Education Reform In Nigeria: The Case For Devolution And Decentralization Of Authority In The System

By Chima Iheke

There is no gainsaying that education illuminates the path to modernization and consequently to social and economic growth both for the educated individual and society at large.

It has been noted from the Latin root of the word Education, 'ducere' to lead. That education leads out ('e) - out of our unformed, primitive selves, education civilizes us, prepares us for participation in society, in culture, in public service. Education opens the gates of the world. It provides the exit, the one way out.

That so fundamental an institution of growth and progress, arguably the greatest source of wealth creation and wellbeing mankind has ever devised, would be given short shrift by our leaders is befuddling at best if not downright appalling and really speaks of a gross abdication of responsibility.

Granted that it is too obvious and pedestrian to make the point that in education lies the repository of mankind's intellectual property, probably more valuable than all the collective worth of the natural resources we hold, since without the know how to unlock the value inherent in these resources, the natural resources are of little or no value, still it is important to make a note of it in passing and remind ourselves and our leaders who seem not to realize the damage and violence being done to us as a society by this neglect.

As George J. Dixon, the proponent of the Foster Education Act in Great Britain of 1870 puts it, 'there is no greater loss of wealth in a country than an uneducated people.' The time has come to salvage and reclaim our educational system from this thickening fog of neglect descending across the land that is casting a benighting crass patina of ignorance across the land.

The tentative progressive steps Nigeria has taken toward modernization to a greater degree can be traced to the fruits of an excellent education system, where school was actually being taught, bequeathed to us by the colonial administration.

Looking back to what used to be, a rot has set in and the fact that our education system is dysfunctional is not in dispute. To dwell on the shortcomings of the system will be an exercise in futility since there is no bright spot to gloat or write home about.

What happened to an education system that was the envy of the world? Nigeria high schools were known as incubators for students of coruscating and ferocious intelligence, who always took top honors in International examinations like the London GCE that ended in 1975. Students taught, enthused and refined through the alembic minds of dedicated teachers actuated by a love of pedantry.

Why has it fallen to such a state of decrepitude?

Those students are still in our midst, among our kids and all they need is an environment that will enable them to reach their full potential. As protean and intractable as this problem may seem, it can be solved if we can fashion a lasting solution rather than applying the same nostrum on a gangrene eating away at the core of the system. First we must identify the cause of the rot so that it can be excised from the core of the structure animating the system.

As noted earlier, the Nigeria education system was robust, producing world class scholars up until the government embarked on a bone headed Erastian policy of disposing communities and religious institutions of their schools. This policy led to the protracted Kulturkampf of the 1970's between the civil government and religious authorities over control of education that has lasted to date with the consequent collapse in the standard of learning.

Taking over of schools by the government resulted in a plethora of problems that still bedevils the school system. The most insidious act on the system was the centralization of authority.

By centralizing the highest authority of decision making at the state school boards and Federal level, the principals and administrators of the schools were denuded of the requisite authority to effectively manage and administer their schools according to the dictates of the school charter. Before this policy, final authority was vested in the office of the principal who was accountable for the school and decisions were made locally to suit the peculiarities of the institution.

The principals ran their schools with discipline, a prerequisite to an effective learning process, a time was when a high school student would not be caught dead urinating in public, especially one in a school uniform, nor could the student leave the school premises without permission. Students were even more in thrall of their principals and teachers than they were of their parents and each complemented the other to instill discipline and guidance in the student.

One of the most pernicious effects of this centralization of authority was the complete breakdown of authority since the principals could not discipline or cashier a teacher who was not performing up to par and neither could he discipline the student who contravenes the norms of the school without running the risk of a drawn out protracted appeal process through the ministry of education.

A vacuum of leadership and responsibility was the end result of the policy since the government could not enforce from afar, leading to a complete breakdown of discipline and accountability - the bedrock of an effective learning process.

In her magnificent cogent book published in 2013, THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD: AND HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY, Amanda Ripley makes just about the same point. She might as well have been writing about and contrasting the education system in Nigeria from her parallels. She pointed out that schools work best when they operate with clarity of mission. When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion. This is possible when administrators and teachers in every subject exhibit the authority of professionals held in high regard.

The rot set in once the former system was dismantled with the attendant lack of accountability on the part of the teachers and administrators and indiscipline on the part of the students.

The government both at the State and Federal levels should rescind the current policy and work out a way in consultation with communities and religious organizations and hand the schools back to their original owners in a comprehensive way with adequate compensation to help them rebuild and put in place school districts and standards for the schools to meet.

There is really nothing radical about this proposal. We will simply be going back to what worked in the past and which most countries with effective educational systems have adopted.

For example, in the United States, the federal government does not have control over education since the Constitution does not say anything about education and the constitution does not say anything about education and the Constitution does not give control over education to the federal government. The states have control over education through the provisions of the 10th Amendment which states that any powers not prohibited by the constitution or specially granted to the Federal government are reserved for the states.

Consequently, states have enacted laws governing education and have established public school systems to serve their individual states. Every state has its state school system which provides facilities for every level of education, from early childhood education through higher education. States then transfer some of its control over education to local school districts. Under rules set by the state, a school district is responsible for running the local public schools, from hiring teachers and constructing buildings to planning courses for study. Each state government determines the number and composition of school districts. The government grants loans and scholarship to colleges and universities

students to help pay their tuition and other school expenses and also grants funds both to public and private institutions. Local school districts also receive funds both from the state and Federal government to purchase text books, pay for school health services and finance experimental educational programs. A district must make these programs and services available to all children, including those who attend private schools since the aim of the state is the welfare of all the students.

In Great Britain, although mainly supported by public fund, universities in the UK are not part of the government run system of education. Instead, they are independent, self-governing bodies. The universities themselves decide what subjects to teach, what degrees to award, and what staff they appoint. The Quality Assurance Agency for High Education (QAA) reviews the standard of schools. (World Book Encyclopedia)

This mirrors what we had in place before the structure was dismantled. It is time to reclaim back a proven system and improve on it. The worst thing for a man who errs is to turn around and hug his error more tightly. So too it is for nations. And if I may quote Verdi: 'Let us go back to the past, it will be a step forward.' ('Torni-amo all'antico, sara un progresso').

No one is advocating a hands off policy, since the state has an important role to play in guiding the education system to meet the needs of society.

The establishment of school boards with school districts to oversee the schools within their respective districts will enable parents to have an input in the educational policy of their respective districts.

The school districts will have a liaison officer with the state school board and report on the progress of the school and curriculum being offered.

The school districts will be charged with making decisions affecting their respective districts including auxiliary funding either through property taxes or through lottery programs. This will also allow parents to participate and voice their opinion regarding the education of their wards. Citizens will know who is responsible and where complaints can be lodged. This will open the door for endowments and philanthropy by private citizens.

Members of school boards will be people appointed or elected from the same district and responsive to the needs of the community and better able to shape the policy to fit the local needs. It will allow districts to learn from and emulate each other on what works.

Finally it will subordinate fractious politics to geographic unity.

Since the school districts are independent and thus fragmented, it will obviate a repeat of the kind of debilitating strike the last ASSU strike had on the education system in the country.

When as educators, the guardians of the repository of knowledge, who ought to know the real value and importance of education strike to close schools for so long, one cannot help but ask the organizers if the pettiness, insularity and brutality of their act on the rest of society is not repulsive to their sense of citizenship no matter how just the cause.

When a strike, no matter how noble and legitimate lasts this long, it complicates simple problems, deflects blame where they are appropriate and obscure the problem that led to the strike in the first place. Facility and intransigence in organizing a strike loses its sting and becomes a kind of cheap competence that often masks a lack of competence in anything that really matter like articulating properly the essence and quiddity of the strike itself and in the process the whole enterprise loses the moral high ground.

To be effective and achieve its aim, a strike action has to sprout and anchor deep roots in the fertile soil of public opinion and this one did not. While this intolerable present grinds down the citizens of this country to penury, they chose to add to the misery by staging such a crippling strike.

Compounding the disdain for the public, the utterances of the leadership was a display of unforgiving righteousness that rose to a thrilling height of moral disdain in pursuit of personal ends. An attitude encapsulated by a statement like this attributed to one of the leaders of the ASSU who was quoted as saying 'Wike order cannot hold and vowed that ASSU would unleash terror if the minister attempts to carry out the order.' 'We stopped the late General Abacha, so stopping Wike and these bloody civilians wouldn't be any problems to us.'

He actually said 'unleash terror'? In a state like ours traumatized by banditry and kidnapping where piercing terror stings the heart and death whistles from fearful jaws of the citizens, a man in such a position threatens additional terror on the public.

What an exhibition of entitlement! This sense of entitlement invariably bred defiance and insolence fashioning a personality that came across the pages as one spoiling for a fight and one who enjoys a fight and savors inflicting defeat just to extract revenge for a presumed injured innocence.

Such intransigence marred by such pettiness lack any splendid audacity. It is rather a source of incurable blemish on the organization.

It lays bare the falsity of the claim that the strike was for the good of the education system and gives credence to the saying by Cicero. 'Virtue will not be wooed but for her own sake, and if we sometimes borrow her mask for some other purpose, she will very soon snatch it from our face.'

Devolution and decentralization will help dismantle such a monstrosity and prevent any segment of the system paralyzing the whole because they failed to get their way.

The failure in our education system stemmed not from some universal human 'failure of the imagination' or 'poverty of expectation' because the past generation has proven otherwise, but from the arrogance and willfulness of certain people to whom the country had entrusted the highest responsibility.

Let us reclaim possession of the tradition of learning hunger that animated the lives of our past great educators and communities in time past. They were able to do things and accomplished so much because schools were local and there was an attachment and sense of ownership.

A man I revered, once lived in a light house. The Honorable William Eke of blessed memory built a house in my home town and name it the 'LIGHT HOUSE'. A fitting appellation, for the man carried the torch of learning not only in my home town and surrounding areas but to the farthest reaches of Ibo Land where he worked. At Government College Afikpo as a teacher and Mbaise where he was the Divisional Educational Officer and later as a State Legislator under the Mbakwe administration in Old Imo State. A man who will not let a brilliant child anywhere be denied access to education and took it upon himself to sponsor kids that were not his own.

The man wrote countless letters and selflessly applied for admission and college grants for students to study overseas. We need to rekindle such a spirit in our people.

I am also reminded of Dick Ogan from the neighboring town, a brilliant, committed, passionate educator. He was so passionate about education, legend has it after his early death, that he would be seen at mid-morning after the town folks have gone to the farm teaching kids at the mission school.

We are heirs to these men, men like Okongwu, Tai Solarin, Alvan Ikoku, Obafemi Awolowo, and Idika Kalu to name a few who did so much against insurmountable odds to educate our people.

The torch has already been lit by these great men. To let it dim will be a great disservice to us all, and to the memory of the sacrifices and odds that was overcome to plant the seed of education in this country. Let us rekindle that passion and help the next generation. Learning is not an

inherited trait. In Street lingo every generation has to put in 'work' if it is to be kept alive for the next generation.

There is something particularly awful about the systematic destruction of fine minds and it is happening on a massive scale in this country.

We all have a skin in the game and a stake in the education of our people. I will go as far as saying that it is obligatory for us to get involved because our wellbeing as a society depends on it. Not only is it the right thing to do, but the greater benefit will accrue and redound to us and the community at large.

When Hillary Clinton reiterated that 'it takes a village to raise a child', she was repeating a maxim she heard in East Africa. It is an African concept that she appropriated and rightfully so because she realized it is a truism that is applicable everywhere. It does take a village and there is something that we can do within the system to raise these kids as dysfunctional as the system is.

Most of us reading this article know the value of education and wish we had the same source and access to knowledge as is available through the internet when we were in school. This is where we come in and can make a difference in the lives of those coming after us. We know a lot of eager and intelligent kids back home whose parents cannot afford computers at home or internet access. What if most people reading this article decide to make a change by establishing computer labs in their old high schools or schools in their community to enable these kids to gain access to the wealth of knowledge on the Internet. You can even become the talk of the town by naming the Lab after yourself, your Dad, Mum or your better half. For as little as $10 - $20 thousand dollars, you can establish a computer lab of 20 to 50 computers with a central printer. This will change the lives of countless individuals and families. If you cannot do it alone, talk to your old class mates or communal organization. It will be a great project for them to embark on.

Just having access to all that knowledge will transform the lives of these kids hungry and eager to learn. This will give them access to the knowledge on the net but more importantly, it will enable them to take classes on the new MOOCS programs sprouting across the world (Massive Open Online Courses) that are being offered for free by reputable universities. MOOCS for short are opened to all comers and many elite universities are jockeying to become part of it. MIT and Harvard committed $30 million each to found EDX, there is UDACITY founded by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrum and then COURSERA with more than 115 courses on its website. Students can access the course material online and ask questions on online discussion boards.

My favorite, especially for high school kids, is Khan Academy with its lectures on Math and Physics. We know this will pay dividend for us as a society because how well a country's students do in math and science is the strongest indication of future earnings.

This is exemplified by the products of India's IIT university system. A system geared towards Math and Science whose entrance exam is so rigorous that those who do not make the cut, end up admitted tops in United States and European top universities like Harvard, MIT and Princeton.

It has paid great dividend for India with the school Alumni running Silicon Valley and transferring the technology back to India.

This exposure will allow our students to participate in PISA Test (Program for International Student Assessment) a triennial assessment that measures the performance of children across 65 countries and regions over seen by Andreas Schleicher, a German educational scientist. From recent results, there is a sense that the PISA test represents new geopolitical reality that is seeing the ascendancy of the East and Asia. There is no reason why we should not be in the thick of it. In a level playing field, I will put up our students against anyone in the world. PISA tests specific skills. Another program TIMSS looks more closely at the type of curriculum in fashioning its tests.

Businesses and Industries look at these results when making a determination where to locate. They need educated qualified workers and these tests provide a window to what is happening in a country's education system.

This in no way replaces the regular class room lectures but will give our kids a helping hand to learn and compete with students all over the world.

We have to be cognizant of the fact that to develop as a society, our citizens and companies have to compete on the world stage. Our products whether intellectual or otherwise have to measure up to international standard. We know that we can, if the success of our people in Diaspora is anything to go by.

Countries that have achieved success are countries that have forced their businesses to compete internationally. A good example is South Korea, a country on the same level with Ghana in the 1950's is now among the developed countries. This is a country that is so competitive in education borne out of government policy that there is now a problem that South Korea may be over educating its people. Incompressible you will say. This is a country where mothers pay upward of $1,500 a month to send kids to pre-kindergarten.

There is a level of expectation from students in these Asian countries from parents and teachers. That used to be the norm in Nigeria.

It is not just Asian countries but the new countries of Eastern Europe like Latvia and Estonia that are also making tremendous strides. For example in Estonia, the country has managed to leap into

modernity by rigorous standards set for the students at very early age to the extent that computer coding is now compulsory for students in first year primary school.

It is a wake-up call, because these are the people we have to compete against in this world with its limited resources both materially and intellectually.

We really have a choice to make, are going to fake it until we make it or are we going to buckle down and reverse course and embrace a system tested and proven that will see our education system become accountable at every level. We have the brains: that has never been in doubt. The question is, are we ready to embrace the hard choices required to turn things around knowing full well that the greater benefit will accrue to us all as a society?

Let us grab our educational system by the scruff of the neck like we once did and being in control, bend it to the needs of our society and future.

Chima Iheke, Ph.D.
Arkansas, USA

NB: Please email comments and suggestions to [email protected] This article is in no way exhaustive, the problem is hydra headed and no one person has all the answers. This is meant to start a conversation and find a workable solution to our failing school system. We can all agree we have to do something. Inaction is not an option and we need all hands on deck. Thanks.

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