Placing renewed priority on primary education – Punch Newspapers


AT a time of protracted crises in the country’s tertiary education system, the Nigerian Society of Engineers has issued a timely warning on the dangers of the continued relegation of basic education. Unveiling three classroom blocks built by its Bwari, Abuja, branch for a public primary school in the Federal Capital Territory, the engineers deplored the dilapidated conditions of public primary schools and called for adequate investment to rehabilitate them. Their admonition that the future of an individual and country depended on the quality of learning received at that level should serve as a wake-up call on the various governments to accord utmost priority to the primary education tier.

Notably, the primary school that was being upgraded lacked basic facilities, and children received lessons in water-logged structures with poor sanitation. It was obvious that the classrooms and the entire school environment were far from conducive to meaningful teaching and learning. This also exposes the children to diseases. Certainly, it is not the type of institution expected in the 21st Century, not least in the FCT, where the highest standards in facilities and human resources are expected. But that is the story across the 36 states and the FCT. Many public schools are an eyesore, the very antithesis of a conducive learning environment.

There is therefore an urgent need to review and refocus the country’s entire educational system. This should be guided by the universal objectives of education and specific national goals. Adopted as a fundamental right by the United Nations, UNESCO regards it as a service that transforms lives and a tool “to build peace, eradicate poverty and drive sustainable development.”

Nigeria misses the point by its neglect of primary education. UNICEF emphasises that “primary education forms the bedrock of development. It is in primary school that children learn foundational skills that prepare them for life, work, and active citizenship.”

The governments should therefore take up the NSE’s challenge, particularly state and local governments, to reconnect with their oath of office and to uphold the constitution and laws of the country, which set out their statutory responsibilities. Access to primary education has been the object of legislative enactments and is emphasised in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The Child Rights Act 2003, for instance, states in Section 15(1): “Every child has the right to free, compulsory and universal basic education and it shall be the duty of the government in Nigeria to provide such education.” There is also the Universal Basic Education Act 2004, which makes education free and mandatory from primary to junior secondary school level.

States and LGs have been remiss in this area of responsibility, just as the Federal Government has been at the tertiary level. Latest figures indicate that 20.2 million children are currently out of school in the country. Across the land, the most common features of primary schools are rundown school buildings and facilities, poor sanitation, inadequacy of desks, chairs and instructional materials, and many unqualified and ill-motivated teachers. Absenteeism by teachers is widespread as the routine school inspectorate system has broken down.

Primary education is where formal education begins, and foundational skills are acquired by children. The very basics in literacy and numeracy, the cornerstones of standard education, are the key elements of the curriculum at that level. In colonial times and a decade after, when teachers with the requisite professional training, orientation and qualifications manned the educational system, individuals who obtained the primary school certificate could take up jobs. They could study at home for the General Certificate of Education or the Cambridge Examination and, where successful, proceed to prepare for and sit professional qualifications.

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Foundation is critical to any enterprise, including education. Most of the pupils proceeding to Nigerian secondary schools these days are ill-prepared for academic work at that level. Given the poor management of the education system and resultant weaknesses, many who resort to cheating in the different exams can still get into the universities and even obtain degrees.

Unremitting output of certificated semi-illiterates from the educational institutions has become Nigeria’s lot for decades, with serious adverse implications on human capital development. Quacks now dominate in many professions, including teaching, engineering, and medical practice. Employers have long complained that Nigerian graduates are ill-equipped for the corporate world, forcing many firms to invest in retraining their new recruits.

Planning and adequate investment in primary education are imperative for the states to arrest the drift in manpower development. Planning, beginning with needs assessment, is a scientific exercise and calls for the best brains, with due consideration to the quality of teachers required in primary schools.

Some state governments that subjected primary and secondary school teachers to tests found thousands of them unfit; except for Kaduna, most states lacked the will to remove them. Getting the right calibre of teaching personnel must be complemented with the provision of standard facilities, instructional materials, and enhanced conditions of service, particularly salaries and retirement benefits.

According to the World Population Review’s ranking of the countries with the best educational systems in 2021, consistent investments in primary education by national, sub-national and local governments featured in producing the best outcomes. The top four, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada benefitted from autonomy and complementary support and funding from their central governments.

There must be a deliberate effort on the part of Nigeria’s states and LGs to ensure a solid foundation for individuals and the wider society. The Federal Ministry of Education’s recommendation that states should allot at least 15 per cent of their budgets to education should be viewed favourably.

Instead of the obsessive establishment of ill-funded, ill-equipped, and ill-staffed tertiary education institutions by the federal and state governments, there should be a vigorous revamp of the basic education sector, featuring compulsory attendance, better funding, equipping, and staffing. The five states that have not domesticated the CRA should do so without further delay; all 36 states should strictly enforce it. ,

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