Enrolment and Falling Standard of Education
Presently, state governments willing to revive education are faced with a dilemma. What do they do with the gross imbalance between the high student enrolment they inherited on the one hand and the lack of enough learning resources on the other? Undoubtedly, this imbalance directly affects quality of students. Such governments cannot simply gloss over this problem because without addressing it, whatever is spent on the structural improvement of the schools will surely amount to nothing.
This essay attempts to emphasize the need to decongest our schools and bring back the regulatory mechanisms through which quality was once achieved before the decay in the system set in.
At the debut of western education in this country and especially in the North where it met with stiff resistance, increase in enrolment of students was initially considered an encouraging development. The concern to make the sector attractive by governments continued well into the mid-seventies. Until then, managing standard of education was not a big problem because student enrolment and resources were balanced.
Those of us that had the opportunity to benefit from that dispensation would recall how our class size was kept relatively small, not more than 36 pupils. We all had adequate bed space and a variety of uniforms to wear in our boarding schools. Our meals were balanced and served on time. The infrastructure was adequate; every boarding school enjoyed clean drinking water from a borehole or from a general supply that was regular. In addition, all secondary schools were boarding, a condition that provided the maximum concentration students required for learning.
In those good old days, standard was largely maintained through a student population policy that is best described by a pyramid. Only a fraction of students, the best among them in fact, crossed from one level of the educational ladder to the next. This ensured better results and good management of the little resources available then. A secondary school that boarded up to a thousand students, if ever found, was considered too big a crowd to manage.
Thus from classrooms to dining halls, from hostels to sport fields, every child had the opportunity to enjoy facilities as did his contemporaries in other parts of the world. To sum it up, government did its best in making adequate arrangement for students to succeed. And that is all what it was required to do. It was left to us, the students, to work hard. Those who used the opportunity wisely became successful; those who squandered it have themselves to blame today.
The English say that comparisons are odious. That depicts any attempt to relate the state of education yesterday as described above and its condition today. I was shocked last week to learn of a day school in one of the north eastern state capitals with a population of over 7,000 students! My heart almost stopped beating. That was not the last surprise. I also discovered that in many metropolitan schools around, classes made for a maximum of 40 have today between 150 and 250 students.
What does any government hope to achieve with this? We do not need to talk about facilities, because under the present financial limitations, no government can claim to be providing even a quarter of the need of such students. Visit the schools and you will find that the students are living under sub-human conditions. Their teachers are no longer the immaculately neat ones we used to admire. On a visit to one of the secondary schools nearby, I found that the teachers have turned the classroom area into farms of corn, rice and yams. With their garma in hand and very dirty looking short nickers, they looked too haggard to be regarded as teachers.
There is little wonder therefore why the standard of students has fallen so drastically. Two incidents will make the picture clearer. Someone recently tried to assist a daughter of his friend with her homework. He soon realized that the girl that is in JSS III couldn’t even read English alphabets. A student of SSS I was asked the answer to 6 + 0. He said 9, faithfully.
A number of reasons are responsible for the declining standard of education. They include under-funding, increase in enrolment, indiscipline among students, lack of teachers and facilities, etc. However, most of these are effects rather than causes. The cause, which is often ignored, is student enrolment. And unless increase in enrolment is done commensurate with available management skills and affordable resources, a stress will be exerted on the system beyond what its strength can withstand. Decline in standard of the product thereby becomes inevitable. State governments eager to improve education must pay utmost attention to this problem.
There are a number of reasons why our schools are congested. First is the philosophy upon which education was founded especially in the last twenty-five years. This philosophy was borrowed from the doctrine of social democracy of Europe and America that aims at an egalitarian distribution of both rights and resources among citizens. Political rights, it argues, have no meaning if citizens are not given equal opportunity in sharing resources. This is a noble objective, and it was natural that education became one of the sectors most affected by it because the economy of nations and individuals today are knowledge based.
This philosophy was borrowed by many developing countries especially those that were influenced by socialist doctrines. Egypt for example did so in the late forties and early fifties under the socialist regime of Naser. It made learning compulsory on every citizen. What was “aristocratic” was made “democratic”, to borrow from the parlance of the late Dr. Taha Husein, the father of modern Arabic literature. In his thesis, Dr. Husein observed that learning was accorded to only a small fraction of the population that undertook it. But with democratization, its gates were opened to all and sundry, something that will need considerable skill and resources to manage.
Nigeria started to borrow this philosophy with the introduction of free primary education program in the defunct Western Region. But critically speaking, school enrolment was expected to rise nationwide due to both increases in the population and the percentage of parents interested in education. By 1975, our population must have increased by at least 25% over its 1963 figure, when we last had an officially published census. By that time too, students that went to primary schools in the early 1950s have tasted the benefits of education and have also become parents of children who were ripe by the early 1970s to enroll in schools. So there were demographic and other social pressures on primary and secondary schools that required them to increase their enrolment by 1975.
The issue of planning became central as the two pressures persisted to the present day. Government failed to change its policy. In fact it exacerbated the problem by introducing the Universal Primary Education (UPE) during the Murtala-Obasanjo era. Nothing really was bad about UPE, were adequate arrangements made for it and enough resources were available to perpetuate it beyond the lifetime of the regime. Unfortunately, both conditions were not met, and against all expert advice the government of that day went ahead to introduce it. As it turned out, the regime could not supply the enormous number of teachers required nor could the federal government, with the fall in oil prices after 1981, continue to fund the schools to the pre-1975 standard.
Secondly, beyond the primary school, standard could have been maintained reasonably if government had continued with some of its previous policies on absorption into secondary schools. As a result of politics and the desire of each state to get its fair share of the national cake in which student enrolment is a determining factor, more secondary schools were opened during the Second Republic. So admissions went berserk. Almost nationwide, checks and balances in the system were abandoned.
Then came what they call ‘automatic absorption’ of primary school pupils into secondary schools. In those days, a third of the students were weeded at the ‘common entrance’ examination. Then only half of the class would cross the ‘interview’. Thus, in a class of 36 in our primary school, only 18 of us ‘passed’ to various post primary schools in the former Northeastern State. Today, the common entrance examination is a sham, and there is no ‘interview’. Also, promotions from one class to another are practically automatic. Students are made to understand that whether they work hard or not they will automatically be absorbed into junior secondary schools in the name of a rubbish that is called 6-3-3-4.
This entailed two things. One is desecration of merit, or discouraging it entirely. Two, it over-stretched the resources of government. This is so because training a child in the secondary school, where some degree of specialization (and therefore more equipment, manpower and infrastructure) is required is about seven times that of a primary school child. And where are the resources to do this?
The third factor in the enrolment saga is the sad habit of most educators. Apart from adopting automatic absorption, admissions were decentralized from their position in the state ministry of education to schools. As a result of this, no state ministry of education in the North can today precisely account for the number of its students. Ministry officials, principals, vice-principals, game masters, etc, give admissions into all levels throughout the year. All it requires is N200.00. It is a very disheartening situation. The implication of this is that at every moment, someone somewhere is carelessly committing government.
In the end, we have schools that had the reputation for excellence transformed into dead woods inhabited by thousands of termites called students who cannot produce a single credit at GCE for years. This must not be allowed to continue. It must be reversed at all cost. We must ensure that we return sanity to our schools. I have always argued that nothing new needs to be introduced. The old concept of a pyramid is still valid and it will remain so as far as education is concerned. Finally, the bitter pill of decongesting our schools has to be swallowed.
I know that there are obstacles on the path of educational reforms, but with the resolve and endurance of government to do the right thing, they can be overcome. The decisions to be taken, the obstacles on their path and the resolve required to surmount them will, God willing, be the subject matter of our discourse next week.