The Nigerian public education system is on the verge of collapsing. Those who can afford to pay the exorbitant fees charged by private schools and colleges avoid it like the plague, watching from the sidelines as the carcass of a once famously efficient system floats by and frantically working to keep the corrupting stench from infecting their households. Most of the families that still patronise public education institutions in Nigeria may either not know better or simply lack alternatives. Those who are aware of the rot in the system and still patronise it aren’t standing still; it’s certain they are working hard to escape the corrosive clutch.
How did we get here? What destroyed the nation’s public education system and what kind of infestation eroded the credibility of an establishment that produced most of our current national leaders, the generation behind them and even those who fought for and led the country to independence? In only a few generations we have gone from having pride in our publicly funded educational institutions to not only avoiding them but actively undermining them by directing our children and wards to the privately-owned elementary and high schools as well as tertiary colleges mushrooming across the nation. Are we watching the last gasp of a system much vaunted for producing some of Africa’s literary giants?
It seems so. The physical structures of many Nigerian educational facilities are rotting and have become both unstable and especially dangerous for students. In some schools, pupils sit on benches, concrete blocks or on the bare floor. Many of the basic supplies and teaching aids used by teachers for instruction are no longer supplied by our governments. Teachers levy parents for this or, in many cases, buy these themselves. Teachers at government-managed institutions, underpaid and demoralised, are reported to be leaving for the private sector in droves. While salaries at private institutions may not match what the government offers, they are often more regular, giving teachers some level of stability and control over their own financial affairs.
In public institutions, it’s not unusual for teachers to be unpaid for half a year or more. How can a family survive when salaries are deferred for so long? How can an unpaid, hungry and unmotivated individual provide the basic essence of what students need in the classroom?
To our national shame, Nigeria now has the phenomenon of a new exodus of students departing the country for institutions in neighboring countries and other parts of the world. It had long been the vogue for our political and other affluent families to send their children to schools in foreign countries. However, today, what used to be a trickle of students flowing to institutions in Europe and North America has become a flood.
Worse still, as another badge of dishonor slapped on our national psyche, many families are now sending their children to study in neighbouring African countries like Cameroun, Ghana and Ivory Coast. Nigeria has become a huge ‘hunting’ ground for educational entrepreneurs from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
No particular level of the educational system in the public sector is spared the decay which has occurred over the years. There have been many policy changes in the academic calendar at the primary and secondary levels since those glorious days. With the benefit of hindsight, none of these changes has brought any positive impact on the overall quality of the system
Roots of rot
School ownership, years ago, was primarily in three categories: Government, the missionaries and the community. The missionaries played a very active role in the educational development of the country. They brought schools and hospitals along with their religion. They were very effective and maintained the standards of their home countries. I am proud to have attended an Anglican Primary School and a Baptist Secondary School.
Moreover, there existed a healthy competition between communities to set up primary and secondary schools and the net effect is that there is hardly a community without any or all of the educational institutions, especially in the southern part of the country. The relics of that community-driven effort dot most of our towns and villages to this day. The schools set up by the community, just like their missionary counterpart, were well run.
However, sometime in the 1970s, government, by decree, took over all missionary and community schools. The schools owned by private individuals were not spared. The motive for this sweeping action remains unclear or they were coded in some flowery developmental languages to cover up the unstated intention. Suffice it to say here that this ill-advised takeover marked the beginning of the rot in our educational system. We have seen, in recent times, some feeble attempts to remedy the situation through the return of schools to their original owners by some state governments, but the gesture is too feeble and too late.
Reminiscences of sanity
As a primary school student in the southwestern part of the country up till 1973, I can say that we received the best support from our dedicated teachers. The early morning assembly was a discipline ground where punctuality was essential and cleanliness and rules of hygiene were enforced. We were grounded on the ‘ise lo’ogun ise’ (hard work is the panacea for poverty) and the ‘omo atata’ (the good child) philosophies and I still rely on these core principles.
It was anathema for you to be found in the wrong company or doing the wrong things during the school hours. Our schools were decorated and we were not conscious of any facility shortages. Our annual inter-house sport competition was a delight to watch and take part in.
The secondary school experience was even more exciting. The options of very good public schools were many. I wrote the common entrance of Ilora Baptist Grammar School in Lagos. I still remember the examination venue at Ade-Oshodi Memorial Primary School, Tapa Street, on Lagos Island. As at then, the entire Ilora town had not been connected to the national electricity grid. You can, therefore, imagine the strength of a school in that environment for its entrance examination to be conducted in the Federal Capital City. The education received in this school was top class. We had equipment and reagents in our laboratories for science practical classes.
I cannot forget the life-moulding boarding house experience either. We had housemasters living with us and the senior house master would visit regularly to ensure that things were in order. We had variety of sporting activities and so many talents were discovered and developed. Football matches between one school and the other usually involved the entire communities. There were various schemes to encourage academic competitiveness and after graduation, we proudly bore sound testimony of our sojourn in the school.
I was also privileged to study Pharmacy at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). The facilities were second to none in the country. Meals were provided three times a day and you only needed 45 naira to eat in any of the three cafeteria three times a day at the rate of 50 kobo per meal. We left school fully prepared to take on the world.
Today, the story has changed. I went to my former secondary school as the Chairman of the Old Students Association recently and I was appalled at the terrible conditions. The decay was so obvious from the buildings to the laboratories. I wept profusely when I got to what used to be our Chemistry laboratory. No equipment was left standing. The burette and conical flasks that we used for titration had vanished. No reagents. None at all. The students were only being told what is supposed to be, more or less an alternative to the practical lesson.
Retrospection and resolution
How did we get to this sorry state? When did we forget the importance of education in the development of the nation? How do we intend to build a future that can be comparable to the best in the world with this wanton neglect of the educational sector? Most of the people who are ruling us today were trained with government fund. Why have they forgotten the source of their own growth and development?
Good quality education in Nigeria today has gone to the highest bidder. With the apparent collapse of the public sector education, the private school owners have taken over, charging exorbitant fees. What we pay for a student in a good secondary school in Lagos in one year now is more than the money spent to educate three to four children to the university level in those good days. Even at that, the services rendered are grossly inadequate.
Most these schools do not have facilities for sporting activities. Invariably, we have lost and we are still losing generations of good athletes who could have done the country proud in major competitions all over the world. The time to change the situation is now.