Once upon a time, a Victorian saying held that: “children should be seen not heard?”. The world has since come a long way from such times. Or has it really? The contents of the 2006 UNICEF’s annual State of the World Children’s report appears to be sounding a note of warning that if care is not taken, we may be headed back to those times. The report highlights that “millions of children have not been the beneficiaries of past gains, the ones who are excluded or ‘invisible’. According to the report, these children do not have access to education, hospital services, life-saving vaccines, protection etc. This is the bleak picture from UNICEF’s report about the state of affairs in the least developed countries. This only lends further credence to the views already making the rounds that taking into account the current rates of progress, sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, may not meet the targets set by the Millennium Development Goals for 2015. Six out of the eight goals are related to the vision of well-being for children. Does this imply that the future of the world’s children may not get any better?
The information on the state of Nigerian children as far as education is concerned is far from pleasant. The UNICEF Assistant Representative in Nigeria says: “seven million Nigerian children of primary school age are currently out of school with most of the girls, while millions of others are excluded from essential services”. In other words, we have a burgeoning illiteracy class on our hands. The report raises questions about the whole approach to education in the country and our attempt to meet up with the International Goals of Education for All. Why have all the years of trying to provide universal primary education not yielded much fruit? Is it a reflection on the attitude of both current and past leaders towards providing adequate access to education? Is the report an indictment on the processes of implementation or are there flaws in the education policy itself? Are there still other factors that are militating against moving towards achieving Millennium Development Goal 2 which calls for every boy and girl to complete primary schooling? If just as UNICEF says seven’ million children of school age are currently out of school, then something has gone terribly wrong somewhere! With all Government’s efforts towards achieving UBE, how could so many children still be side-lined from one of the most important indicators for measuring development? These are some of the questions the leaders and managers of the economy need to address and give answers to the nation.
The fact that the education of children is key to a nation’s development is well documented in the NEEDS document: “the NEEDS strategy seeks to implement the Universal Basic Education law in order to increase school enrolment and provide better schools and colleges and better-trained teachers and trainers”. The document promises “more funds” as part of its strategy to strengthen the nation’s skill base.
There’s no denying that universal access to qualitative education has been one of the focal points of the nation’s human capital development policies from the 1970s.
Universal Primary Education (UPE) World Conference set 1980 as the target year for all African nations to achieve the goals. This policy was to give way to the Universal Basic Education, a Declaration which was the outcome of a 1990 Conference on Education for All and Framework for Action to meet basic learning needs. As a signatory to the Education for All Declaration of Dakar 2000, Nigeria has been implementing programmes to meet the targets by setting the stage for the development of basic education for all children.
The Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) was established following the enactment of the UBE Act in May 2004. Its mandate includes ensuring the eradication of illiteracy through the provision of basic education for all. Its projects include construction and rehabilitation of schools, provision of equipment, and instructional materials etc. As a Federal parastatal UBEC gives funds to the states as part of its counterpart funding scheme for the development of basic education. For instance under its FGN/UBE self-help project, it recently gave N67.9m to 151 disadvantaged communities in Kwara State for the renovation of schools. The actual implementation of UBEC’s programmes and projects at the state level is carried out by the State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB). Previously known as State Primary Education Board (SPEB), its function includes building and renovating of classrooms, providing conducive teaching and learning environment, provision of furniture and textbooks, stocking of libraries etc.
There is no gainsaying that past financial misdemeanours have also contributed to the appalling state of the education sector. Rabid misappropriation of funds and -until very recently – the huge debt hangover meant priority sectors such as health and education had to bear the brunt of lack of funds. This, unfortunately, has had adverse effects on the education needs of the nation’s most vulnerable group of children.
The report highlighted the problem of the gender gap in primary school enrolment. This has been of the most pernicious areas that have continued to plague the nation. This is attributable to several socio-cultural factors such as early marriages, poverty levels that have driven families to send their daughters out as hawkers and domestic labourers, misunderstanding about the concepts of western education, shortage of female teachers, etc.
The lack of water and adequate sanitation facilities are also said to be contributory factors to absenteeism and high drop-out rates from school. This is an area that UBEC needs to urgently address. It is only fair to say that most of these problems persist mostly in the Northern part of the country and is reflected in the regional disparities in the enrolment rates, and school completion rates. An acknowledgement of this problem is demonstrated through the following: The Executive Secretary of UBEC, Professor Gidado Tahir was recently quoted as saying Kebbi State was “still battling with the challenge of ensuring that all school-age children enrol in school”. Adding that, “many school-age children were still out of school in the state”. Last September, in a bid to narrow the gap between the enrolment of boys and girls in schools, UNICEF pledged to spend $50m in six northern states of Jigawa, Borno, Katsina, Bauchi, Niger and Sokoto.
The delivery of basic and qualitative education for all can be achieved through proper funding. The lack of motivation and irregular payment of teachers’ salaries is also said to be a reason for the poor health of our educational system. These are issues that can be satisfactorily addressed through adequate funding of the sector would clearly address these issues. Education expenditure must be closely monitored to ensure that monies are disbursed and spent judiciously on infrastructural facilities, equipment, instructional materials, libraries, employment of more teachers, skill development and improved pay packages to enhance performances etc. Projects should be supervised to ensure that they meet the required standards both in terms of quality and content. An increase in budgetary allocations to the education sector would also ensure that the nation provides and sustains an education system which would empower children in line with the MDGs. Education financing should be open and transparent so that civil society and other stakeholders can closely monitor to ensure that the programmes are being fully implemented to the benefit of children. A renewed commitment on the part of the leadership class to put in the required resources into providing a good-quality primary school education will allow our children to meet the ultimate objective which is to receive skills and knowledge that would equip them for life. To bridge the gender disparity in school enrolments, the intensification of public awareness campaigns can be targeted at an increase in higher girls’ enrolment rate.
The recently introduced Home Grown School Food and Health Programme (HGSFHP) which provides one free school meal to all primary school pupils – if well-funded and managed-could be a positive step towards boosting school enrolment levels. Children who do not complete their primary school education are less likely to have the relevant literacy numeracy and cognitive skills that are useful to equip them for a fruitful life. The Programme is expected to reduce dropout rates and boost school completion and enrolment rates. The national school feeding programme would also serve as a source of providing nutritional meals to public school children. Malnutrition has been identified as not only being one of the causes of physical weakness in children but also impairs their ability to learn. States such as Nassarawa, Enugu and Osun have already implemented the programme. Full implementation of HGSFHP on a national scale would reflect a new approach towards the wholesome welfare of children.
Good-quality schooling is the right of every child. Over forty years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted that: “Everyone has a right to education”. Unfortunately, the Child Rights Act which can give added voice to the plight of children through the upholding of their rights has been passed into law in only two (Ogun and Edo) of the thirty-six states of the Federation. The Act addresses issues such as stopping child marriages and the eradication of girl child hawking. This casts further doubts on the nation’s willingness to handle children’s survival, development and protection as a matter of moral and legal obligation.
Unless the nation adopts a more serious and committed approach towards its UBE policy, many millions of our children would continue to wallow in poverty and remain uneducated.
Originally published on Friday February 24, 2006 at PAGE 14, THURSDAY, VOL II, No. 3961