Thoughts on Tinubu’s Planned School Census

By Okey Ikechukwu

The decision of President Bola Tinubu to inflict a census on the Nigerian school system is a welcome one. Education planning and development of a nation’s human capital industry without reliable data is like heading into battle armed with guesswork about your enemy’s military capabilities. Until a few years ago, the nation paraded the claim that Nigeria had 10 million children out of school. Development partners, the National Assembly, education planners and the Federal Ministry of Education swore by this data.

Then, without any basis in logic, study of demographic trends, or commonsense whatsoever, a new figure of 13 million out of school children was announced by everyone – and by no one in particular. Just like that! And that was after bandying around the 10 million out of school children figure for about 11 years. Pathetic, is it not?

Let us do a little math and, perhaps up-end the spurious statistics about out-of-school children in Nigeria, generally. Let us suppose that 19 states of the North each has one million children out of school. Let us also suppose that 17 southern states each has half a million children out of school. That will give you nearly 30 million out of school children in Nigeria. If you, however, decide to move from guesswork to actual calculations, knowing the contribution of states like Kano, Sokoto and a few others to the number of out of school children, then you must conclude that we have been cheerfully kidding ourselves; perhaps for too long, about statistics, national planning and national development.

That is why the presidential directive, calling for a census that would provide reliable and real-time data for meaningful planning, is a development that would enable the detection and better understanding and management of the number and specific needs of all schools in Nigeria, from primary to tertiary level. This is really more of an audit, to determine their present conditions and live-in facilities, their proximity to each other, and their infrastructural needs.

Beyond the foregoing, part of the expected outcomes includes reliable data on the number of teachers in the country, their qualifications, training support received, the self-development initiatives they can explore, as well as the number of pupils and students in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. Not to be left out in the gamut of data to be gathered are the gender, academic performance and other indices that would give a holistic picture for meaningful interventions in the sector.

Looking at the government’s Data Repository, Out-of-School Children Education, Teacher Training and Development, and Skill Development and Acquisition (DOTS) policy initiative, the only conclusion one can draw is that the aim is to completely and comprehensively transform the education sector and upgrade overall human capital development. This would mean bringing about different, and improved, learning outcomes, skill acquisition and overall academic security of the nation’s learning demographics.

Because the information to be derived will aid federal and state interventions in teacher training, provision of teaching aids, etc., it is expected that the resulting data on gender-specific learning at various levels of the educational system, drop-out rates, indigency, and more will be monitored through dedicated portals/dashboards in the Federal Ministry of Education, offices of state governors, and local government chairpersons.

At least that is the idea and intendment. The hope is that the implied gain that is presupposed by this drive, which should help the government track the progress of students and use evidence-based, data-driven machinery to guide its interventions are realized. This should be very useful when you consider the problem of planning for out-of-school children, the girl child and others with specific learning disabilities.

In contrast to the foregoing, there was a lot of idle pretensions about educational development under the immediate past President, Muhhamadu Buhari. He left on a rather questionable note on education matters. Recall that his last Federal Executive Council (FEC) proved the sum of 4.7 billion for the construction of seven Model Schools in the six geo-political zones of the country, and Abuja. That decision prompted an article on this page on May 31, 2019, titled “Objection Mr. President”.

The article under reference, in objecting to the initiative, said: “The federal government can choose one Unity School from each of the geo-political zones and upgrade it to a Model School, or school of reference of some sort, instead of starting fresh school projects. A simple costs-benefits analysis shows that 4.7 billion Naira will go a very long way in rescuing the schools. To build new model schools is to award building contracts to “reliable” contractors. Construction of the schools will probably take some two years, or more, to be followed by the provision of state-of-the-art amenities; which essentially boils down to a series of procurement contracts”.

The article continued: “The seven Model Schools will not make any impact whatsoever on human capital development, or contribute to the growth of education, one way or another in Nigeria in the next five years. But upgrading some Unity School will do just that within the same timeframe. So, the proposed new schools will be nothing but a major capital project, resting on the mistaken assumption that the provision of learning infrastructure is the same thing as sustainable investment in education”.

On the matter of the unwisdom of  the move, the article continued thus: “It is not right that we should have a huge budgetary provision that will go down on record as proof of government commitment to education when it is not. We should not be content to celebrate cash evidence of massive government investment in education, when in fact the name of the Nigerian child is being taken in vain by contractors and government jobbers. Who builds models schools without simultaneously training Models Teachers? Should part of this freshly budgeted sum of 4.7 billion not perhaps go into strengthening the National Teachers Institute (NTI), the Teachers Registration Council (TRC) and probably reinvigorating the academic content and quality of various faculties of education nationwide/ do our teacher-producing facilities not need specialized short courses on contemporary teaching and learning paradigms and much more?

My take today, regarding the current move of the Tinubu government on school census, is that the Presidency must note and emphasize the difference between investment in physical infrastructure for education, and/ or learning environment, and investment in learning, teacher education, teacher knowledge upgrade, up-scaling of learning outcomes and other measures that would impact the quality of the products of our school system.

That article pointed out that “The expenditure of most states of the federation on education over the last twenty years of our democracy shows huge budgetary allocations to education, at the same time that we also show a precipitous decline in educational standards and learning outcomes. Some states with very high records of expenditure for classroom rehabilitation, the supply of desks, books, etc., also have the worst teacher training, school enrolment and retention records. Check the investment of the federal and state governments on the training of teachers, provision of teaching aids and more in the last 20 years. So, let us pull the blinkers off our eyes and get real”.

Besides the above objectionable intervention of FEC under Buhari, referenced above, this column had also cause to pick on the government of Kebbi State, on June 14, 2021; for the same blunder of mistaking investment in physical infrastructure for realistic investment in education. That was after the state government pulled the sum of N4.5billion for the construction and renovation of schools; with other reports suggesting that the state government was also to build brand new schools in every local government of the state.

Though the case of Kebbi was almost made less offensive by the fact that no fewer than 758 primary school teachers were said to be undergoing training on methodologies to impart more knowledge on students at the same time that the construction work was going on makes, the following questions were still addressed to the Kebbi State Government by the article, at the time: “(1) Is there a difference between expenditure on education infrastructure and actual investment in education and human capital development? (2) How many candidates enrolled for SSCE and related examinations in the last 10 years, and why? (3) Are your secondary teachers so versed in their respective teaching subjects that what they need now is “methodologies to impact more knowledge on students.” (4) Can you say, in all good conscience, that less than seventy per cent of your state’s education budget of the last 20 years have not been more of procurement contracts? And (5) Has there been an improvement in enrolment, retention and education outcomes?

As the Tinubu government zooms off with a commendable data-sensitive focus in education, for better planning, let us all bear in mind that this must not turn into another case of investment in education census for the records, as distinct from census for better national human resource development. The results should help the nation with measurable, and sustainable, outcomes.

If the expenditure of most states of the federation on education over the last twenty years of our democracy shows huge budgetary allocations to education, but with very embarrassing decline in educational standards and learning outcomes, it means that the problem of education in Nigeria goes beyond mere funding. Several states with recorded high expenditure in classroom rehabilitation, procurement of desks and supply of books, do not have wonderful teacher training, school enrolment and retention records. What is the level of the investment in the training of teachers in moder teaching methods in the last 20 years, nationwide?

All states of the federation need more schools, better equipped schools, better qualified, teachers and verifiable statistics for sustainable planning and development. More than that, they need authentic data, for meaningful planning. The planned school census is better late than never; and should leverage  new era of education administration in Nigeria – if properly carried out and its deliverables fully implemented.

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