“Teachers are central to educational planning as no educational system can rise above the quality of its teachers”.
—Nigerian National Policy Education
Today, October 5, is World’s Teachers’ Day, an anniversary that will be celebrated here in Nigeria and across the globe. Every year since 1994, under the aegis of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the day has been employed to draw attention to the teaching profession, its status, quality, welfare and other matters pertaining to the noble, if troubled profession. This year, the theme of the day is, “The right to education means the right to a qualified teacher”. As known, it is 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to education as well as universal access to it. However, it is one thing to declare rights, it is another to create the opportunities for realising those rights.
To that extent, this year’s emphasis on qualified teachers echoes the idea that you cannot have genuine or quality education without qualified, committed and competent teachers. Nigerian leaders may be weak and slow in governance tempo, but they are certainly masters and maestros when it comes to ceremonies, anniversaries and remembrances. So, as in previous years, our leaders will roll out the drums today, make fine speeches and beautiful promises to the teaching community. Last year, for example, the Minister for Education, Mr Adamu Adamu, used the occasion of the World Teachers’ Day to articulate a new deal for teachers by the Federal Government, which he promised would enhance the productivity and welfare of teachers, so that they can play their stipulated roles in building the nation. Considering that we are in an election period, even more, grandiose promises will be made this year, but when you check it out, there may be no improvement from anniversary to anniversary.
To be sure, Nigerian teachers with their worsening plight of unpaid or delayed salaries, low prestige and hand-to-mouth existence are not the only ones grossly neglected. American teachers, to give an example across the Atlantic, are similarly distressed too. Last week, Time Magazine, ran a cover on American teachers detailing their declining condition and their organised protests across the nation. Quoting a 52-year-old Kentucky school teacher as saying “I love teaching but we are not paid for the work that we do”, the magazine went on to say that the statement made by the frustrated teacher “has become the rallying cry of many of America’s public school teachers, who have staged walkouts and marches on six state capitols this year”.
So, when somebody yells, this can only happen in Nigeria, they are probably not educating themselves about the challenges that other nations face, even if in less severe degrees. That said, crucial differences between us and other nations are, among others, that they don’t just lament and leave unhappy situations to drift on, they do something about them. Also, there is a connection between their challenges and the policymaking arena which seeks to ameliorate them. Apart from that, Americans and many western countries, have robust, if expensive private sector education, which mitigates public sector decay. In the American case just cited, the plummeting condition of teachers and the agitations surrounding it, have not only been brought to the front burner of national conversation but is fast determining the midterm elections in some states like Oklahoma and West Virginia, where the teachers running for Congress, have made their deteriorating situation an election issue.
The democracy we are building in our neck of the global wood is not so transparent or issue-driven as to yield a direct connection between burning national issues and elections. Too often, the electorate is shortchanged, to the extent that it is not they, but the political bosses and chieftains that determine those who are thrown up or thrown out. In such opaque settings, issues count for little. That is why underperforming leaders and parties can easily recycle themselves back to power, locking out important matters and fundamental challenges such as educational decay from political campaigns.
True, we have an emergent private sector in the educational arena, to which the elites can send their children and wards, but a commercially-driven subdivision cannot be a substitute for the public sector, especially as private-sector education has developed more by the default of the public sector than its own steam and dynamics. If we must restore the glory of the school system, now in various stages of dilapidation, it goes without saying that we must pay attention, as a matter of urgency, to the plight of the teacher. It all starts from budget making and budget implementation. In contrast to a global average of 14 per cent to education, what we have in Nigeria are 7.4 per cent in 2016, 7.04 per cent in 2017 and seven per cent in 2018. Not only are the percentages way below par, but they are also travelling on a downward slope all the time. This lack of commitment and redemptive vision may be signalling an anti-intellectual turn in Nigerian politics and policymaking. It also explains why no matter how many promises to turn around the plight of teachers are made today, the financial capacity to fulfil them has been negated by low and regressive budgeting for education.
Considering that the teaching workforce is perhaps the largest category of public sector workers, we have several reasons to pay that sector. Due regard but alas! that is not the case. It has been suggested that because the elites, especially those who have access to the coffers of the state can afford to educate their sons and daughters outside of a turbulent and declining public sector, they have paid little attention, beyond posturing rhetoric, to public sector education woes. On a broader note, the struggle for power in Nigeria is frantic and sometimes murderous, but from election cycle to election cycle, it fails to address fundamental governance issues, that touch on the welfare of Nigerian citizens.
In the coming decade, while the rest of the world are enjoying the benefits of computer-assisted education, Nigerian education, buffeted by the continuing surge in the population of youths, under current funding arrangements, may well grow from bad to worse. Those who have the wherewithal will seek to escape the bedlam by sending their children abroad, or to private schools and universities at home. However, the markup in the number of school dropouts and poorly educated youths, who cannot find jobs, will increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots, with predictable catastrophic consequences for social peace and harmony. In this scenario, the half-educated will become the barely educated, among them teachers, who can hardly read or write. This frightening scenario does not need to fully unfold if our leaders begin right away to prioritise the training and welfare of teachers, which are the epicentre of any worthy educational system. Nothing stops us from learning from the Chinese and the Scandinavian countries, which are rated today as countries with the best incentives for teachers.
Fine speeches are not enough, a coherent policy featuring budgetary enhancement for education and focused implementation are needed to prevent the system from collapse.