As the lawmakers in Abuja consider the 2013 budget proposals from President Goodluck Jonathan, pundits are already saying that the N426.53 billion allocated to education is still a far cry from what is needed to fix the problems in the very important sector.
After all, the figure represents 8.7% of the budget, which is still a far cry from the UNESCO recommendation of 26 % allocation to education. These critical comments are made in spite of the fact that education has the highest allocation in the budget proposals. The same story could be fairly replicated in most of the states as they work on their budgets for next year.
The issue is about the funding and development of public schools. In varying degrees, it is evident that regarding public schools, the states strive to find answers to the crucial question of the moment: what is to be done? Any approach to development that does not put this issue at the centre of its theory and practice is not suitable for the Nigerian condition.
It is, therefore, expected that the unacceptable condition of most public schools should be a central issue in the discussion of the budget. The public discussion of the budget should transcend the benchmark for the crude oil price. Whether the price of a barrel is $75 0r $80, we should also be interested in how much goes to a social sector as education. It is a way of nudging policymakers to implement budgets with poverty alleviation (if not eradication) as the purpose. In fact, the work of the education committees in the National Assembly should be focused upon in the preparations of the budget.
By the way, the emphasis on the access to quality public education is a universal trend. Even the United States still has its "No Child Left Behind" policy on the basis of which the federal government relates to the states in making teachers more accountable for the performance of their students. Indeed, what to do with failing schools is still an issue of hot debate among American politicians. The situation is similar in the United Kingdom and other developed countries where funding of public schools is often an electoral issue. So, it is a problem to which different countries are finding solutions based on their peculiarities and available resources.
In Nigeria, the elite response to the collapse of public schools has been typical of their attitude to the decay in different departments of our national life. When confronted with a social problem everyone looks for his own personalised solution. For the education entrepreneurs, the rot in public schools provides a solid ground for profitable investment. Education has been turned into a luxury item that the few who could afford it patronise the growing number of businessmen and women in the emerging industry of private schools.
However, it is cheery news that some private interventions are also being made to improve the condition of public schools. While some members of the elite merely lament the situation and blame the incapacity of governments for the situation, a few others have chosen to go beyond lamentation. Indeed, interventions could come in different ways. Some individuals elect "to do something" about the situation such as establishing scholarship schemes for indigent students.
There are some efficient advocacy groups campaigning for the access of children from poor homes to quality education. One consistent proponent of intervention in public school is a former colleague, Yusuph Olaniyonu, who is now Ogun State Commissioner for Information. He used to raise issues on this page about what old students could do to turn things round in their alma maters. His advocacy is simply that every old boy or girl should pay a visit to his or her former school and see what can be done to improve on the situation on ground.
Only last Friday, a Foundation put into practice another form of private intervention in public schools that is worthy of emulation Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. The occasion was the Fifth Teachers' Award for Excellence by the Inoyo Toro Foundation. The activities of the Foundation constitute an important focus on an aspect of the multi-dimensional problems in the education sector. With a mission hinged on "eradication of poverty through education", the Inoyo Toro Foundation celebrates yearly the excellent performance of teachers of some subjects as a way of inspiring others. The Foundation also provides training opportunities and gathers data that are put at the disposal of the Akwa Ibom state government for policy implementation. Mentors are also organised for the benefit of the students. Among the past winners of the awards, Grand Mentors are further encouraged to guide other teachers. The latest awards went to teachers of English Language, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology.
They emerged through a rigorous process of reviews of students' performance, assessment of laboratories and school environment and skill tests for the teachers themselves. The award committee under the leadership of Professor Ebong Mbipom is independent of the Foundation's Board of Trustees chaired by Mrs. Ntekpe Inoyo. The award committee works with examiners from the University of Uyo and the Akwa State's Secondary School Education Board. Out of the 126 teachers in public schools who took the tests in five subjects, the winners in the first, second and third positions received cash awards and plaques.
Doubtless, the sort of intervention by the Inoyo Toro Foundation promises to be a model for private individuals and organisations on what to do with the deteriorating condition in many public schools. It is a practical way of complementing government's efforts. While the advocacy for greater funding of public schools by government should continue, the expression of social concern especially on the part of the elite is important. As the guest speaker at the occasion, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, remarked, the private schools at home and abroad would only meet the needs of the children the few members of the elite who could afford the exorbitant fees.
The children of the majority of the poor parents who cannot afford the prohibitive fees are left with no choice that than to go the public schools with squalid infrastructure and dispirited teachers. Graduates of both public and private schools will inhabit the same social space in the future. The poor state of public schools is a sure recipe for burgeoning inequality in the society. Not a few observers have remarked rightly that Barack Obama has not emerged president just because America prides itself as the "land of equal opportunity"; Obama has been able to penetrate the fortress of the American political establishment because he is armed with a good education in the pursuit of his career. He might not have benefitted from what the "land of opportunity" has to offer if he was a poorly educated black man or a school dropout dealing in drugs in some street corner in Chicago. So those who are resolutely against widening inequality should be concerned about the state of public schools and do something to intervene.
Given the mostly horrible conditions of public schools, teachers who put up excellent performance in the situation deserve all the honour and appreciation the society can offer. As distinguished professionals, the good teachers should be adequately rewarded to make the system work. It is remarkable that some state governments have invested in building standard primary and secondary schools. Some others have commendably embarked on massive renovation and equipment of existing schools. If we borrow the computer analogy, all these structures constitute the hardware; the software would be the quality of teaching, the curriculum and in fact the orientation of the teachers.
That is why governments should match their investments in educational infrastructure with the improvement in the skill and welfare of teachers. The federal government should do more in terms of setting standards and promoting broad policies so that quality education is made available to children from poor and rich homes alike all over the country. To complement the governments, the private intervention should be more in the direction of boosting quality in public schools rather than proliferating expensive private schools. In the absence of a social revolution, this is the least reformist step the elite should be taking to resolve the crisis in the education sector.