One policy the Nigerian government embarked on at the end of the Biafran civil war in 1970 to try to re-unite the nation was to bring together the best school students from all of the country’s ethnic and religious groups so that they bond and form a new generation that identify with each other.
Whether rich or poor, the tens of thousands of students attending these so-called ‘unity schools’ consistently scored better than average on the final year exams. Many of the first graduates went on to university and became young professionals.
The unity schools were the showpiece of the government’s education system, but with nepotism and corruption, the best students from poor families were often blocked from getting a place, according to Nigerian educationist Peter Komolafe. More and more students came from families with wealth or from the ruling elite.
Standards also started declining he said, and a succession of military rulers ruthlessly cut federal education budgets. What money the schools did get was often diverted.
With the end of military rule in the 1990s, it became clear that the whole public school system needed a major overall and the unity schools are now on the chopping block. The aim of a new policy initiated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo is to privatise them.
The cost of neglect
Arguments pro-privatisation have a certain resonance. In 2006 between 70 and 80 percent of the federal government’s $300 million allocation for secondary education was spent on educating just 122,000 unity schools students, according to the former Education Minister Oby Ezekwesili who has since been appointed a World Bank vice president for Africa. “Such heavy expenditure on the elite schools would seem unjustifiable,” she said.
In 2005 almost half of all children in Nigeria did not even attend primary school according to the 2006 census, putting the country among the United Nations Childrens Fund’s (UNICEF) top ten of worst countries in the world for school attendance.
And for those children who do get to secondary school, the standards are often so low that the failure rate for those sitting for the final year exams is around 76 percent.
Many public school teachers admit that the education they provide is of little or no benefit to children. “Our school is now mainly for houseboys and housemaids, with demoralised teachers who lack the tools to provide meaningful instruction.” said Maria Akinwale, a teacher at Gbaja Primary School in Lagos.
The result has been that almost any parent who can scrounge up the money to pay for a privately run school will do so, according to a World Bank report on the state of education issued in February. In poor urban and periurban areas of Lagos State, 75 percent of schoolchildren are in private schools, according to research conducted by James Tooley, Professor of Education Policy at Newcastle University in the UK.
The majority are make-shift schools, usually in private homes in congested neighbourhoods, without playgrounds and other basic facilities. They are also poorly regulated and many parents complain they have been fleeced.
Still, parents say they are better than public schools and the Bank has said it is going to encourage this growth industry, and called on the government should do the same. Not only should it foster existing schools but where possible privatise those that are public, the Bank says.
Not everyone is on board. When in November last year the outgoing Obasanjo government had suggested it would privatise all unity schools, teachers at schools around the country went on strike in protest. After a month the government backtracked, saying it would only seek to privatise the administration of the schools not the schools themselves.
At the time, Ezekwesili, the minister for education, laid out how that might work: “We seek a public-private partnership whereby the federal government will remain owner/regulator and funder while non-government partner-managers run the schools for efficiency,” she said.
In the eyes of the Bank, such partnerships would also be a positive step, creating competition and encouraging reform. And the education ministry has already called on private companies to come forward with proposals for how they might go about managing public schools.
These companies would undoubtedly charge fees. The government might provide scholarships to smart children from poor families but critics say that whatever shape it takes, privatising public schools in general, and privatising unity schools in particular, will breed discrimination and disunity.
“One thing the unity schools did was give a few children from poor homes the chance to get subsidised, quality education,” said Komolafe, an educationist. “Such children will lose out in a market-driven educational system.”
He and other critics say privatising education Nigeria’s system has another fundamental problem. Top government officials have vested interests, according to Chiedu Bosah who represents a non-governmental organization called Education Rights.
Both Obasanjo and his former deputy Atiku Abubakar each founded prestigious and profitable private schools, he said. “The people trying to justify a market-led policy [for education] are the same people who would benefit from it most,” he said.