In this interview, Professor Pat Utomi shares some insights into building a multi-dimensional education system capable of meeting the quality of manpower development and socio-economic needs of the country and its citizenry, with quality teachers. Peace Obi presents excerpts

So much has been said about the dwindling standard of education in the country, what steps can be taken to improve quality and accessible education for Nigerian children?

First I want to say that education is for learning and not for certificates. The first thing we must do is to look at where we are going as a country and ask ourselves what kind of skills we can provide that will create opportunities for people. Education ought not to be the same thing across Nigeria.

Could you explain further?

If we look at our country and see that in certain zones the thing that will lead to most economic transformation is say agric-based. In that area, there can be such an emphasis on agriculture input into the curriculum. In that area, the curriculum will be different from say a petrochemicals section of the country, where the whole effort will be on how to draw out the petrochemical value chain.

What are the practical ways of achieving this?

If we are very practical in that sense and some sections or parts of the country decide and say what we want to compete around is technology, and the people around there, the curriculum is such that will make it become a mini Finland where you get the best quality of training in technology-related kind of issues. It can be like that.

But what is important to recognise is that the heart of a successful education is the teacher quality and their interaction with reality; where people are looking at their environment and see education as tools they will use to change that environment and build a future.
What must be universal everywhere are certain sense of values. We must have civic education come back to the heart of our curriculum because that is how you will get people to become passionate about what they are doing.

A small American child has this view of the founding fathers of America and their dreams for the United States of America. That motivates that kid to want to build that kind of country. But somehow, we have lost that out. Civic education is very important to get back into our education system.

What can be done to get the best out of our teachers so as to impart the right kind of knowledge that will unlock the potential in the students they teach?

First, we have to celebrate the teacher, reward the teacher well, not just in salary but also in terms of their prestige in the community. When some of us were growing up, the most revered persons were the village headmasters. That is why NTA used to run a drama series called ‘The Village Headmaster’. It was the centre of the community. Today, the teacher is seen as an outcast who has nothing else to do. So, we get people of low capacity, low self-esteem to become teachers. And as some said recently when we were discussing this subject, teachers then inflict their social anger on the children they are supposed to be teaching. The children go away with a world view of a society that prevents them from attaining their potential.

Where exactly does the problem lies? Is it with the teacher training programmes or teachers’ motivation?

Many of these teachers are not trained at all. By the way, if someone has a degree in chemistry that does not mean he can teach and sometimes the NCE programme is not teaching teaching. Well, we need to work through all of that in addition to ensuring that they can use technology to keep themselves on top of the developments in their fields. Many of the teachers are as ignorant as the students they are teaching. You saw the case in Edo State where Governor Adams Oshiomhole was interviewing teachers.
What we need to do with the help of technology as I suggested once is that we will be training both teacher and the students at the same time.

How is that possible?

Here the teacher is used as the facilitator. A great teacher from a remote location is using this, whether internet-based, video-based or whatever. The person is teaching the class, the teacher is learning as the students are learning. But the teacher has more experience and he is an interface person and so he can help with solving problems for the people in the class and if he/she gets better and better, he can teach more directly better down the line. So, using those kinds of remote learning systems we can significantly improve the education of our young people.

Finland’s education system has become a reference point for quality education in recent times; what can Nigeria borrow from the Finland’s model?

The most important ingredient about the Finland model is the prestige of the teacher. Teachers are the highest paid people in Finland. Their income, their prestige, then the kinds of brands that are available in their system for science training, science research and science development. These are the kinds of things that have made it possible for companies like Nokia to come out of a very small country.

What kind of reform can be introduced into education training institutes to produce teachers with empathy and passion?

One of the things I like to talk about in this regard is using incentives. You can actually compensate teachers from the pass rate of their students. Like say, this year, any teacher that his pupils score more than 80 per cent in primary school examination gets a bonus of 90 per cent of his/her salary. That is one kind of motivation you put it there; this person gets celebrated country-wide.
I mean, I can imagine, I chaired the Nigerian Breweries Teacher of the Year Competition. Do you think that the teacher that won that competition is going to be an ordinary teacher for the rest of her life? There is something she is carrying, she is different, she is special and she must give 130 per cent and not 100 per cent. So, these are the things we can use to motivate them.

From all indications, the winner of the Maltina Teacher of the Year is an exceptional teacher and stands out in many ways.

Yes, she is but we have got to make others to want to stand out.

Do you think it should be about individual teachers deciding to carry out their duties in an extraordinary way?

No, no, there should be standards below which we don’t accept people falling. Standards are very very important. It is teaching those standards and process of accountability and systems of accountability that will produce committed and disciplined teachers in our education system.

What do you mean by having systems of accountability in place?

You know in those years teaching inspectors were very important part of the education system then. When we were in high school, they will come around, they would mingle, they come around and see how people were teaching and would make their reports to the ministry of education and issues would be raised. We need good teaching inspection; we need accountability on the performance of the students. I mean, look at what is happening in Anambra State. Anambra used to be one of the poorest performing states. And the joke was that everybody wants to go to the market and all of that and Peter Obi came and returned the system to the missions and what happened? In less than two years, they have gone to the top. The young lady that won the Maltina Teacher of the Year Award is from that state and many other awards like that the state has continued to win. In WAEC, the students are top performers. This is a state that was at the bottom; just one year of changing how schools are administered shows you how those things matter. So, the way we administer the school system is very critical.

What can be done to ensure that the right people are in charge of the country’s education system?

We need to find more of the S.B. Awokoyas; we need to find those people who are very passionate about education. Not just politicians going there as ministers of education or commissioners for education. No, it has to be persons who define their self-worth on how the schools are performing; who do not sleep until their numbers are better than the numbers of the competing states.

You have been a teacher of repute, what are some of the efforts you are making to ensure that the Nigerian education system is beneficial to the average Nigerian child?

I have become involved lately with an association called the Association for Formidable Education Development (AFED). These are owners of private schools in slum areas. I am going to be committing a lot of efforts to see how the process of improving funding and support for those kinds of schools, improving their standards can take place. I am going to be working on that and I hope it makes a difference.