Rebuilding the Nation Through Education

About four years ago, my younger sister visited a female student of this school whose name I dare not mention at a time she was adjusting to her new environment, having just been moved from a school in Abuja where she had spent the first year. The said student was obviously happy about her new school and said so many glowing things. However, in the course of the conversation, she told my sister in a lighter mood: “In this school, we pray a lot. In fact, we pray over everything.”
Asked whether she had shared that information with her mother, the student replied: “Is that not why my mummy brought me here?”
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I must point out that the student in question was not complaining about the fact that you pray a lot on this ground. She was just bringing out something unique about Trinity College, especially considering what obtained in the school from where she was withdrawn. But the subtext is that that is perhaps what makes all the difference for Trinity College because a praying school invariably is a successful school. That is why I am delighted to be here today to celebrate with you on the 20th anniversary with the theme, which I consider most fitting: “20 Years of moulding lives: It is God”. Indeed, it is God!
I particularly want to thank my uncle and pastor, Mr S.O Olatunji, a visionary man with whom I have actually come a very long way and from whom I keep learning. I also want to thank the authorities of Trinity College, from the principal to all the staff and students. Permit me also to recognise for special mention a woman known to many of us simply as auntie Lara, a wonderful ambassador of this school. I am talking about Mrs Omolara Joseph.
Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, in the fast-changing world that we live in, a most pertinent question remains: how do we ensure that our citizens, especially the young men and women of our society acquire the knowledge and skills, and perspectives necessary for responding to the challenges and opportunities that abound? Put simply, what do we do to ensure that our people can compete with the rest of the world? That is the challenge at the heart of my presentation this morning but I am going to approach it, not as an expert in education (which I am not) but rather as a reporter which, fortunately, I am.
I have been asked to share my thoughts on the primacy of education to the development of our country but for a proper understanding of what we are dealing with, we may have to begin with the definition of Education which, according to Wikipedia, is “an act or process of developing and cultivating (whether physically or mentally or morally) one’s mental activity or senses; the expansion, strengthening, and discipline of one's mind, faculty, etc; the forming and regulation of principles and character in order to prepare and fit for any calling or business by systematic instruction”.
If we go by that definition which could be deemed as either too narrow or too broad, depending on our perspective, it is evident that we fall short as a nation in several respects and that is why we should all be worried and begin to do something lest we lose the promise of tomorrow. As things stand today, Nigeria's education system is bedevilled by so many problems which include but not limited to lack of critical infrastructure like libraries and laboratories; preponderance of teachers lacking in requisite skills; dilapidated school edifices; inadequate number of classrooms; poor learning environment and so many other challenges.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, while I am not here to catalogue the problems associated with our education, especially since they are all too glaring for us to see, the fact nonetheless remains that for a country in a hurry to catch up with today’s knowledge economy, Nigeria is too far behind in this critical sector. Just this last Monday (that is four days ago), the National Programme Officer of UNESCO, Muhammad Alkali, said in Ado Ekiti that it would take our country another 58 years to completely eradicate illiteracy. According to UNESCO, there are over 62 million illiterates in Nigeria, a situation it described as dangerous to the development of any country.

While such statistics should scare critical stakeholders which all of us are, the situation is actually worse when you consider other variables. Three years ago, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation revealed in their report that Nigeria had nine million (37 percent) out of school children on the continent which is more than one-third of its primary school-age children and it is the highest in Africa. Against the background of what is currently going on in the North-east where several of the schools have been closed down for months (some for years) because of the activities of Boko Haram, one cannot but begin to wonder whether the future of a generation in a section of our country is not already compromised.
Unfortunately, there are other factors militating against the education of our young people beyond the violence associated with insurgency. For instance, in a statement released this morning to mark World Toilet Day, UNICEF said that lack of access to toilets is endangering millions of the world’s poorest children. Sadly, some 50 million of our compatriots are listed among the 946 million people around the world in that sordid category, with Nigeria among the five countries in the world with the greatest rates of open defecation.
The report also stated that “more than seven million Nigerian children under five years old are stunted – short and underdeveloped for their age as a result of malnutrition – a staggering 37 per cent of the country’s under-five population. They are among the estimated 159 million under-fives globally who are stunted.”
It goes without saying that children in such situation are already shut out of any educational opportunities. That then explains why, according to UNICEF, more than 40 per cent of Nigerian children between the age of six and11 do not attend any primary school with the Northern region recording the lowest school attendance rate in the country, particularly for girls. This is what UNICEF said about Nigeria: “It is not rare to see cases of 100 pupils per teacher or students sitting under trees outside the school building because of the lack of classrooms. Many children do not attend school because their labour is needed to either help at home or to bring additional income into the family. Many families cannot afford the associated costs of sending their children to school such as uniforms and textbooks. For others, the distance to the nearest school is a major hindrance”.
From the foregoing, it is evident that we have a big problem on our hands so if we are talking about rebuilding of our education sector, it is important that we first identify those things that brought about the destruction in the first instance. Without an understanding of where we are coming from, it would be difficult to make any projection on where we are going.
That Nigeria is facing the challenge of providing good and quality education that is capable of bringing about sustainable development is no longer in doubt. Most analysts link this deplorable state of affair to the inadequate funding by federal, state and local governments. However, while inadequate funding has been one of the major problems of the education sector, it is sad that policy makers have not demonstrated the will to devise a way of addressing this challenge. For instance, a 2012 World Bank table of the annual budgetary allocation to education by some selected countries placed Nigeria at the bottom, occupying the 20th position out of 20 countries listed. But the malaise in the sector goes far deeper, especially considering the quality of teachers in most public schools.
Two years ago, the then Kaduna State Commissioner for Education, Alhaji Usman Mohammed, announced that about 1,300 teachers in the State failed a test meant for primary four pupils. According to the Commissioner, a total of 1,599 teachers selected from across the state were given primary four tests in Mathematics and Basic literacy. Out of that number, only one teacher scored 75 percent, 250 scored between 50 and 74 percent while 1,300 failed outright, scoring less than 25 percent.
There is no doubt that the illiterate teachers may have found their way into the education system through the cronyism that now defines public engagement in our country today. That is what should be expected when politicians and local government administrators are allowed to hire teachers on considerations that have little relationship to the need of the pupils. Invariably the process gets abused and with merit sacrificed at the altar of political exigency, the consequence is that the pupils become the victims while the larger society is the ultimate loser. That is one of the problems we are living with today in Nigeria.
The challenge, however, is: If those who are supposed to impart knowledge on primary school pupils cannot even pass some elementary test, what kind of knowledge will they transfer to the children? The situation is akin to a blind leading a fellow blind and it is fraught with serious danger. And unless some drastic measures are taken to address the malaise it could lead to a permanent system collapse while the future of the younger generations of Nigerians is seriously compromised.
Indeed, the former Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Peter Okebukola, recently identified reasons responsible for inadequate manpower in the sector. According to Okebukola, most graduate teachers are not professionals and are inadequately exposed to teaching practice while many of them cannot communicate effectively in English. Okebukola also said that the low rating of the teaching profession is manifested in the scanty applications for admission into education faculties and colleges of education.
“In 2011, of the more than 1,300,000 applications for university admissions, less than five per cent applied for courses in education. Worse still, only few applications were received for the colleges of education. These data point to the lack of interest of candidates for a career in the teaching profession,” said Okebukola who also identified lack of motivation as one of the reasons for poor performance of teachers. “The extrinsic motivation in terms of salaries and reward structure is pitifully low in spite of the attempt at parity with other workers in the public service,’ he said.
What makes the situation really pathetic is that the most challenged sub-sector is the primary school yet if the foundation be destroyed, as the Bible asks, what can the righteous do? This is a big challenge that we need to fix and very quickly too. To do that, we have to address the conflict between the Federal, State and Local Governments in the management of education at that level. As things stand today, the control of primary education is neither fully in the hand of federal government, nor that of the state or local government. Although this is a problem at the root of our skewed federal structure, it has become a great barrier for effective for the future development at a very strategic level f our education sector with dire implications.
Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the essence of education, whether formal or informal, is to produce a person who will be useful to his/her society. That then perhaps explains why most of the challenging issues we are facing in Nigeria like terrorism, child trafficking, unemployment, kidnapping and child labour are all products our failed education system. Therefore, we must begin to focus on the big picture of using education as a tool for national development with inclusion and engagement.
The authorities and critical stakeholders in the education sector must also work towards redesigning the curricular in such a way that it suits the requirements of a developing society with specific goals and objectives. The aim of the exercise would be to overhaul and reform the learning content in our schools to ensure that it is more robust and responsive to the socio-economic needs of our country. These are workable interventions and there is no better time than now to take these things on track.
Along this direction, the stakeholders in education would have to review all existing instructional practices according to the latest researches for all levels. In addition, we need to ensure that there is room for continuous staff development workshops, provisions of well-equipped libraries at all levels and parental involvement in the entire process of educating our children where appropriate.
Furthermore, we need to take back our education construct and design a Nigerian system that works. As things stand, the model we are operating is rather obsolete and cannot produce the required or expected outcomes across board. Yet, as we all agree, the quality of our education system will determine the quality of the society we will have.
Going forward, one issue that we cannot continue to shy away from is that of funding. Government at all levels must commit vast resources towards the school infrastructures and education manpower to the extent that the propagation of worthwhile knowledge can be guaranteed in Nigeria. But for that to happen on a sustainable basis, we need a conversation as to whether our country can afford free tuition in the federal universities that are fast losing relevance.

Another issue is that of human capital. The unstable condition of teaching staff in Nigerian primary and secondary schools has drastically crippled the system. Most of the teachers are in the profession because they have no other job not because they have any passion in or commitment to imparting knowledge.
If we are to move our country along the path of peace and sustainable development, we must focus our attention on issues like the training of teachers. I was recently part of a process by which the Nigeria Breweries selected the Maltina Teacher of the Year and that exposed me to the rot in the system. Whether those in authority understand it or not, teachers are central to the production of high quality human capital and providing incentives that would make life easier for them could make all the difference. But the challenge of education in Nigeria is beyond the poor reward system. The environment too must change in terms of the infrastructure critical for learning and the disposition of those in authorities.

From our interactions with the teachers, there are many schools without functional laboratories while in one particular state, public primary schools were effectively closed for almost one year due to non-payment of teachers’ salaries. With such foundation, has the future of children in that state not already been compromised? But the greater challenge is that the critical stakeholders in both the private and public sectors do not seem to be paying the much needed attention to this malaise.
This may be the wrong forum to say it but we cannot continue to neglect public education if we are to develop as a nation. To the extent that the educational development of any country is measured by the state of its public schools, it goes without saying that we are already in trouble in Nigeria given what obtains today. I doubt if there is any Nigerian, including even those who are at the bottom of the pyramid, who wants to send his/her children to what we now call public schools in our country today except left with no other choice.
The sad aspect is that most members of my generation were products of the same public schools we have now destroyed and abandoned. Whereas people like us from poor background were able to associate with children of the rich by virtue of the public schools we all attended together at the time, such does not happen today which means we are already creating different classes of Nigerians. I wonder for instance, how many children of poor people are here at Trinity College. It is not an indictment but that is just the unfortunate reality of our situation.
In asking a friend who has been involved with the education sector in our country for ideas on what to share at this forum, he sent me a book titled “Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances”, edited by Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane. It is a work that examines in great detail and from all conceivable angles the power of class in the educational development of children in the United States.
Although the revelations are about a totally different culture and a system that, all factors considered, is working, yet the book illuminates the ways rising income disparities is undermining one of the most important goals of public education which is the ability of schools to provide children with equal opportunities for self-actualisation. The lesson from it is that if income inequality is becoming a serious challenge to the educational development of American children, one can only wonder about what is happening in our climes.

What the myriad of studies summarized in the book says most eloquently to us as a nation is that if we are desirous of building a functional society, we must intervene early to address some of the factors militating against the education of poor people in our country. It is a book I will gladly recommend to the authorities in Nigeria because we are leaving far too many children behind and whether we realize it or not, there will be consequences.

Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, what I am saying this afternoon is that to rebuild a nation using education as a tool will not be easy. Yet it is a task for all of us. It is about creating and deploying the values and human capital needed for sustainable national development. Some of the things we need to do include ensuring that such subjects as civics, national history and etiquette are reinstated in our schools. We must bring back the vocational schools and the technical colleges; we must refocus school inspection and the inspectorate divisions of State and Federal Ministries of Education and we must standardize teacher training programmes and guarantee competitive examinations that can incentivise excellence. Unless we do these things, we will merely be chasing shadows and it would be difficult to compete with the rest of the world.

While we have always taken pride in being called the most populous nation in Africa, in this age where academic knowledge drives innovation and development, an illiterate population is a liability to itself and the world. And that is what Nigeria is fast becoming. We must quickly arrest the slide.
It is now incumbent on all relevant authorities to ensure that priority is given to the education sector if our drive for national development would ever be achieved. What is required are the right policies that would provide alternative sources of funding, attract quality academic and non academic staff, provide necessary teaching aids and ensure conducive learning environment for students of all backgrounds. It can be done.
As I take my seat, let me share a joke with the students of Trinity College about a conversation between a father and his son. The father said to his son: "Tell me how school went today. How do you like it?"
He replied: "It's hard to like a place that's haunted, dad."
"Haunted! What do you mean?" asked the father.
The son replied: "It's that new teacher of mine...she keeps talking about the school spirit."

Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am quite aware that many of your students here would rather prefer they were home, enjoying themselves. But then, as our teachers keep telling us, life is not a bed of roses.

Thank you very much and God bless.


---Text of a paper presented at the 20th year anniversary lecture of Trinity College, Ofada on 19th November, 2015

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