More Private Schools, Please
Last week the Kano State House of Assembly resolved to reduce the number of private schools in the state and direct all government officials to withdraw their children from such schools and enrol them henceforth only in public schools. This is an idea that has been touted in the North by many people who feel deeply concerned about the “death” of education in the region. Their thesis is that reforming the education sector has been made impossible because government officials who are responsible for embarking on the reforms have found an escape route through the backdoor provided by the presence of private schools. They educate their children there and leave those of the masses to continue suffering in neglect.
At the debut of the idea two years ago, I wrote an article using the above title in my former column criticizing the idea, showing that, contrary to the popular sentiment, the nation needs more private schools, of course with their standards set and strictly supervised by statutory authorities. In view of the resolution passed by the assembly in Kano as well as the growing criticisms on the presence of private schools, I am reproducing an abridged version of that article here to convince both the citizenry and policy makers nationwide that private schools are assets, not liability.
The essential question here is how strong is the evidential link, as the logicians would call it, between the proliferation of private schools and the patronage they receive from public servants on the one hand and the failure of government to reform public schools on the other? The link is weak if we consider the factors that led to the collapse of public schools in the country. One is proliferation of public schools and their overpopulation that started with the introduction of Universal Primary Education. The capacity of the system became overstretched, first, in terms of personnel when the program was launched, then in terms of funding when the fortunes of the country started to decline. The second is the squandermania and thievery that flourished under the laissez-faire administrations that started in the mid-eighties and which destroyed every sector of governance in the country.
Therefore the major stumbling block to education reform today is mismanagement. There is too much emphasis on rehabilitation of structures at the expense of provision of teaching materials and development of learning skills. There is also neglect of students and teachers’ welfare, lack of adequate inspection, and so on. These reasons, which we have discussed in detail in previous articles on education, are responsible for the falling standard of education, not the existence of private schools.
On the simple correlation between proliferation of private schools and the falling standard of public schools, the fact is that falling standard of public schools was what caused the proliferation of private schools. Even today, if governments were to restore standard of education in public schools, many private schools will become bereft of customers. This is why public schools like Kano State Science Schools and Bauchi State Special Schools have become hotcakes where public servants and the masses scramble to outwit one another in enrolling their children.
The next question is what moral wrong or legal breach is committed by civil servants who enrol their children in private schools? It is necessary in the first place to divorce any generalization that holds all civil servants as responsible for fallen (not falling, anymore) standard of education. The fact remains that not all public officers, not even all those in ministries of education, can be blamed. They are not to blame for the inaptitude of a leadership that deprived the sector of funds and facilities. What would the officers do before power-drunk administrators that had the least interest of their subjects at heart? What will an officer do when no fund is allocated to him, or whenever it was allocated it was accompanied by senseless directives?
Is being a public servant then enough ground to stop a messenger, for example, or any innocent public officer who did not partake in this mischief, from sending his child to a private school? If we cannot deny the children of such civil servants access to private schools, how then do we justify denying private individuals the right and freedom to educate their children in such schools? In law, the right of government over public servants stops at their official duties. What they do about the welfare of their families is completely out of the domain of any its claim and encroaching into it is infringing of their fundamental human rights.
Let me give this parable by way of summary. Do we need to close private clinics and hospitals or ban public servants and their children from enjoying their services before we can revive the standard of our public hospitals? The child deserves good education regardless of its source, just as he deserves to be treated wherever his cure is anticipated whenever he is sick.
Now, having easily established the rights of citizens to educate their children anywhere, we are tempted to lay the claim that for the North to have a stable and sustained development in education, it needs to encourage the establishment of private schools. There are many reasons for this proposition.
Perhaps the strongest reason is the fact that education is a basic pre-requisite of life today. This makes it necessary for parents to take personal interest and responsibility in educating their children. Leaving education entirely in the hands of government will be catastrophic, given the sum of all the uncertainty, inconsistencies and inefficiency.
Our ancestors realised this and for it education remained private for most part of human history until recently. Even in Europe, it was the growth of capitalism and industry that caused the debut of what experts call formal education through which culture, literacy and technical knowledge is transmitted. The reason why government became involved in establishing schools in Europe was because it was realised that to sustain an economy of an industrialized nation, productive skills of all citizens must be improved through access to formal education where such skills are harmonized and harnessed. In America, where the right of education is not enshrined in the constitution because the constitution preceded the advent of formal education, public funding of education was adopted as a state policy only in the early 19th century and was given a boost in the 1930s in an effort to ‘anglicise’ immigrants whose preponderance was perceived as threatening to the “American Character,” in the account of C. L. Chochran and E. F. Malone.
Here at home, private funding of education is in line with our past. Islamic education, as important as it is, has always been private. People started schools at will, and parents were free to enrol their children in schools of their choice, sometimes in distant places. Children were sacrificed to education even at early age, the root of the almuhajir tradition that has unfortunately transformed into a social quagmire today.
The second reason is that private schools are an alternative to public schools. There might be times when lapses would overtake public schools and their standard fall drastically. Parents have every right to seek for excellence, the best they could find for their children, anytime, anywhere. Public schools, because of their size and bureaucracy, have been reported to be lowest in standard, almost worldwide. The aim is skill acquisition and scholarship that will be used for the common good of the society. If you go to a hospital, do you ask whether the physician is a graduate of private or public school?
The third reason is that as our population increases and we become more enlightened, enrolment increases without any improved efficiency in governance. Public schools eventually become increasingly weaker. The establishment of private schools then becomes necessary not only as options for parents or alternatives in pursuit of excellence as mentioned earlier, but also as a safety valve for easing the pressure build-up. If a parent would agree to sponsor the education of his child, that is commendable as it proves goes a long way to prove his commitment to education in addition to lessening the burden on government; if thousands would do the same, that will bring a lot of relief to government. The resources of government would then be concentrated on educating the less privileged in the society. Here, private schools are a positive contribution that complements the effort of government.
I will be happy to see private schools proliferate in the North as they have done in the South. In just some few years to come, it will be evident that graduates of private schools will be the only ones that will come to the aid of the region, as it is common knowledge that the harvest of public primary and secondary schools has been close to zero for almost a decade now. The South is affected to a lesser extent because its private schools have the capacity to provide almost all its manpower needs. That is the way. The North must in the same way realise that dependence on government has proved disastrous. It must not continue to carry that mistake any further.
A fourth dimension is the suggestion that I also gave long ago that column: government can go into a partnership with private entrepreneurs on education. For example, it can rehabilitate some institutions and lease them out to whoever is ready to effectively use them in return for, say, educating a minimum number of indigenes of the state freely. Many other areas of partnership could be explored.
In conclusion, private schools need not be scapegoats to explain the failure of public ones. There is no way public schools can operate efficiently amidst the ongoing laziness and mismanagement in government. As we have seen in article, private schools are today needed to serve as options for parents in a free society; as alternatives to which parents will resort whenever public schools fail; as complementing bodies that reduce the enormous pressure that is progressively building up in public schools as a result of population growth and other factors; as partners with government in reducing its education load; and finally as competitors in pursuit of excellence together with public schools.
While government tries to improve the standard of its schools through future judicious use of resources and efficient management, there is the need not only to encourage the existing private schools, but also to allow them proliferate in the interest of the nation. The best service that government will render to its citizens here is to ensure that whether a school is private or public, it has to maintain the minimum standard set by the authorities. Otherwise, the society will be better of without it.
I rest my case.