A life-jacket to save secondary education
By Levi Obijiofor
I VISITED my former secondary school in December 2009 and I was overwhelmed with anger and feelings of nostalgia. I was particularly stunned by the way the school had been reduced in many ways. The school was a silhouette of its former self. Every structure I saw appeared wrecked. It was like the school was standing on its last legs. I was overcome with emotion, the desire to return to the good old days in order to escape momentarily the confronting images that stood in front of me. The entire school premises bore the sight of a war-ravaged institution. It was a sore sight.
I was deeply upset because the school has, in my judgment, lost its esteem, in particular the impeccable academic record that once served as its unique selling point. For many decades, the school established an impressive record of scoring 100 per cent in the West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE). It was this record that catapulted the ambition of many primary school students to seek admission into that school (name withheld).
Once you were admitted into the school in those days, you knew a major challenge confronted you and members of your cohort. The task was to uphold the long established tradition of every student passing the school certificate examination. It was not just an individual performance. It was also a class act. It was constantly drummed into our ears that if anyone failed to pass the school certificate examination, the record established by previous students would collapse and that would tarnish the image of the school.
It was not only the image of the school that would be sullied if any student failed. The students would also be held up in ridicule as the renegades that destroyed the institution's academic track record. The host community itself would be negatively affected. For years, the community elders boasted about the academic accomplishments of the school. The school, some community leaders yelled repeatedly, was set up to succeed. Failure was not an option.
Right from the beginning, we were encouraged to succeed. Fortunately, we were provided with the facilities and human resources to support our education. These included quality teachers, as well as a very good library that was stocked with books and -- wait for it -- copies of daily newspapers, despite the rural location of the school. The school also maintained a relatively decent science laboratory, equipped with chemicals and animals to facilitate practical experiments.
The school also promoted competition for excellence among its students. It was not only in academic studies that competition prevailed; there was also competition in sports, in extra-curricular club activities such as debating, quiz contests, and young farmers' club challenges. Rules of academic and social conduct were strictly enforced. If you infringed any of the regulations, you were pulled up for severe punishment regardless of your status - senior student or junior student, school prefect or ordinary student.
In spite of all these, life was tough. There was no electricity. We studied with lanterns of all shapes and sizes. This meant that kerosene was in huge demand, just as the lamp gloves were. Inside the dormitories, everyone hid a little container or bottle of kerosene in his wooden locker. Water was scarce too. There was no pipe-borne water. Every student, with the exception of final year students and school prefects, were required to draw water from a local stream. The water was used in the preparation of our meals. If you did not submit water for cooking, you were denied food. It was that simple. No water, no food!
It was with these nostalgic reflections over my days in secondary school that I was stunned by what I saw when I visited my former school in December last year. Things have deteriorated. The sports fields were overgrown with grass and weeds. It is either that the school has passed a new law prohibiting students from cutting grass (a form of physical exercise or punishment in our days) or the school management no longer cares about proper maintenance of valuable facilities. I found the student dormitories to be in a gross state of disrepair. I couldn't imagine that decent human beings would be allowed to reside in those dormitories.
Although I was assailed by the disgusting experiences of my visit to my former secondary school, I have to re-state them here in order to expose the stark reality of the breakdown of secondary education in Nigeria. It is not an exaggeration to say that secondary education has collapsed across the country. Sadly, no one seems to be concerned. There is a long-standing tradition of state neglect and poor funding of secondary schools in Nigeria. State governors and local politicians are busy raiding the treasury, mismanaging public institutions and planning for their re-election in 2011.
Criminal neglect of the secondary education sector has produced grave consequences for the nation. These include declining standards of academic performance among students, non-existence of essential structures to facilitate excellence in teaching and learning, a culture of indiscipline among teachers and students, poor conditions of teachers, lack of innovative teaching practices, inadequate and/or decaying science laboratories, as well as irregular review and evaluation of the secondary school curriculum to ensure that it is reflective of the 21st century realities of our society. These are some of the appalling conditions that have imperiled quality secondary education in Nigeria.
The collapse of secondary education is a tragedy that ought not to have happened. Poor quality of education offered in public secondary schools is evidence of the low priority accorded to secondary education by state governments. Far-reaching changes are required to revive secondary education in Nigeria. State governments cannot abdicate their obligation to fund, manage and equip secondary schools efficiently.
Secondary education has collapsed not only because state governments have abandoned them but also because the little funds that are provided are often misused. All these have occurred because we live in a society in which accountability means nothing, a country in which public officials routinely misuse funds outlined for major projects, and a society in which mediocre performance is preferred over excellence. Confronted with these problems, public secondary schools now bear the hallmarks of negligence, poor funding and incompetent management.
Private secondary schools are flourishing in Nigeria because of the collapse of quality education in public schools. In the quest to ensure that their children received quality education, many parents are now compelled to pay excessive amounts of money in boarding and tuition fees in private schools. Unfortunately, it is not every parent who can afford to pay the high price of private education at the secondary level. This makes it imperative that governments must invest in and resuscitate public secondary schools.
Secondary schools are an important part of any country's education system. In Nigeria, we cannot afford to wait for hard-of-hearing state governments to wake up to their social responsibilities. It would be tragic for us to wait till someone rises from the ashes of incompetent officials to initiate a productive secondary education policy. Thirty-three years ago, Richard Kletter, Larry Hirschhorn and Heather Hudson wrote quite perceptively: "If people are to improve their own collective well-being, they must be able to identify their own problems, gather information on possible alternatives, and plan and implement a course of action." This epitomises the situation with secondary education in Nigeria.
If the federal and state governments, including parents, alumni and other stakeholders deeply appreciate quality secondary education, they must participate actively to resuscitate a dying institution. One way forward is for cash-starved public secondary schools to tap the resources of their alumni who are in influential positions in public and private sectors. Old students can assist their alma mater by raising funds to improve services, to renovate and replace decrepit infrastructure and to pay for the services of quality teachers. Unfortunately, this can only serve as an interim solution. Nigeria needs more far-reaching solutions to sustain quality secondary education.
At the moment, anyone who has a sense of pride in his or her former secondary school should stand up to be counted. Old students' associations are an important oxygen bag that could save public secondary schools. If the federal and state governments have abdicated their responsibilities, the old students should not fail their alma mater. The challenge of saving public secondary schools is as much on the government as it is on the old students and the administrators of public schools to throw in the life-jacket that would rescue the sinking boat of secondary education in Nigeria.