Markson Fefegha is the Commissioner for Education in Bayelsa State. In this interview, the former school teacher argues that public schools, despite their shortcomings, have better quality than their private counterparts. He also boasts that the state will soon become the first destination for young people seeking sound education in the country. Emmanuel Addeh presents excerpts
How ready is Bayelsa State educationally to take on emerging challenges, given the importance of capacity building in developing societies?
In Niger Delta we talk about resource control, but you get there and our people are not there. If for example, Shell says we are abandoning this project for you now, how many Bayelsa people are ready to take it up? We will still be looking for external persons to come and help us. So the vision of the governor is that we must build human capital and education is the way to do that.
In those days, when one was admitted into private school, it was like playing second fiddle because he couldn’t gain admission to a public school. We called them commercial schools in those days. Today, so many states rely on these private schools. I taught in a private school. First thing you should realise is that the private schools don’t have qualified teachers.
Either they have single honours or they just have the passion to teach or see it as a springboard to other things. When I taught in a private school, as good as I was my passion as a young man was not to stay there. So I was always in Lagos, Abuja looking for other jobs. But in public schools like the Adaka Boro Model School, the school has produced the best.
When did the deterioration of public institutions begin in Bayelsa?
We inherited a state and the apparatus that was left behind for us by past administrations was in comatose. For example, BDGS, the first primary school in central Ijaw area was abandoned and students were taken to Okaka. Since we brought the school back, almost everyday parents are withdrawing their children from far and near to put them back, reason being that they have been deprived of that right to go to the right school.
When you hear cultism in Yenagoa and surrounding, it is as a result of the parents who no longer afford to send their children to school. So, between here and far away there was no public school, so that accounted for most of them dropping out or attending these schools that they use tarpaulins or water proof as shelter and then call them schools. That was the only one they could afford.
When your salary is N25,000 a month and you have 10 children, how do you cope. Our idea is to rehabilitate old schools and build new ones. So the governor has declared an emergency on education to restructure and rehabilitate.
Then the morale of the teachers was very low. Even when some of them earn like lecturers in the university, they still look down on themselves before civil servants. But I have realised that they earn more than their counterparts, yet they have low morale. So we had to restructure and ensure for example that principals prepare their own vouchers and the governor said every month teachers will be paid first.
How has the restructuring changed the face of education here?
We have 159 secondary schools and we are taking care of them. We also have 544 primary schools which are all public. Teachers now have a sense of belonging. I feel very proud. One thing that the governor did was to make one of the teachers a permanent secretary. That was the first time. That made them happy. He started having dinners with principals and headmasters.
We are cleaning up the system, buying desks, bags and books, to ease the burden on the local governments. The teachers need teaching aids.
But almost all the teachers want to stay in the state capital. Then go to teach in their locations. You can’t leave Yenagoa to Brass Local Government Area to go and teach and then come back, it is not possible.
So we are pleading with them to stay in their locations. I was a teacher. Teaching is meant for humble people, who are enthusiastic about the job and who feel it is their duty to bring up other people’s children.
Then there are benefits too. Everywhere I go today, people come to meet me and say you taught me in so so year. Some of them are doing well.
I have my products that are in the house of assembly and some of them are co-commissioners. A serving commissioner I taught in secondary school, whenever he sees me, he gives me that respect. They stand up for me to sit down if we have to attend a meeting. What else do I want?
The teacher should have a sense of pride in himself. You don’t compete with people in life. I have never applied to work in a bank. Though in the early days I wanted to join the security forces, but each time, I applied for a teaching job, they always asked me to start work immediately. So, I said to myself, maybe that is what God wants me to do. Teachers should have a sense of responsibility and pride.
You mentioned the discrepancy in quality of public and private institutions. Could you elaborate?
Talking about demarcation between the private and public schools, in public schools, they have very qualified teachers. Not only did they read education, some of them are really thorough. They started teaching from primary, secondary and some of them now in the university system.
They are masters in their own games. But you have private schools that are big in size or as glamorous, but you see teachers who are there because there was no other job. Sometimes, they just improvise.
You can’t ask somebody who read history to teach English. He doesn’t know the complexities like syntax, phonology, orthography and can’t even arrange syntax of a sentence. The children will emulate him. We want people to know that in two three years, in Bayelsa State, people will hardly want to attend private schools.
We want to redesign the system. We are reorganising the school boards. What are 22 directors doing in a zonal schools board. Each of them earning level 17 salary.
I saw a young man I taught in Port Harcout who graduated with a first class, sitting down on the board. He ought to be out there teaching our children. He was begging, but I told him that the fact that he was my student even makes it pertinent to do the right thing. No excuse.
You can’t have a first class and waste it on a zonal schools board. Another one, second class upper, geography, yet wasting his talent there.
We want a sound education system and aesthetics too, beautiful surroundings. So, we talk not just about quantity but quality. We are mass producing schools, but we must ensure discipline.
How much success has been recorded since the restructuring and redesigning started?
Now we are building model schools in all the local government areas. We are building boarding schools for those on scholarships. If the primary school is faulty, we try to correct it at the secondary school level so that by the time you get to university, you will be sound. You don’t need to cheat in exams to pass. We have conducted entrance at St. Jude’s; the beds are there . The hostels are ready. The sense of discipline is more in boarding schools. And it’s happening here.
What about the controversy surrounding the new University of Africa?
At the tertiary level, we are doing a lot. Many people think that we are bringing in a new university to undermine the Niger Delta University. That’s so wrong. Even before I came here, I knew the governor had a vision to establish a specialised university to complement NDU.
We are looking at how we can export our intellect to other parts of the world. It’s very obvious that oil cannot always be relied upon. It is depleting. Cuba can pride itself for exporting doctors and boxing coaches all over the world.
What will be the mainstay of Bayelsa when oil dries up?
We are building capacity to man the structures. We want an international university. We have a registrar and we have a vice-chancellor who is a foreigner and others are coming in to help build it. In Zaria town alone, there are more than five degree awarding institutions and it is just a suburb of Kaduna. What is wrong if Ovom has one university, Famgbe has one, or if Nembe has one. How many do Ekiti, Osun etc have. We have agreed on subvention for the NDU. We need to open up our frontiers. We are thinking of upgrading the Bayelsa College of Education to a polytechnic to attract investment from donor agencies. The COE will be affiliated to the NDU to award degrees. Our teachers need to be trained. There is a tertiary intervention fund of N10 billion and NDU alone will have about N5 billion of that. That university doesn’t have a senate building. We will lay the foundation this month.
They don’t have hostels. We want to build hostels to help them stay on campus, then internal roads and staff quarters. We are not undermining NDU. If we have another opportunity to build another university we will do so. We want to turn Bayelsa to an education tourist state. From the calculations, about N40 billion has been sunk into infrastructure and other areas of development in the education services.
What are some of the challenges you encountered in the course of your job here?
The major challenge is funding. We have a prudent governor who rationalises everything otherwise it will be difficult. We need good furniture in all the schools, laboratories, sporting facilities. In Jude’s we have home economics lab, science laboratories etc. This should be replicated in all the schools. Then ICT in all schools; very soon, all their exams will be computer based. Even JAMB has done it. That is the future. Thankfully, the house of assembly has also raised a motion to that effect. Then we need sick bays in the schools, we need good books, even for teachers. The challenge is funding.
How far have you gone with the verification exercise initiated by the governor?
We are still working on the numbers so I may not be able to tell you now. But it was becoming something like a menace to the system. We have saved substantially. There are retirees there, some actually died, but we are cleaning up the vouchers.
But that is not even the major issue. You go to some schools where the non-academic staff out-number the academic staff, thereby increasing the wage bill.
We need more lecturers. We lack teachers. But even headmasters have personal assistants now as high as seven. Almost everybody in the community works there either as a clerk or something. At the end of the exercise, we will know who is a ghost worker and who is not. Some of them are not ghosts.
There is always the tendency to concentrate on the towns and cities are you reaching out to the hinterlands to develop the schools in those areas?
You need to take a ride there. The structures you see there are even better than this place. Our challenge is to fill up the spaces that we have there. We are rehabilitating those that need rehabilitation.
Teachers in rural areas should learn to accept it. Even indigenes don’t want to stay in their communities. I was a teacher. I made each station my home. We must inculcate a sense of discipline. They think they are posted because we hate them. Even as a youth corps member, I never objected. But they shouldn’t look down on themselves. Even as a village teacher, I was still wearing suits. They should not dress like village farmers.