26 September 2012

Nigeria: Time to Improve Learning Environment


As teachers in several states of the federation embark on another round of strikes, nothing epitomizes the pitiful neglect to which the educational sector has been subjected as the skeletal remains of what once used to deserve the name of school buildings. They dot the landscape all over the country: sandcrete contraptions held together by thinning mortars of cement; wooden sheds roofed with leaking corrugated iron sheets; glorified huts of earthen walls covered with thatch; trees girded with bush-ropes as if they were crime scenes. In most of these cases those "buildings" are also devoid of any kind of furniture save for a blackboard turned grey with overuse but regularly renewed with a mixture of cow's dung and charcoal to provide the contrast required for the teacher's chalk.

This is the 21st century but many of our primary schools where we nurture the leaders of tomorrow are so primitively lacking in minimum decency that they would have been considered disgraceful 200 years ago. Most of the 54,434 public primary schools in Nigeria are mere shacks; if private and voluntary agency schools are included, the figure comes up to 87,941 as revealed after the 2006 School Census and stated in the Roadmap for Nigerian Education. Private schools are comparatively better equipped, better staffed and maintained.

The 7,129 public junior secondary schools in the country - with an enrolment of 3,266,780 students - fare no better than the primary schools. Often, parents in local communities whose children have to sit on bare floors with slates to begin their journey in formal education make spirited appeals to their local government without any positive result. The local government passes the buck to the state government while the state government points in the direction of the federal government, claiming not to have adequate resources to provide a conducive learning environment for the children. By and large, the 25 million pupils in our public primary schools are sentenced to misery.

Once in a while, some local or state governments make a token concession to decency by renovating selected primary schools. The pomp and panoply that usually attend such occasions give the unmistakable impression that they are doing the people a favour.

Scientific studies have shown a firm link between environment and learning. Children raised in squalor, whose teachers are ill-motivated and who are constrained by circumstances not to venture to dream big dreams can never compete with those raised properly in well-equipped and adequately staffed schools. In most parts of the world today, education (especially primary education) is considered a right. A lot of resources is deployed to ensure that the younger generations are prepared for the task of nation-building ahead.

Public schools ought to number among the best. That used to be the case several decades ago. That ought to be the goal of the authorities even as they make efforts to resolve the current teachers' strike.

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