Groping for the Right System

Mike Akpan  |

NIGERIA’S education system is still toddling. Fifty three years after political independence, the story of education in Nigeria is that of a system trying to find its feet. In other words, education system in Nigeria is perpetually undergoing various kinds of experimentations. Before and even after independence, education in Nigeria was primarily a regional matter. This means that there was no uniform or national education system for the country. Even after the former four regions were broken into 12 states in 1967 by the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon, education still remained a state affair. However, the federal government played a coordinating role particularly regarding the broad direction of educational policies, planning and finance. This coordinating role especially in policies, administrative procedures and matters of common interest was promoted by the federal ministry of education, FMOE, through the Joint Consultative Committee on Education, JCCE, comprising all the ministries of education in the states then and including the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja, now.

Apart from coordination, the FMOE also played a vital role in the maintenance of educational standards by operating national organizations which were devoted to the development of education in all its ramifications. For example, the National Educational Research and Development Council, NERDC, had the responsibility to, among other things, develop and appraise the curriculum used in all primary and secondary schools in Nigeria.  And since there was no uniformity in the school system at that time, there was also no uniformity in the school age of pupils admitted into elementary school classes. Whereas in some regions the admission age was six years, in others, it was eight. It was a matter left for each region to determine.


Formal education in Nigeria then followed the British system, that is, the 8-5-4 system in which a child spent eight years in the primary school, five years in the secondary school and four years in the university. The British missionaries, merchants and administrators who brought the system to Nigeria, built schools in various parts of the country to train Nigerians for their purposes. And for more than six decades, the country was hooked to the British system of education built around the end-of-course evaluation. That system stipulated that the evaluation of the educational progress of a pupil/ student should be based on the result of a single examination sat at the end of a course. But critics of the system were quick to point out that an end-of-course single examination was not a realistic method of a child’s assessment because any intelligent child could fail an end-of-course single examination if he or she was not psychologically disposed at the time of the examination. Perhaps, the weight of that argument prompted the search for an alternative education system for Nigeria.

The search started in June 1973, when a workshop was held in Victoria Island, Lagos, under the distinguished chairmanship of Simeon O. Adebo, former permanent representative of Nigeria at the United Nations, UN. Many eminent educationists from within and outside Nigeria were at the workshop to discuss and formulate a national policy on education which was later accepted by the federal military government and released to the public as a White Paper in 1977. The new national policy on education had a number of striking similarities with the system of education in the United States of America, USA. In paragraph 98 on page 33 of the White Paper, it was stated that “the school system will be based on the 6-3-3-4 plan.” In the USA, the system of education has always followed the 6-3-3-4 formula, that is, six years of elementary education followed by three years of junior high school, then three years of senior high school and four years of college or university.

Another similarity in the new policy was the switch from the British elitist pattern of education to the egalitarian pattern of the Americans. In paragraph one on page four of the White Paper, one of the five national objectives of Nigeria as stated in the Second National Development Plan and endorsed as the necessary foundation for the new policy on education “is the building of an egalitarian society.” Moreover, in the USA, education has always been of the utilitarian kind and intended to endow the products with marketable skills. The system involves the production of technicians and technologists and giving them the glamour which liberal graduates who can only take up white collar jobs have not. The White Paper on the new policy on education emphasized in paragraph 17(1) “the preparation for useful living within the society.” Unfortunately, this aspect of the new policy has never been implemented because the military regime which formulated it never attached any importance to technical education in Nigeria. This neglect gave out a wrong impression to parents and their wards that technical education was designed for school dropouts and people with low intelligent quotient.


Like in the USA, continuous assessment was introduced into the country’s education system. The new education policy was rooted on continuous assessment of a pupil/ student in school. There, the method of evaluation of the educational progress in schools and colleges has always been by continuous assessment. In paragraph 23 of the White Paper, it was stated that “the evaluation of the educational progress of our children will, in future, be based on continuous assessment of pupils and not on the results of a single final examination.” The White Paper also spelt out the philosophy of education in Nigeria which, it stated, was to use education as an instrument for integration. Section one of the White Paper stressed the use of education to produce “a united, strong and self-reliant nation.” The formulators of the new Nigerian philosophy of education borrowed from the American experience. Education was the instrument which the USA employed to unify the various ethnic groups which immigrated into the country from Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Russia and other countries, in large numbers at the end of the civil war from the middle of the 19th century to the third decade of the 20th century. The new philosophy of education in Nigeria probably influenced the introduction of the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, in 1973 and the establishment of Unity Schools across the country as instruments of national unity.

Despite these similarities, there were also striking differences in the system of education in the two countries. American education system is flexible while that of Nigeria is rigid or inflexible. What that means is that American education system can be modified to accommodate a national exigency or emergency whereas in Nigeria, national exigencies cannot be accommodated without first changing the entire system. Nigerian policy makers have the proclivity of always throwing away the baby with the bathwater in order to make room for a national exigency. A few illustrations here can drive home the point. In the nineteen sixties, the Americans showed how flexible their system of education could be. When it appeared that the Soviet Union had overtaken the USA in space technology by first sending Sputnik, an unmanned spacecraft and later, a man into space, the government saw the development not only as a national exigency but also unimaginably traumatic. It immediately sponsored a legislation to empower it to modify the structure of higher education to give priority attention to science and technology. Thenceforth, university departments with programs of research on technology particularly in areas relating to space science enjoyed special grants. Even though the modification enabled the USA to overtake the Soviet Union in space science by being the first country to land a man on the moon, that national exigency did not require a change in the system of education to deal with it.

The second modification of USA’s education system was prompted by the sudden realization that the traditional education system which the country had adopted was producing unemployable graduates with doctorates as is the case in Nigeria today. To reverse that situation, the government came out with a law to reduce the number of high school leavers proceeding to universities and colleges and at the same time, expanded the school of vocational education in the secondary school system to turn out students with marketable skills. Unlike in the USA, the inflexibility does not allow Nigeria to think along this line without necessarily changing its education system. This has been the problem in the past 53 years. For instance, Nigeria has changed its education system four times between 1960 and today. From the 8-5-4 system the country inherited from Britain at independence, it has moved to 6-6-4, later to 6-3-3-4 and now to 9-3-4 in order to address national exigencies in education. That may not be the last. This passion of switching from one system to another on experimental basis has made the Nigerian system of education one of the most unstable in the world. Put bluntly, policy makers in Nigeria have inadvertently turned the country into one big laboratory for experiments on various systems of education.


Even though Nigerian education policy makers try, at various times, to import American system of education into Nigeria, they have, for whatever reason, refused to learn from the Americans who have come to believe that there is no ideal system of education in the world. That is why the American education system is flexible so that it can accommodate a national exigency or the American dream at any given time without the pressure to do away with the existing system. For instance, late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had a dream for America in 1961. That dream was that America must successfully land somebody on the moon before the turn of that decade. That dream was accomplished by simply modifying its education system to accommodate it. Again, when Barrack Obama became the President of America in 2008, he also had a national development dream for America. According to him, there is a correlation between education and national development. For this reason, he has set in motion a machinery to transform the country’s schools, colleges and the universities in order to lay a new foundation for America’s growth. His dream is that the growth will take the country to a new age. In that new age, according to Obama, America will harness the sun, the wind and the soil to fuel cars and run factories. In the new age, he said, science would be restored to its rightful place and the wonders of technology would be wielded to raise the quality of health care and lower its costs. This is already happening with the much talked-about shale oil, solar energy and electricity-propelled cars. Have Nigerian policy makers in education learnt anything from that?

The traditional education system Nigeria inherited from Britain at independence has become a big problem for the country because it is producing graduates who are neither marketable nor useful to themselves. Today, there are several millions of unemployable graduates with Master’s degrees and doctorates roaming the streets in search of white collar jobs which are not available. That, probably, explains why some of them opted for driving jobs in some blue chip companies like the Dangote Group. The reason is not far-fetched. There is no linkage between the university system and the industrial sector. That is why the universities continue to turn out, every year, several thousands of graduates that the industries do not need. The importance attached to the possession of university degrees in Nigeria is not helping matters. This is reflected in the age-old official policy which discriminates between a university degree and a higher national diploma awarded by polytechnics in the job market. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, tried to solve this problem at the twilight of his administration in 2006 when, Oby Ezekwesili, his minister of education, proposed a reform of the entire school system. Part of the reform was the proposal to merge polytechnics with the universities and by so doing, end the dichotomy between university degrees and higher diplomas awarded by polytechnics. The proposed reform was abandoned partly because there was a stiff opposition by entrenched interest groups and partly because the minister resigned her appointment to take up a World Bank job.

 Despite the problem of marketability of Nigerian graduates, even the available universities don’t have    enough space for admission of the high number of applicants jostling for admission every year. For instance, out of the more than 1.7million candidates who sat for this year’s unified matriculations examination, available universities can offer admission to only 520,000 candidates leaving more than 1.2 million candidates stranded.  The USA had a similar problem in the fifties and was able to solve it without necessarily changing the country’s system of education. Can Nigerian policy makers in education borrow from the American experience? Do they even believe that there is a problem at all?

— Oct. 7, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT