Academic performance in many schools have nose-dived, with majority of the students in secondary schools recording very poor grades from qualifying examinations such as the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) and National Examination Council (NECO). However, a group of Catholic Schools operated by Marist Brothers’ Congregation is leading the move to reverse the trend and ensure development in education. Onyebuchi Ezigbo writes

The lacklustre performances being recorded by Nigerian school children in major examinations in recent times has become a source of worry to parents and the society at large.
Most public schools across the country have failed to live up to expectations in striving to maintain a record of excellence in examinations. This poor show is not by any means limited to only public schools as many other schools operated by individuals and private organisations have concentrated on raking huge profits from the schools rather than ensuring quality education for children.
Indeed the situation has reached a worrisome state where the entire education system in the country is being undermined by rising number of students with poor academic standards.

Beacon of Hope
However, it is not all bad news after all. There are quite a number of exceptions amongst schools in the country where academic excellence has become a matter of principle. Among these centres of excellence in the education sector are the mission schools of which one of them is the Marist Brothers Juniorate.

Stories have been told of how in the years past, missionary schools ran by churches and religious bodies had provided standard education and successfully transformed students placed under their care into great talents. With its headquarters in Uturu, Abia state, Marist Brothers Juniorate schools recently made history by emerging the second best school in the 2015 WAEC examinations. The schools are operated under the auspices of the Marist Brothers’ Congregation, a Catholic religious organisation.

The history of the school is traced to 1949 when the Marist Brothers came to Nigeria and opened their first schools namely Bishop Shanaham College (B.S.C) Orlu in Imo State and College of Immaculate Conception (C.I.C) Enugu. They were the best schools in the East in those days and today they still remain the pride of their states.
In 1965, the Marist Brothers established the Marist Brothers’ Juniorate in Uturu. Their focal point remained the teaching of children in Christian morals – that behind the forces of fate there is a God who made man in his own image, and loving him, had given him the freedom to choose between good and evil. In 1964, the Marist Brothers established the Marist Brothers’ Juniorate at Uturu. From then till now, the Marist Brothers and the Marist Schools have grown like a mustard seed.

Today it boasts of seven schools in five different states: Marist Brothers’ Juniorate, Uturu; Marist Comprehensive Academy, Uturu; Marist Comprehensive College, Ezzagu, Ebonyi State; Christ the King College, Ire Ekiti, Ekiti State; Marist Comprehensive College, Nteje, Anambra State; Marist College, Yangoji, Abuja; Christ the King College, Gwagwalada, Abuja, and Sacred Heart Marist College, Ejule, Kogi State.

Peculiar Characteristics
The congregation consists of men who voluntarily devote their lives to the service of the poor (of Jesus Christ) in the schools and Social Centres, whereas the juniors are young aspirants to this congregation and the Institute where they are taken care of is called the Juniorate. The Juniorate was established to provide the young men with basic post-Primary education. It also gives them time to mature in a Christian atmosphere so that they clearly understand the type of life they want to embrace.
Some underlining factors helped to mark out these schools run by the Marist Brothers in the country. First, the Marist educational philosophy pursues a holistic education of the child, and for many years the group has held tenaciously to this vision.

This holistic education helps young people build a well-rounded and integrated personality, trains them to respect the dignity of work and develop strong character and will, as well as spirit of team work. Moreso it inspires young people to adopt a life of service to their local communities, the country and the world by imitating Mary’s way of being: simplicity, modesty and purity.
In the pursuit of this goal a number of things come to mind. Every normal human being possesses the capacity to learn concepts when organised systematically. This differentiates humans from the other primates and researches in education psychology have proved that there is no limit to human capacity to teach.

Overcoming Challenges
Teaching and learning remain challenging practices in the Nigerian environment. Marist Schools were established basically to confront and defeat the challenges. In Nigeria today, one major problem in imparting knowledge remains the physical environment where the learning process takes place.
Most schools, public and private have very shoddy class-rooms. The roofs leak, the walls are dilapidated and there are no basic facilities, even some lack chalk and chalkboards. Most often, their students have not seen science laboratory before and the idea of computer education is a mirage. The teachers are not paid, majority of them indulge in self-pity and express the wish that their off-spring may never experience the same disappointment and difficulties they currently endure.

But at Marist Brothers’ Juniorate, schools were built with adequate attention to physical aesthetics required for a good learning environment. As the Director of the Juniorate in Uturu-Okigwe in Abia state, Rev. Ifeanyi Mbaegbu explained, the school employs an architect whose main role is to see that the structures erected in the school correspond with the natural landscapes of the environment that house the school. The class-rooms are spaciously arranged in the ratio of a teacher to 30 students; to make the teaching and learning process less stressful to both teacher and learners.

In the vital area of staff recruitment and quality control measures, Mbaegbu said that adequate care is taken to ensure that graduate teachers are recruited from all the tribes of Nigeria and even beyond. He explained that the teachers are recruited through a rigorous process, after they had done well in oral, written and practical interviews conducted by the school Management team in collaboration with the Marist Management Education Board.
In the last few years, the teachers had attended seminars in Europe, America and East Africa. The idea is that the attendees would have a wider scope of what the education of youth entails and come home with new ideas which they would share with both teaching and non-teaching staff members.

Celebrating Excellence
When the Marist Schools emerged the second best school in the results of the 2015 West African Senior Certificate Examination (WASCE), it was time to roll out the drums and celebrate years of hard work and dogged spirit in the pursuit of academic excellence.
For Mbaegbu, it was also an opportunity to tell some of the secrets of successes recorded by the school. He said the first rule that guides teaching and learning in the Marist Brothers’ Juniorate (MBJ) is that every person in the system sees himself as a member of one family. He enumerated some of the academic laurels won by the school both at the state and national levels.
In the 2014 Cowbell Mathematics competition, MBJ took the second position in Abia. In the Junior Science Olympiad for (2015) in Imo State, MBJ also took the first position. In such national examinations as WAEC and NECO the school had walked tall. In 1995, the school’s WAEC result was so good that WAEC delayed its release till they sent two independent teams to check all the students’ internal results, mock examination inclusive, and even sitting arrangement.

Best Lesson
One remarkable lesson to be learnt from the Marist Brothers’ Juniorate is the ability to create and nurture a learning environment that ensures that teachers love the children as if they were their own children. The school’s insistence on high quality of teaching and academic exposure is also something that deserves emulation by its contemporaries.