Our Basic Education System Needs Urgent Refixing

Analysis By Supo Balogun, The Nigerian Expression (TNE)

In the euphoria that trailed the return of President Muhammadu Buhari from his medical vacation in London, many Nigerians understandably missed the recent cheery report on the miracle story of Rwanda’s public school system. According to the report by that country’s Daily Nation newspaper, private schools are on the verge of closing down due to low patronage caused by mass enrolment in public schools.

Desperate proprietors, who are faced with imminent closure of their institutions, are now begging the government to sponsor students in private schools at public rates, owing to the revolutionary and innovative strategies which have brought about the success story in public schools.

Emerging from the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in just 100 days of madness, the new government of Paul Kagame met an education sector in shambles. The country’s Ministry of Education invested hugely in expanding the capacity and teaching infrastructure in public schools across the country, introduced the school feeding programme and abolished school fees. To further strengthen basic education, the government launched the new Education Sector Strategic Plan (ESSP 2013-2015). Instructively, figures show that students in private schools decreased from 101,510 in 2012 to 79,076 last year while enrolment in public and government-aided schools almost doubled in the same period.

The lessons from this small African country are particularly poignant, especially in Nigeria where the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), note that there are more than 11.4 million out-of school children, the highest number in the world.

To be sure, the challenges facing the basic education system in Nigeria are enormous as indeed acknowledged by the Education Minister, Adamu Adamu, at the launch of a three- year strategic plan in 2016.

At the forum, the minister said that more than 50 per cent of in-school children are not learning because they cannot read or write, adding that about 63 per cent of children who live in rural areas cannot read at all. He also noted that around 84 per cent of children in the lowest economic quartile cannot read at all.

The minister, who is expected to drive the Change Agenda of the Buhari administration in the education sector, may have a statutory and enthusiastic ally in the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC). The same may not, however, be said of the state governments who remain the critical stakeholders in driving the envisaged change in the basic education system.

The Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme took off effectively with the signing of the UBE Act in April 2004. The implementation of the programme, however, started in July 2005 with the appropriation of the UBE fund to UBEC and subsequent disbursement to states which remain the fulcrum of the initiative.

While the implementation of UBE programme resides with state governments in conformity with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution and the UBE Act 2004, the role of the Federal Government is only to ensure quality control and
maintenance of uniform standard as well as general co-ordination.

In spite of the fact that the UBE programme is funded by the states and local governments with the support of the Federal Government through its intervention fund, huge matching grants continue to lie idle in the vaults of the Central Bank of Nigeria because many state governments refuse to provide their 50 percent counterpart fund.

Indeed, it has been said that no fewer than 33 state governments and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) have failed to take advantage of the UBEC intervention fund domiciled with the CBN. The figures released on the UBEC unaccessed funds are as revealing as they are dispiriting at a time when many school pupils sit on bare floors in dilapidated buildings, and sometimes under mango trees.

The sum of N59.7 billion continues to lie idle as states fail to produce their counterpart funding which would have enabled them to access the fund. This sum represents accumulated funds not accessed by the state governments between 2011 and 2016.

In 2016, only Borno and Rivers received their shares of the intervention funds while only 18 out of the 36 states of the federation and the FCT accessed the UBEC matching grant in 2015.

According to information obtained from the commission, Abia, Ebonyi and Niger top the list of states that did not access their funds in 2012. Each of the three states has N1.9billion, N4 billion and N2.8 billion lying fallow with the apex bank as intervention funds between 2011 and 2016 as at March 2017.

In the document, N150 billion, N9.8 billion N13.9 billion and N35.8 billion are waiting to be cleared by 17 states and the FCT for the year 2011-2012, 2013-2014, 2015 and 33 states and FCT for the year 2016 respectively.

Only last year, a former Minister of State for Education, Aishatu Jibril-Dukku, raised the alarm over the failure of state governments, to access their grants with UBEC, in spite of the poor funding of education.

Jibril-Dukku, now a member of the House of Representatives, had noted that primary and secondary education were facing a myriad of problems, including dilapidated and sometimes, non-existing infrastructure, lack of qualified manpower and outdated teaching aid.

Decrying the lukewarm attitude of state governments to accessing UBEC’s conditional and non-conditional funds, she said so much could be achieved with states paying the stipulated 50 percent counterpart fund and accessing 50 percent of the money.

“The idea of UBEC has been hailed as one of the best policies to have been introduced in the education sector as it helps to provide free and universal basic education for every Nigerian child of school-going age, thereby laying a solid foundation for life-long learning,’’ she said.

Jibril-Dukku’s lamentations on the country’s basic public school system also underscores the dilemma faced by UBEC whose Executive Secretary, Hamid Bobboyi, literarily has to go after state governments cap in hand, for them to release their counterpart fund in order to access funds.

”Every quarter, we meet with the states where we sit down and give a rundown of who has accessed what and whose money is outstanding within the system and what were the problems that were hindering the access. “The last one was held in Lagos. We also go out of our way to meet the governors and discuss with them on one-on-one basis.“ A lot of the states are not able to raise money to pay their counterpart funds. This has been a recurring problem,’’ Bobboyi had said at a forum.

If the challenge had been the inability to raise the 50 percent counterpart fund, could a reduction in the percentage payable to the commission by states elicit a more positive response? This was the question that Sen. Aliyu Wamakko (APC-Sokoto North) sought to answer with the amendment which he pushed through on the Universal Basic Education Act, 2004.

Wamakko, a former governor and Chairman, Senate Committee on Basic and Secondary Education, said that the lawmakers amended the Act to ease pressure on states in accessing funds for infrastructure development in schools.

“It seeks to increase the block grant contribution of the Federal Government to education, just as it seeks to reduce the contribution of the state governments.

”This is aimed at reducing the current situation where most states are unable to access the grant owing to their inability to contribute the 50 per cent of the total cost of projects as its commitment in its execution,’’ he said.

With the amendment, the two per cent budgetary allocation to UBEC by the Federal Government was increased to three per cent while counterpart contribution by states was reduced to 10 percent.

The bill also provides for free and compulsory education for all Nigerian children from primary up to secondary school.

It is, however, sad to note, for instance, that pupils and students especially in the South West which used to be shining examples of an educationally advanced and advantaged region, are performing abysmally owing to the aforementioned lapses, while some states across the country are also regressing.

The Rwanda example, in the face of all odds, is a reference point today because of the political will demonstrated by the country’s leadership.

If the amendment of the Universal Basic Education bill gets the deserved presidential assent, succour will hopefully come to this beleaguered sector. (TNE)

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