OVER the years, planners of policies in education have turned Nigeria into a big laboratory for various experiments on educational systems. In the course of such experiments, confusion always sets in and eventually, the country’s educational progress is set anti-clockwise. Often times, our policy planners lose sight of the axiom that “education is the key to the future. You get it right, the future is bright. You get it wrong, you set the future on a perdition course.” In Nigeria, education is always a victim of some obvious fundamental and deep-seated problems. These have rubbed off on all levels of education. As Dan Agbese, former editor-in-chief of Newswatch, said in his column some years ago: “University education is rotten because secondary education is rotten. Secondary education is rotten because primary education, the foundation of education in every society, is also rotten. Rotten foundation, rotten edifice. QED.” In simple words, our education is a rotten edifice set on a weak foundation.
A case in point is the Universal Basic Education, UBE, which former President Olusegun Obasanjo, introduced on September 30, 1999. Initially, the UBE scheme covered the first six years of primary classes but in September 2006, it was extended to cover nine years of unbroken education from primary classes to the three years of junior secondary classes without any entrance into junior secondary school, JSS, class one. This meant that transition from primary to JSS classes was automatic. It was an obvious fundamental weakness in the scheme. Private school proprietors were quick to identify this weakness in the UBE policy and that explained why they refused to buy into this aspect of the scheme.
The position of the private school proprietors also tallied with that of Sam Egwu, former governor of Ebonyi State, who later served as minister of education. Egwu was not comfortable with the automatic promotion aspect of the UBE which also abolished the national common entrance examination into junior secondary school class one in federal government colleges. His argument was that trying to implement the UBE policy which provided for a nine-year compulsory free and unbroken education up to JSS3 level without an entrance examination into the secondary class was impracticable and unacceptable to Nigerians. And that, he said, was why private school proprietors ignored that aspect of the scheme and still conducted entrance examinations into JSS1 classes in their schools.
Egwu’s standpoint as minister of education and that of the private school proprietors must have forced the policy planners to do a rethink and probably also influenced deliberations at the 56th meeting of the National Council on Education, NCE, held in Abuja in March 2010. After exhaustive deliberations, members voted to re-instate the JSS component of the federal government colleges otherwise known as “unity schools” which was phased out in 2006. This now brings me to what is happening in unity schools these days. When the unity schools were established by the General Yakubu Gowon administration in the early seventies, the aims were twofold. The first was to make the schools centers of national unity where students from the then 12 states would learn to live and study together in the process of cementing national unity after the nasty experiences of 30 months of civil war.
The second aim was to set up the institutions as model schools and centers of academic excellence where students would study in relative comfort. For this purpose, the schools had well-equipped libraries, science laboratories, modern hostels, recreational facilities and well-staffed with qualified teachers to handle all the subjects in the curriculum. Moreover, entry into class one in all the schools was done in such a way that scholarship and national unity were never compromised. This explained why the unity schools (now 104) which constituted only five percent of the total number of public schools in Nigeria, gulped 80 percent of the federal ministry of education’s recurrent budget.
Initially, the unity schools lived up to expectations in terms of national unity and academic excellence in public examinations such as the Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations, SSCE, conducted by the West African Examinations Council, WAEC, and the university matriculations examinations conducted by the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board, JAMB. Students who lived and studied together for up to five years were able to understand each other and made friends with their classmates or roommates outside their states of origin. It was unthinkable then to associate unity schools with examination malpractice in spite of the high academic performances of their students in public examinations. This was because the schools were well-equipped and had more than enough qualified teachers to handle every subject in the curriculum. This was also why parents in Nigeria saw unity schools as the ultimate in secondary school education and were ready to make whatever sacrifice that was needed to get their wards into any of them no matter their locations.
Things started to fall apart in the schools in the early nineties when corruption ate into their management. This adversely affected school discipline and the academic performances of the students. These twin factors became a major problem in 2006 when Oby Ezekwesili became the minister of education prompting the proposal by her to introduce some reforms which would have allowed the private sector to participate in the management of the schools. But the proposed reforms were misinterpreted as outright privatization. Expectedly, the misinterpretation prompted a nation-wide uproar by parents who felt that the federal government’s proposal was to make unity schools very expensive and therefore the preserve of the children of the elite. It is not surprising that the reforms were dropped as soon as she left the ministry for a World Bank job. With the return to the status quo, it is most likely that the factors that prompted the proposed reforms are still there in the schools.
It may even become complicated with the recent bizarre announcement of discriminatory cut off marks for the 2013 admission into unity schools by the federal ministry of education, FMOE. In the first place, the discriminatory cut off marks which were designed to enable each state to fill its own admission quota have taken the principle of federal character to a ridiculous height. According to the ministry, any boy or girl from Anambra State, who scores less than 130 percent out of 200 percent, is not qualified for admission into any unity school in Nigeria whereas a boy from Zamfara State who scores only 4 percent out of 200 percent, while a girl from the same state who records 2 percent out of 200, is qualified for admission. The policy also introduces dichotomy in the standard of education between boy and girls in Nigeria. Apart from Anambra, other states that are also affected by the obnoxious and discriminatory admission policy are Abia, Akwa Ibom, Benue, Delta, Ebonyi, Edo, Ekiti, Enugu, Imo, Kogi and Kwara. Others are Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo and Rivers States. Even though candidates from the states listed above score more than 100 out of 200 percent, they are not qualified for admission whereas a male candidate from Taraba State, who scores 3 percent and the female counterpart, who scores at least 11 percent out of 200 percent, are eminently qualified for admission into any unity school in Nigeria. Perhaps, our policy planners never gave thought to the implications of the decision.
First, the policy is against one of the aims of unity schools which was to foster national unity among Nigerians as well as inculcate in them the spirit of patriotism. How can anybody convince a child from Anambra State, who was denied admission to unity school, not on the basis of his or her poor performance in the national common entrance examination, but on the circumstance of his or her state of origin, to love Nigeria and be patriotic? The discriminatory admission policy which he or she sees as unjust will continue to register in his or her psyche for the rest of his or her life. The same will apply to children from the other 17 states who feel unjustly denied of their admission rights because of the circumstance of their birth.
Second, the concept of unity schools as models of academic excellence has been defeated. When the schools started, a balance was struck in such a way that neither federal character nor academic excellence suffered. But today, such balance has been drastically altered to favour some special interests who are determined to drag education in the country backwards. That is not the way to implement the principle of federal character in that sub-sector. The policy makers are not even helping the children they are foisting on the unity schools from the so-called educationally disadvantaged states to advance educationally because no separate classes will be created for them. From the very low cut- off marks they recorded in the national common entrance examination, it is presumed that the candidates are deficient in all the subjects to be taught in the schools. It would be wrong to put them together in the same class with students who scored more than 100 out of 200 percent and were admitted on merit because one of two things is bound to happen. It is either the academic progress of the bright students will be tied down at the expense of the dull ones or the disadvantaged students will be left behind at the expense of their brighter counterparts. This will be a lose-win or win- lose situation for either group. From my experience, there is no way the class teacher would want to descend to their level at the expense of the brighter ones.
In my first year in the department of mass communications in the University of Lagos, the requirement was that a student must combine the study of English with either Yoruba, Igbo, French or Russian language. I opted to study Russian because I felt that there would be a level playing field for all of us who had registered to study the language since Russian was not taught in any secondary school in Nigeria then. But unfortunately for me, there was no lecturer to handle the subject that year. That meant I had to take the painful decision of enrolling to study French which I never did in school. It was a nightmare for me and others in the same boat. On the first day the lecturer came to the class, he did not care to find out how many of us never studied French before coming to the university.
He simply started a conversation which those who had studied the subject at either ordinary or advanced level or at both levels actively participated. I felt desolate as someone abandoned on an island in an ocean. The lecturer continued the conversation until those who had read French up to advanced level were no more able to respond. That was where he drew the line and took off from there without minding our feelings. After what did not seem to me as a lecture, I went to the lecturer to let him know that some of us never read the subject in school before we came into the university and whether there was anything he could do to help us remedy our deficiency in French. He told me that what I needed to do was to write the pronunciation of French words in the way I could easily understand them regardless of their correct spellings.
That was my undoing. For almost one month, I continued to rely on the lecturer’s advice until I had my first shock when he came up with a class test at the end of the first month. I flunked scandalously in the test and felt thoroughly humiliated. That humiliation was sufficient to make me hate the subject. In fact, it would be an understatement if I say I was destabilized. The choice before me was very clear. It was either I did something drastic to remedy my deficiency in French language or be prepared to repeat another session or, at worst, change course. It was not an easy challenge to overcome. But I did it with a combination of determination and maturity. How I and my other two friends in the same boat, managed to overcome the challenge and moved to the next class is a very long story to tell in this column. What I am trying to say here is that such determination and maturity to remedy their deficiency in almost all the subjects would be lacking in the weak JSS1 students foisted on the unity schools since there might not be any provision for them to be given special remedial courses to make them catch up with their brilliant classmates. It may turn out to be a disastrous policy decision to promote the students beyond their capabilities because the policy makers want to be seen as implementing the principle of federal character in unity schools. That would amount to putting a beautiful edifice on a very weak foundation which is bound to collapse in no time. The federal government should think of better ways of helping the educationally disadvantaged states to properly fund and improve the quality of education within their jurisdictions instead of resorting to an indefensible policy that will eventually ruin the educational future of the children it is out to protect. What the affected states need to do now is to declare a state of emergency on education and with a special assistance from the federal government,they would be able to lay a solid foundation for primary and secondary education within their territories. This is the only way to catch up naturally.
— Aug. 12, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT