Amidst the stories of Boko Haram, 2015 and sundry political ephemerals came the grim news about the state of primary education a few weeks ago. It is another tragedy of its own that this story is almost buried in the heaps of other issues in the public sphere.
The report entitled 2012 Education For All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report was released by UNESCO. The kernel of the story is that 10.5 million children are out of school in Nigeria. Now, it is estimated that about 61 million children have no access to basic education in the world. So approximately one out of six children without access to basic education on earth is in Nigeria, a major oil exporting country.
That is the soul-depressing statistic that is not getting attention as the stories about 2015. The Nigerian share of this global shame is glaringly disproportionate. It is indeed a national shame to be talking of a child lacking access to basic education in 2013! Such a child is being denied a socio-economic right in contravention of Chapter II of the Constitution.
If this does not worry the government and the people, you wonder what should rankle everybody. Unless urgent policy steps are taken to reverse the grotesque trend, a generation is being prepared for a future of poverty. You cannot be said to be serious about poverty eradication when children are out of school. This trend will indubitably worsen poverty, exacerbate inequality and engender social injustice.
The supreme irony is that long after the political plots and persecutions of today might have become historical footnotes the damage being done by nursing a generation of illiterates will linger. Yet this social scourge receives only a scanty attention from policy-makers and the larger public alike. By the time this uncaring society will be paying for the seeds of the social disaster being sown today, it would take a smart history student to remember the names of the present political gladiators and the details of their politics without governance. It does not require power of clairvoyance to know that the current flurry of politics sans principles will be history for posterity to scrutinise by the time the fruits of the policy of cultivation of illiteracy will be ripe. It is even more confounding that in a nation parading this statistic of shame policy-makers still carrying on with talks of Nigeria becoming one of the 20 biggest economies in 2020.
How will the army of 10.5 million illiterates be players in such an illusory political economy? Development theorists tell us that we are in the age of knowledge economy, yet policy-makers of a country that aspires to be among the most developed are not losing their sleep that 10 million children are denied basic education. The social disaster that is unfolding with the fate of these children is a chilling vindication of the radical political economist, Claude Ake, who wrote that the problem "... is not so much that development has failed as that it was never really on the agenda in the first place..." Certainly, those talking about development policies for Nigeria do not have these hapless 10 million children on their agenda. The total of the populations of some West African countries is less than 10 million! How can development be on this nation's agenda when in other parts of the world the most advanced steps in the development path are being taken at a time the most backward trends are still tolerated here? In an age when a conventionally educated person must be digital to be an effective a player in the socio-economic field, Nigeria is having the largest number of children out of school. Yet we are daily bombarded with impressive growth statistics and we are told that this country that is breeding uneducated folks in the destination for foreign investments.
Last Wednesday on this page, the federal government was commended for its Graduate Internship Scheme (GIS) aimed at making degree holders employable by attaching them to private companies to garner requisite experience. Today, the issue for discussion is the fate of children out of classrooms. It is a worse condition. Unless remedial measures are urgently taken, there will be no basis at all for making the children of today, who will be young men and women in 15 years time, employable. With this depressing outcomes, those driving education policy should rethink their options.
This is perhaps an appropriate season to discuss this problem because this month the federal government and a number of state governments will embark on the rituals of mid-term reports. There would be advertisements of "projects" already executed. The hidden danger in this periodic flaunting of the misnomer called "dividends of democracy" is that imperceptibly governance is being reduced to a token. Even the bar of what constitutes good governance has been lowered considerably. Governance is no more about demonstrably qualitative improvement in the lives of the people; development has been reduced to counting of "projects" including the construction of government offices.
Assessment of development efforts should be more rigorous than the current celebration of tokenism. For instance, it would be interesting to know from the mid-term reports of some state governments what policy efforts are afoot to increase school enrolment thereby reducing their respective shares in the 10.5 million children out of school. So among the criteria to be used in assessing the progress a state is making in the education sector should be the factor of school enrolment. The question to ask is this: how many of the children in the streets has the mix of policies by the government brought into the classroom? This question is urgent because it is obvious to even non-experts that with this trend Nigeria is not likely going to meet the cardinal goals of the Education For All (EFA) by the 2015 deadline. In fact, Nigeria is one of the 25 countries that would not meet the basic goals of universal education, equality of education, gender parity and adult education.
In responding to this report, the Minister of Education, Prof. Ruqayyatu Rufa'i, said the responsibility for education should not be that of government alone. She challenged stakeholders- the civil society and development partners - to enlist in the war against ignorance. And that is where the officialdom often misses the point at issue. The best the "stakeholders" can do in the circumstance is to nudge the government to wake up to its responsibility of ridding this land of the scourge of illiteracy.
The funding of primary education of the children of the poor should be the business of the government. It is not a speculation that the majority is poor in this country. Honest funding of basic education by government is inevitable if Nigeria is serious about poverty eradication and development. No "stakeholder" will perform this responsibility on behalf of government. For the child, basic education is a socio-economic right. Chapter II of the Constitution makes it so as one of the Directive Principles and Objectives of State Policy.
According to the report under review, Nigeria is fast breeding this generation of illiterates because the cost of quality education is prohibitive. With the collapse of public schools, provision of basic education has become a booming industry in the hands of private investors in the otherwise social sector. The results of the abandonment of government's responsibility are the 10 million illiterate children. There should be a policy rethink; the official mentality that government cannot fund basic education for the poor must change. When you leave a parent on the minimum wage at the mercy of a private school entrepreneur who charges many times the income of the parent as fees, you are sentencing that child to illiteracy. That is not the path to development.
Besides, basic education should be the business of state and local governments. It is out of place for the government at the centre to be awarding contracts for primary education in a federation. Funding basic education would require enormous resources. One expert has recommended spending 20% of the budget on education to reverse this trend. Hence the revenue sharing formula should be revised so that state governments would have more resources at their disposal to wage war against ignorance.