Following the state of emergency declared by the Bayelsa State government in the education sector, the Commissioner for Education, Mr. Jonathan Obuebite shared with Emmanuel Addeh some of the successes recorded in the sector so far; the benefits of the Education Development Trust Fund, among other issues. Excerpts:

Before the coming of this government, what was the state of education in Bayelsa State?

Well, Alamieyeseigha (Diepreye), our leader of blessed memory looked at the area of providing university education for our people and the Niger Delta University was established but we all forgot that it is not just having a tertiary institution. You have to look at the foundation where you grow them to the point of going into tertiary institutions.

You had schools that didn’t even have classrooms. That is, there were no enough classrooms for the number of students in the school. You had schools that students were sharing classrooms. You had schools that within one school environment, you have another school again that shares the same compound with them.

You had schools that didn’t have desks or chairs for students to sit and write on. It was that bad. That led to a lot of issues like in my area, you talk about teenage pregnancy. Most of our children succeeded in writing WAEC, and after that, that was the end. No one thought about going further or for those that had incomplete papers to go back to complete their papers and move forward.

So, education in Bayelsa was something that needed intervention. I am not condemning every other government that has been. And that is what I think informed the governor’s decision to declare a state of emergency in the sector.

Following the declaration of the state of emergency in the education sector, how is it now?

Well, we started with the building and renovation of primary schools in the state; more than 400 schools were renovated. Then building of headmasters’ quarters in every school; you need the headmasters to be there. Before now, if people are posted to our rural communities, they didn’t want to go. So that was done and also teachers’ quarters were built.

From the primary schools, we moved into secondary schools, renovated and built most and if not all the secondary schools that we have in this state, and built principal’s quarters and vice-principal’s quarters.

The governor then employed 300 science and ICT teachers in this state in order to have the right teachers to use the equipment that have been provided. And from there, the funding and of course, you are aware that within this period, the college of education in Oporoma, for about three years had a student population of not more than 30 or 50 students and a staff population of more than 100. Why? Location!

It was taken to a place that is accessible; to a place where it will attract students. And the college of education today as I speak is functioning very well. Students have been graduating from it.

You are aware of the school of health technology, we had so many problems, we had to intervene, get a governing council, make the right appointments and of course that place has started kicking.

We have the University of Africa, and also we have established the polytechnic in Bayelsa State.

A lot has changed. Yesterday, we were referred to as educationally backward but today we have a state where in NECO and WAEC, we have students emerging fifth, third and the Bayelsa child emerged as the second best graduating student in 2017; a feat we have never seen before. Before now, it was 28th, 29th, etc.

In terms of numbers, how many of these schools have been built by the government so far and how much has been spent on the sector?

We have 25 modern constituency schools that were built by this government from scratch and we have them in all the 24 constituencies and Southern Ijaw has an additional one.

The Ijaw National Academy, from foundation, there was nothing like Ijaw National Academy. There was nothing like sports Azuzuama before. That is why when we say we have spent about N70 billion in education, it is on the ground. It is not rocket science, you can see and feel it.

Our target is to have 15,000 boarding students in the state per session in secondary schools. Our dream is 15/20 years after now, what they will become is the target of this government.

So that these children will not see those men (karowei) as their role models but will look at you that is doing something meaningful and long to be like you. So that is the target. We are actually begging parents to take their children to those schools. We had to do jingles and adverts pleading with parents to send their children to school.

How is the government coping with the huge expenses?

Well, that is the beauty of the whole thing. Remember when we just started, the issue of sustainability came in. And that is why the bill for the Education Development Trust Fund was sent to the Bayelsa State House of Assembly. And you saw what happened. Civil servants were shouting, ‘oh, heavens will fall, in fact people will die, this will happen’, but today let me tell you the good news. Today even if every other sector suffers, every day, because of that law, whatever we get as our IGR in the state, five per cent goes to the trust fund, every civil servant pays according to the level that he is, a certain percentage of his salary.

As a political appointee, I also have a certain percentage that I pay; we political appointees pay more. In that fund, every month, we are getting about N80-100 million. The students will never lack. So there is no day I will wake up as the commissioner of education and somebody will call me that we don’t have food or money for our children.

What is really the problem with the primary school teachers and will the take-over of payment of salaries solve the problem permanently?

In 2016, you all are aware that there was a time people were afraid that this country will collapse. Our naira suffered great depreciation we all know it, pump price was increased thinking it will help shore it up but it didn’t work. Today, we are still crying because they want to increase it again.

This country is still in recession and within that period, a state that has a wage bill of over four billion, the allocation that was coming to the state as at then after all the deductions, in some months, we had N1.5 billion. So, you end up using maybe one, two or three months to pay one month salary and from 2015. We negotiated it that no matter what, let us stop everything and pay salaries, but for 2017, from the first month to the last month, we never owed our workers.

But for local government, it was a different ball game. The state government could no longer meet up with augmentation which was 80 per cent for four years, we couldn’t even pay our workers.

Before you help someone to solve his problem, first, you have to solve your own problem. That was the situation we found ourselves. And that is why we owed.

For local government, they have a salary bill of 1.3 billion and the allocation that was coming, sometimes there was 100 to 400 million and you have a total wage bill of 1.3 billion. Some of them owed up to about 10 months, some nine, some eight, but they too have tried, but that of Ogbia is a sorry situation.

People tend to always refer the issue of local government and teachers to the state government, no, it is local government responsibility, it is in the constitution.

What is this issue of competency test about considering that states that have done it are having problems?

There is no issue of competency test, I have said it before; we don’t have any issue like that. What we have is that we have sent to the Bayelsa State House of Assembly a bill to establish a board and the name is Teacher Retraining, Registration and Certification Board.

We have a problem, the problem we have is that for years, the teachers have not been given training and education is something that you update yourself. There is need for training and the board is to ensure that every year all our teachers undergo training. When you train somebody, it is good to give the person a certificate showing that he participated.

Then registration, so that at every point in time, whenever you are trained, register as a teacher that has been trained, we know those who have not been trained and we are not going to do it for public schools alone because you know that when a state is rated, education is nationwide.

It is not just public schools because even private schools write WAEC, so the training will be for all teachers both public and private. We are doing this because we have discovered that there are people who are not fit to be teachers, mostly in the private sector.

Our people pay money for their children’s fees, but when you look at the crop of persons they have there, some are just secondary school dropouts that have not got the secondary school certificate.

So that is what the board does: to ensure that anybody who is in our education system as a teacher, even when you have your NCE, we will help train you again and make you better. So the issue of test, we are not doing that, we are not writing any exam for anybody just like they did in Kaduna. What we want to do is to encourage our teachers, encourage them to do well.

Has the Education Safety Corps Law minimized cultism in secondary schools and how would you react to the issue of corporal punishment in schools?

Well, the measure of punishment that you will refer to as corporal punishment depends on certain things, but one thing we must all realise is that we cannot take away discipline in our system.

The manner it is being done is what we can look into. We are supposed to have a good education system in our primary and secondary school which is a foundation. In the universities, nobody cares; discipline is something we will not throw away.

But we must have a measure of what you can do to a child, the manner it is done. So, the person who is enforcing discipline must be disciplined enough to enforce discipline. I have had to suspend teachers for various reasons. I have suspended about three or four not because they are not disciplined but one or two issues.

As we speak, there is a particular school that I visited in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, they have about 13 teachers, I met only four of them and immediately issued a query to them.

What are you doing about mushroom private schools in the state?

More than half of the private schools in the state are not measuring up to standard. As a government, we have gone round the private schools, investigated them and compiled the list of all unqualified private schools in the state.

In no distant time, about 250 private primary and secondary schools in the state will be closed down for not measuring up to standard.

The affected private schools would be made public to enable the people of Bayelsa to take precautionary measures. Most of those schools would be denied accreditation/approval to take WAEC and other national examinations done in the state.