and made it clear to them that they have no hope for social mobility. And we dared to think that the others would allow our children enjoy their futures, no sir, no ma.
The greatest challenge facing Nigeria today is that of rebuilding a high-quality educational system that could build knowledge, skills, civic education and critical thinking for our young ones. That would be the basis on which they could have confidence in a future that could provide jobs, opportunities and progress for the majority. In 1973, The Federal and State Governments had committed themselves to a future in which the possibility of another civil war is excluded by ensuring that every Nigerian child born from the end of the civil war, 1970, is guaranteed qualitative and free primary education. Subsequently, we extended the promise from primary to basic education – nine years of free and qualitative education for all Nigerian children.
This commitment to educate all Nigerians took off in 1976 with the Universal Primary Education programme but over the years we did not sustain the commitment, nor provide the resources to achieve the objectives we have set for ourselves. Three things happened. First, we expanded primary school intake without the commensurate resources to produce more quality teachers and facilities for the public schools. Secondly, realising we had betrayed the masses; we removed our own children from public schools and put them in private schools. Thirdly, we realised the rot we started had reached our private schools so we sent our children abroad to study hoping that when they return, they will still find a country. The result is the present state of affairs characterised by generalised insecurity, misery, anger, violence, extortion and destruction.
The Nigerian public school system has basically collapsed with over half of primary school graduates leaving school as functional illiterates. The quality of teachers is very low with many primary school teachers being barely literate themselves. The facilities and infrastructure in our schools have collapsed with students studying in overcrowded classrooms, without furniture, toilets and other basic facilities. The level of youth unemployment in the country is massive and is compounded by the low quality of education received has helped create doubts in the minds of parents and children as to the value of education. Private schools have been largely commercialised and are focused on extracting resources from parents rather than providing quality education.
Some people have suggested that public officers should be banned from sending their children abroad for education. The problem is that many of the people making the suggestion had themselves sent their own children abroad. What we members of the Nigerian elite have lacked is a sense on enlightened self-interest. We failed to realise that if we do not build and develop our society, we will have no society to live in. If we think it does not matter to us, we should know that it would certainly matter to our children. To save ourselves, we must as a nation resolve to allocate significant resources to rebuilding education and creating hope within the angry youth bulge we have created. We need to develop a national consensus on the value and significance of education and we above all need to redirect educational budgets away from ministers and permanent secretaries to students, teachers and school facilities. Even more important, we need to start producing a new breed of teachers who are well trained, well paid and respected. Why send our children to seek them abroad while we can produce them here if we make and implement the right decision.