Vanguard (Lagos)

Nigeria: 'We Can't Do Without Unity Schools'

Benin City — Professor Aigbogun Paul Erie is an Associate Professor, Dept of Agriculture Economics and Extension Service, Ambrose Alli University Ekpoma and also the National President, National Association of Federal Unity Secondary Schools (NAPAFUSS). In this interview, he condemns the call for the scrapping of Unity Schools.. He also speaks on other challenges in the education sector.

How has it been as President of NAPAFUSS

NAPAFUSS is an acronym for National Parent Association of Federal Unity Secondary Schools. It is the parent body of all the PTAs in Unity Schools across the country. You know too that the PTA is an integral part of the school system. We have them in our secondary schools. We have 104 Unity Schools.

When I came on board as the National President, there were some challenges I met on ground. The first was that, though the body already had a constitution that had taken effect since April 12, 2012, the other challenge I met was the fate of the PTA- paid teachers.

I discovered that PTA across the country was paying more than 2,000 teachers, and almost equal number of non-academic staff across these colleges. I didn't find that as a good picture. So I said we were going to draw the attention of the Federal Government to it.

At least, to reduce the burden of the wage bill on the PTA across the country. The mandate of PTAs is very simple. It is to complement efforts of government in the provision of physical infrastructure in the schools. So having to carry the burden of paying teachers was distracting them from that. And some now felt government should come in and pay its staff, while we concentrate on other things.

That was the second challenge we had. There was a third one, which was the issue of interference in PTA affairs by principals and ministry officials, so I felt there was the need for the ministry and parents to find a common ground because no meaningful development takes place without cordial and co-operative environment. I must tell you with all humility that we have gone far on all these three.

There is a suggestion that Unity Schools be sold or transferred to state governments. Your body is not comfortable with this. Why?

Yes! I will say that it is very disappointing and indeed strange that people in high places could suddenly forget the idea behind the establishment of Unity Schools. After the National Assembly, and perhaps the NYSC, the Unity Schools come in as a structure for socio-economic and political integration of the country.

We are talking about youths who must at the age imbibe the concept of national unity, oneness, teachers come from across the country; the students come from across the country, so if you now sell these schools or transfer them to local and state government, then their influence and the philosophy behind their establishment would have been lost completely.

We don't want that to happen. In any case, the state government themselves are already burdened enough with the cost of running their own schools. The local government is certainly out of the question in this matter. So in the interest of peace and unity of this country, Unity Secondary Schools should remain.

If anything, I'm one of those agitating for more. Because, of the peculiarity of their curricula. There are several categories. We have Federal Government Colleges for girls. We have Federal Government College for boys and girls. We have Federal Science and Technical College too. So, it is strange that any person would at this point in time when we are so much in need of our unity, to be removing one of the pillars that have guaranteed social and political integration in this country.

There is no doubt that Unity Schools, just like the NYSC, is one of those mechanism that have been carefully thought out to promote national unity. But what about this philosophy of catchment. Don't you think this is affecting the actualization of some of these objectives? Because if you go to some of these schools, you discover that up to 40 to 50 percent of students are from the home state?

Well, I may not buy your statistics completely. Let's go back to the philosophy behind it. They didn't just establish this to serve sectional interest. No! every state in this country has at least three of such schools. Also, in the admission policy, there is a quota for federal; a quota for the zone; and quota for the state. So it must reflect federal character. It is built into the policy of the college.

Yes! You might observe that more of the students may come from the environment where the institution is located. This is normal. It is natural, and has not created any crisis. But if you look beyond the students, and you look at the staffing, federal character policy is maintained. That is why the school in Benin might not have an Edo State indigene as principal. The principal at Uromi here is from Abia State. So that is the integration we are talking about.

How has it been managing the affairs of Unity Schools?

In all humility I will tell you that my administration has beaten its own record. Like you rightly said, one year is a very short period in the life of an exco that has three years to do. But if one may count in all humility. I 'll tell you that we have given the association a constitution within this period.

We have secured employed for 1:305 PTA paid teachers within the period. We have harmonized our practice across the country. There were areas where you had serious conflicts. I came in and set up Conflict Resolution Committee. That committee has gone to work. As I speak with you, I can tell you that there is no PTA branch where you have anything that threatens peace. We have successfully popularized Unity Schools.

Advise to government.

What we have resolved to do is to help them and complement government efforts. The Federal Government should now create the enabling environment that will enable us continue our work. We are prepared to partner with them. We are major stakeholders in the education sector.

So the first thing is to allow us do it the way we can. The other is that government should be wary of people who want to use their position to threaten the existence of these colleges. It will be inimical to the peaceful co-existence of this country, if this unity schools are tempered with.

Finally, we have this problem of funding. Government is in a position to fund these schools, but what is lacking is the political will. The United Nations prescribed 26 percent or budget for education in developing countries. I don't think we have gotten up to 10 percent yet and that is sad. Our educational sector is in serious crisis. I personally call for a declaration of state of emergency in the educational sector because that is what we need.

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