Opinion

Have unity schools outlived their purpose? By Niran Adedokun

You will get a sense of the babelic spirit of the administration at the Federal Ministry of Education from a report in the August 10 edition of The PUNCH.  During a stakeholder’s forum on Education the day before, questions were raised about allegations that the ministry had increased fees paid by students of unity schools by an incredible 300perecent. The nation’s prime education administrator, Mallam Adamu Adamu, disclaimed the increment but his Permanent Secretary, Dr. Folashade Yemi-Esan avowed same albeit with some clarifications.

“I am not aware of the increase in the fees of unity schools. I am the Minister of Education and I am not aware,” Adamu was quoted to have said in definite assurance. But the minister was wrong!

Few minutes after he flexed his muscle in exhibition of the almightiness of his authority, Yemi-Esan clarified that: “…What we increased is the boarding fees and it is definitely not up to 300 per cent…You (journalists) are taking these things out of context” Hmmm

The increase in fees was not the only thing Mallam Adamu did not know on this day. Having noticed that the junior minister, Prof. Anthony Anwukah, who supervises basic education was absent at the event, questions were asked about his whereabouts especially as speculations about a frosty relationship between the two were rife.

The minister told his probers that he had no idea why the minister of state did not make the event. Hear him: “I don’t know why he was absent because the last person I saw in the office was Professor Anwukah.” Wonderful!

So within a few hours, we are able to see that top echelon of the nation’s education ministry do not speak with one voice. While the honcho claimed ignorance about something affecting 104 secondary schools, the permanent secretary had another story and the minister of state was entirely AWOL!

One can then understand the source of the recurring flip-flops which aggregate into the perception that this administration is not giving the educational sector the attention which it deserves.

From primary to secondary and tertiary education, all of which our country is heartbreakingly lagging in, Adamu’s administration is yet to give a sense of direction for a better future. In this same world wherein countries who have attained appreciable literacy levels continue to innovate.

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From the ultra vires sack of governing councils of universities, to the controversy over post UME tests, to uncertainties concerning government’s premium agenda of hiring half a million graduates into teaching roles countrywide, this ministry comes across as being at sea on how to redress Nigeria’s educational affliction.

Take the increase in the fees as example.  Two days after the minister denounced the alleged change in fees, he recanted!  A statement issued by Ben Bem Goong, Deputy Director, Press and Public Relations in the ministry, quoted him as saying that the increment was, alongside other decisions, done to make “education affordable as a weapon for breaking the cycle of poverty.”

The statement forbade the collection of development levies by the Parents-Teacher Association in the unity colleges as it placed embargo on the construction of development projects without the ministry’s authorisation.

Adamu frowned at the existence  of a national association of parents with children in unity schools, the lack of uniformity in fees that in these schools, (since each school seem to determine its own fees) and the towering influence of the Parents Teachers Association(PTA), which seems to tend towards emasculating  government- the owners of the schools! The minister assured that fees have now been realigned to stand at N83, 000 for new intakes while PTA levies can only be a maximum of N5, 000 PTA levy for new students, across the country.

But The National Parents and Teachers Association of the Federal Government Colleges (FGC) kicked, describing the change in fees as “commercialisation of education.” They warned that the new fees, which they claim is from 20,000 to 75,000, may force them to withdraw their children from the schools. This sentiment is shared by a lot of Nigerians who cannot reconcile such substantial raise by an administration said to be on the side of the people.

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But there are far more important issues than this vexed rise in fees. Allow me isolate some of them. Before this hullabaloo, unity schools have become apt examples of our country’s attitude to maintenance of standards and facilities.

While the first set of these institutions were set up by the British before independence, three new one were established in Warri, Sokoto and Enugu in 1966 while General Yakubu Gowon, in 1973, decided to democratise the idea by establishing unity schools in all the 12 states that existed then. Gowon, whose life mission seem to be the enforcement of the unity of Nigeria, was inspired by the rancor free manner in which students of every class, ethnicity and religion in the country related when he visited the FGC Sokoto.

In the first 20 years, these schools did only become levelers of sorts where children of assorted pedigrees were brought together on the merit of their aptitude; they were a symbol of the unity that Nigerian leaders wanted to instill in young ones. They were plain emblems of academic excellence of the Nigerian child.

It would however be valid to query how much of the initial benefits have been sustained now that even Alumni of these institutions complain about the continuous descent in standard.

Merit, which dictated admissions, got relegated as disparities between the cut off marks of candidates widened ridiculously. Some students got into some of the schools with as low as two marks in the common entrance examinations while some are held unto standards as high as 130 marks!

This has progressively stripped the schools of the universal garb of academic excellence they were dressed in such that four in their number did not produce a single candidate scoring five credits that included English and Mathematics in last year’s school certificate examination.

One of the reasons that may account for the fall in the quality of results produced by unity schools is the shortage of teachers. It is so bad that the PTA, which the authorities are now trying to strangulate, allegedly hires and pays the salaries of 40 percent of teachers in some schools.

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And the state of infrastructure? From some of the images that I saw this past week, the only possible public institutions with worse facilities would be police colleges and barracks. The level of dilapidation in some unity schools is inconceivable.  And this is the training ground for the hope of the country.

Without the vibrancy and loyalty of the Unity Schools Old Students Association (USOSA), Alumni of individual schools and PTAs, it is doubtful that anyone would be able to currently speak of any of these schools with any iota of pride. Many ex-students vow they cannot send their children to their alma mater!

So in the circumstance, working to once again, make these schools objects of national unity and pride, is what one would imagine to be the ministry’s main preoccupation, but is it?

As inconsiderate as it seems, this increase could make some sense were it to assure the return of standards. But that does not seem to be in the contemplation of the authorities. From the way he speaks, the minister appears more interested in guarding his territory and cutting the PTA, the same people who have invested their all into the survival of these schools, to size.

This is why the ministry would take these decisions with fiat. While the idea of an increase in fee may not be totally out of place, this particular increase just throws money at problems, half of which has not been acknowledged, in a typical Nigerian way. And as in many situations in the past, it will fail.

Only a meeting of the minds of all stakeholders in these institutions can bring back those days of glory and bestow the quality of academic excellence that Nigerian children deserve on them. The minister should be advised to seek the confidence of parents and ex-students who have held forte all these years of neglect, especially if he thinks the schools still serve a purpose.

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