Why Nigeria Must Get Serious About Primary School Education

There’s a lot of truth in African proverbs, but there is one African saying that I disagree with. It’s the proverb that says “it takes a village to raise a child”.

That might have been true 100 years ago, but in the modern world it takes more than a village; it takes a whole country.

A village can still provide many of a child’s needs of course, but it’s a caring, well-organised and ambitious country that provides a vital ingredient of modern childhood – a good, properly-resourced education.

A good primary school education underpins all the vocational and technical skills acquired in technical colleges, polytechnics and universities. It’s not just vital to the child, it’s critical to the development of a country’s economy.

Yet, in Nigeria today, the number of public primary schools and teachers available for basic education are both woefully inadequate. This is exacerbated by the poor facilities at many primary schools.

Add the fact that in the next 30 years the number of primary school pupils in Nigeria will grow due to high fertility rates and the cultural value of large families. You can see how the resources needed will put unprecedented pressure on the government to meet its universal basic education programme.

At this current rate of progress in education, the government will have failed in its duty to educate millions of Nigerians, hindering its ability to improve socio-economic conditions of the next generation of its citizens.

Teacher qualifications

The education system is failing Nigeria school children and it starts with the teaching qualification. The Nigeria Certificate in Education is the recognized minimum qualification for teaching at the basic education levels in Nigeria, including primary and junior secondary education. The certificate is obtained after a three-year study at one of Nigeria’s 150 colleges of education.

But prior to the latest revision of the certificate in education curriculum, in the 2013/14 academic year, it was widely acknowledged that the curriculum wasn’t fit for purpose. Time will tell on the effectiveness and impact of this revision.

This, to some degree, explains the poor performance of Nigerian pupils who’ve completed the primary school level. Only 20% of them can read a three-sentence passage fluently or with little help.

A historically unsatisfactory teaching qualification is only one of the problems.

Other challenges

Another major challenge is how a typical school day is structured. Pupils at primary school lose a large amount of their learning time because classroom time is spent on other activities or because teachers are simply absent. A World Bank 2018 survey of 435 private and public primary schools in Nigeria, that covered 2,968 teachers, showed that a teacher was absent from class for approximately 25% of the scheduled teaching time. This decreased teaching time, on average, to less than 33% than what was on the timetable.

That would imply that in an average day, where teaching time is approximately four hours and 45 minutes, pupils actually get just over three hours of teaching.

Another problem is the quality of Nigeria’s teachers. The same survey showed that half of Nigerian primary school maths teachers couldn’t achieve 80% or more on the tests they assigned their own pupils in their classrooms. What’s worse was that 60% of maths teachers in grade four couldn’t subtract double digits. The same poor teacher quality is evident in the English language.

The truth is that many of Nigeria’s teachers don’t really want to teach. A survey in 2009 highlighted that over 65% of lecturers in colleges of education believed that the majority of their students were not interested in teaching as a profession. A decade on from the survey in 2009 and things still haven’t changed. The Nigerian Union of Teachers says that teachers faced with poor pay and unpaid wages had developed survival strategies such as petty trading and other businesses to augment their incomes. It’s no wonder pupils lose up to 33% of their scheduled teaching time.

In 2013 the shortage of primary school teachers in Nigeria was acute – in excess of 338,000. This was compounded by the fact that 28 of the 39 state governments haven’t employed any new teachers from 2015 to date.

Meanwhile, the student population is increasing and existing teachers are also retiring. This devastating effect is highlighted at Rimawa Primary School in Goronyo, Sokoto state. The school has 1,170 pupils and only 10 teachers.

What needs to be done

The first priority is to increase investment in education. Current levels of investment are completely inadequate for even the current population of primary school children. And Nigeria urgently needs to start building the infrastructure to cater for vast expansion.

Similarly, it must create a supply pipeline of future teachers while ensuring significant improvements in their levels of literacy, numeracy and digital skills.

Next, Nigerian states must take up federal government funds to support universal basic education. The federal government has an annual N86.5 billion ($240m) to help states upgrade their primary education facilities.

To access this fund, state governments are required to match the federal government’s grant. But recent evidence shows that most of the 36 states have ignored this facility, even as children study under deplorable conditions.

Nigeria must also give more value to the teaching profession. The government can drive an increase in teacher numbers, retention and quality by offering incentives such as tax cuts and a review of teacher salaries.

Lastly, technology can play a major role in improving the situation. Investment and development of mobile solutions that reach every primary school teacher are essential. Such a system – already trialled by UNESCO in four African countries including Nigeria – isn’t a substitute for the teacher but complements the teacher’s work. Other resources include the Khan Academy and the rapidly expanding MESHGuides, designed to support teaching as an evidence-informed profession.

Nigeria must get serious about education. It takes a whole country to educate a child. And if a modern generation of children is not properly educated, the blame reflects on all Nigerians.

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