Redefining free and compulsory primary education in Nigeria

By Israel Thomas. Israel is a freelance writer. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria

In recent times, many have blamed the militancy, kidnapping, armed robbery, cultism and its culminating criminality in Nigeria on the lack of proper upbringing, sound educational foundation and for some, the lack of money to fund the education. With roughly over 140 million residents, 36 states, a weak political and economic system, and persistent ethnic and religious conflicts, education provides the best solution for national stability, security, unity, and prosperity in Nigeria.

Over the last decade, Nigeria’s exponential growth in population has put immense pressure on the country’s resources and on already overstretched public services and infrastructure. With children under 15 years of age accounting for about half of the country’s population, the burden on education and other sectors has become overwhelming. About half of Nigerian children aged 6-11 do not attend any primary school with the Northern region recording the lowest school attendance rate in the country, particularly for girls.

Primary education is the most important stage of education. This is the time when children learn the basics that are needed to survive in life, they learn the basics of the Language of Communication (English for Nigeria), and they learn elementary mathematics, science and general knowledge. This is when children learn about their environment, current affairs etc.

The reason why pupils do not go to primary schools include costs of schooling, opportunity costs, illness and hunger, limited economic costs of education and low quality of schooling. The costs of schooling include the costs of books, stationery and basic equipment, uniforms, admission fees, registration and examination fees, contribution towards building and maintenance fund, construction fees, transportation, mid-day meals, Parents/Teachers Association (PTA) fees, sports fees, library fees and extra tuition fees. The opportunity cost for parents sending children to school is the children’s time that could have been of economic importance to the family either in terms of income generating activities or in supporting the functioning of the household. Illness and hunger either of the children themselves or members of the family can prevent children from going to school. Limited economic benefits in terms of the fact that those who have completed school have no jobs do dissuade people from going to school.

Another challenge in Nigeria is the issue of girls’ education. Statistics indicate glaring imbalances against girls in enrolment, attendance and completion rates in all levels of education in Nigeria, particularly in the northern parts of the country, due to a variety of socio-cultural and religious factors. Many children do not attend school because the distance to the nearest school is a major hindrance. Another cause of low enrolment, especially in the North, is cultural bias. Most parents do not send their children, especially girls, to school and prefer to send them to Qur’anic schools rather than formal schools. Even when children enrol in schools, many do not complete the primary cycle. Reasons for this low completion rate include child labour, economic hardship and early marriage for girls.

Currently the Nigeria constitution does not make it compulsory that every child has a primary education, the constitution further puts the responsibility for primary education on the Local Governments, then the child rights act makes it compulsory and puts the responsibility on the ‘government’ without a clear indication of which level of government.

This situation is being addressed by current efforts of the Nigerian Government with the implementation of the Basic Education scheme. The compulsory, free Universal Basic Education (UBE) Act was passed into law in 2004 and represents the Government’s strategy to fight illiteracy and extend basic education opportunities to all children in the country.

However, it may be an exaggeration to speak of free primary education here because in reality parents still have to pay school levies imposed on pupils, buy school uniforms and so on. However, after the primary school education, parents and guardians are made to bear the full costs of sending their children/wards to secondary schools or tertiary institutions. For children from poor families and poverty-stricken villages, their hopes and aspirations to attain a reasonable academic standard in life are often dashed. Having thus been forced to abandon the idea of going to school, some of them take to street hawking and other menial jobs while the more desperate ones among them resort to stealing and other misdemeanours as a means to an end. Catering for themselves and their families early in life becomes a way of life.

In most cases, this untold hardship leads to frustration and helplessness, and having no one to turn to, these poor creatures, may end up committing felonies, thus exposing themselves to more dangers. Such juvenile delinquencies, which are now becoming very rampant in Nigeria due to hopelessness, pose a serious threat to the entire society.

In the last few years, especially since the launching of the Universal Basic Education Act, much has been achieved in the reconstruction of dilapidated school buildings and construction of new ones, supply of desks and other needed furniture as well as the provision of toilet facilities.

However, despite political commitment to trying to reverse years of neglect in the education sector and a significant increase of the Federal Government funding, investment in basic education is still low. A majority of primary schools, especially in rural areas, lack water, electricity and toilet facilities. The number of schools, facilities and teachers available for basic education remain inadequate for the eligible number of children and youths. Under these conditions, teaching and learning cannot be effective; hence, the outcomes are usually below expectation

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