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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Parents and Education in Northern Nigeria

Parents and Education in the North

My attention was once again drawn to education recently when I was on a visit in a government office. An elderly person, a Baba, made a remark that appeared serious to me. He said that if the present trend in decline in standard of education is not stopped, forty years from now no educated person will be found in the North. You may think that this is too remote to be true. But give it a second thought, you would find that his argument, as far as the limits of its premise is concerned, does carry some element of validity.
I have pondered over his observation, thinking what must be done to stop the catastrophe. As a northerner that enjoyed free education all through, I simply emptied the dustbin at the doorstep of Mr. Government. Readers will remember that this was the view I earlier expressed in a series titled Re-educating the North. Having lost hope that Mr. Government will do anything substantially positive, I later presented another angle in an article titled Islam and Education where I urged communities to take over the challenge since we cannot afford to wait for Mr. Government to become responsible once more.
However, coincidentally, in the months that followed the publication, education was given attention by northern governments and interested groups. Whether their effort will yield beta, na time wey sabi tell o. This not withstanding, the perspective of communities must not be overlooked. Nothing stops parents sharing a street or even a single large family from organizing their children to share a blackboard in a zaure or a garage.

My recent involvement in education and especially the ponder that resulted from our discussion with the Baba introduced a totally new perspective, that of the individual. I now think education has failed in the North because we have failed to accord it the value it deserves. Those of us that were opportune to acquire it have failed to regard it as an asset deserving to be passed to following generations at all cost.
Take wealth for instance. Many people, once beyond forty, toil for wealth simply in order to leave it behind for their children. Many will go as far as stealing from the public treasury to secure the future of their progeny. Wealth is therefore considered valuable enough to be passed as a legacy to following generations. It is sad that education does not enjoy this status in our mind. Otherwise, how do we explain an educated father that has dozens of children, yet, none of them could reasonably read or write? Does not he feel that having enjoyed the benefits of education, even in the absence of government, he can grant his child the same by dedicating a fraction of his wealth or a portion of his time?
If all the hundreds of thousands of parent that enjoyed western education in the North up to the late seventies have taken scholarship seriously they would have turned over millions of others on their own, even as the performance of government in the sector was collapsing. Consider an average father of six to ten children. If he had educated his children, at the time of his death he would have left six to ten other scholars in the society. Where you have thousands of such parents, millions of students will be produced. The south is exemplary in this respect.

The question here is, what hinders us from looking at education from this angle of primary responsibility of the person and not government or community? The first is the cultural conflict that greeted its debut, as I indicated in my earlier articles. However, if this would serve as an excuse for our parents and grandparents, it cannot be held valid for us who had the opportunity to live with it and taste its fruits for decades. So let’s drop this.
The second reason could be poverty. The average educated northerner is still a civil servant that survives on a salary that looks miserable in the face of a devaluated currency. The paramount responsibility for him therefore is to provide for the physiological need of his family. Unfortunately for education, it is intellectual, a luxury expected to be provided for by Mr. Government. And when it fails, it is its own lookout. Parents that start their families on this wrong philosophy of home management soon find out that after the first twenty years they are faced with a swarm of idle youth that, though fully grown and graced with physical strength, cannot fend for themselves because they are weak in mind and skill. They remain a liability for life. The parents too do not help matters. They continue to bring in more mouths on both the vertical and horizontal planes of the dinner table.
In this way, a family that once appeared promising at its onset gets locked up in a vicious circle of poverty, with education increasingly pushed to the periphery until it is muscled away completely. Thus the single educated father that could have yielded twenty others, were he a southerner, would carry his educational experience along to his grave.

I find this poverty theory to be only partially correct. One may wish to know whether southerners, who insist on educating their children at all cost, are not suffering from the same economic deprivation.
Again, if we look at the environment in most northern states, the funding that will appear overwhelming to parents is that which obtains at the secondary school level. There, the child is expected to buy expensive textbooks and other learning materials in addition to uniforms and maintenance allowance if he is attending boarding. But even this has been circumvented with the presence of day secondary schools. A probe at what happens in these secondary schools will put a substantial part of the blame back to parents.
Standard of secondary school education has fallen because of the poor product they receive from the primary school. Students in our public primary schools today are not learning anything. Here also a number of factors are responsible. They include lack of adequate teacher training, over congestion of the schools, truancy, lack of teaching materials, books, poor language, etc. But in relation to our topic on the role of parents in education, the shortcomings in the primary school can be circumvented with extra lessons at home, administered either by parents themselves or hired teachers. I cannot imagine a teacher or civil servant that has a child that has reached JSS III but who is unable to read alphabets correctly. What has the father been doing all this time?
The primary school level is the most crucial in education, especially its first three years. It is here where the child is taught the art of reading, writing, arithmetic and language. Without this he has no future in education. Fortunately, the substantial part of this requirement can be achieved at home, in addition to the little that is taught in school. This has nothing to do with poverty but has everything to do with our shrinking worldview.
I am confident that once every educated parent is ready to take up the challenge and teach his child at home a lot can be achieved. The graduate teachers in the secondary schools can have the students qualified to understand their grammar. With this effort, an educated father will certainly be proud to leave behind, at the time of his death, a tradition of learning that he has founded on hard work. Poverty will, God willing, shift from his house, look for accommodation elsewhere.

Family size
In addition, we need to look at other areas. We need to balance the size of our families with our resources. Otherwise, from what we see in practice, people soon become overwhelmed before their first child gains ‘freedom’. I do not mind much about growth on the horizontal axis that involves increase in children from the same mother. It has a distribution that is naturally spaced.
The trouble is with the vertical axis. The poor civil servant who cannot afford a decent meal for his family or good education for his child will be the first to marry another wife whenever small opening presents itself, thus increasing the magnitude of the vertical axis. I am of the opinion that, given our new political economy that is heavily based on skills that are acquired through formal learning, polygamy should strictly be entered into only at auspicious times. If done in tight economic situations, the future of our children will be jeopardized.

I have heard people complaining that their time is limited. Parents would therefore argue that they couldn’t afford an hour to teach their children. Such statements disappoint me. Is not 24 hrs enough time in a day? Well, a businessman could be busy but he must make his business pay for a tutor at home. For the civil servant that cannot claim to be busy earning money, what does he use his 16 hrs for, if he uses only 8 hrs in the office? Of the 16 remaining hours, hardly can he use more than 8 hrs sleeping. What happens to the remaining 8 hrs? Roaming about the town gossiping or watching TV? I am sure that with a slight adjustment, we will be able to give our children at least an hour in a day. They deserve it. If we are not blessed with wealth we should console ourselves that we are blessed with time and health. And our children should be the first beneficiaries of that blessing.

Now, let us task our sisters with a responsibility. The effort to educate children at home must not be limited to the father. Quite a lot will be achieved if our sisters at home will give a helping hand. Many of them are educated, at least enough to teach their children the three ‘r’s. Unfortunately, many of them are hardly interested in doing so. Nevertheless, they should be encouraged to gradually cultivate the practice. Those of them that have tried it know very well that the potential for achievement here is great.

Finally, an area where parents will improve on the educational performance of their children in the North is in the area of language. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on the way you look at it, we have a very conquering language, Hausa. Even the educated among us find it difficult to take a leave from it and speak at length in English, unless under obligation. If Hausa would be a bit less monopolizing and allow some amount of English to creep into our homes and slip into our conversations, our children at school would stand a better chance of understanding their school teachers and textbooks.

While not belittling the efforts of government and the community, this essay has tried to explore areas for improving the performance of our children in schools, transferring part of the garbage of failure from the doorstep of Mr. Government to our own. It has shown how with determination of both parents and through simple efforts like the creation of time to teach our children at home of controlled size and slipping in one or two words of English in our conversation with them, the fear expressed by Baba that in forty years no educated northerner will be found will soon become history. Lets cease to be selfish.

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