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Published On: Mon, Dec 30th, 2019

Nigeria: Free education that is not free

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By Michael Omisore

Gradually, common sense appears to be prevailing as some parents are withdrawing their children from private schools to public schools due to the renewed effort by many state governments to offer free education at the basic and secondary school levels. This is bound to happen because of the economic situation of the country as families that can no longer cope with the fees charged by private schools are either enrolling their children in other private schools with less tuition or crossing totally to no-tuition public schools.
The move though gradual, from private to public schools, might be a cure to the rather ugly development of students being sent out of school as a result of their parents’ inability to pay their tuition, which is no longer an uncommon experience in private schools. As a parent, it breaks my heart to see students sent home from school because of tuition. And as an advocate of affordable education, I feel it is beyond the parents in question. The fault can actually be laid on the doorsteps of every adult.
Why? Whether we realise it or not, the adult generation is failing the younger ones so far we still have a chunk of our children population not in school or a percentage of those in school being affected by tuition fees. Basic education is a constitutional right of every child. That right for every child, not just for one’s own children, ought to be upheld by every well-meaning adult citizen. There is a collective responsibility here, to ensure all children are educated to an appreciable level. It is what the adult generation, led by its government, owes the young ones.
It is good to know that state governments are rising to the challenge of providing free education at all cost, which may have started impacting on the number of students in their schools. But making education free, as commendable as that is, is not good enough. As a matter of fact, it can be a curse rather than a blessing if the other aspect mentioned here is not factored in. In an article published on this page titled, A case for standard and affordable education, I stressed that basic education should be defined by two parameters – being affordable as well as qualitative. In a situation where it is only affordable or free but of low quality standard, the result at the end may totally undo its essence and relevance.
Free education that is not qualitative is not really free. It is actually ‘expensive’ in the sense and manner one will say someone is cracking an expensive joke. Meaning, the joke may be funny but it is actually hurtful in some ways. So, free but low quality education may wreak more havoc than good at the end by its products, the gross number of ill-prepared students who would not have had adequate learning experiences enough to make them great professionals in their field. Regarding the future and overall outcome and effect on society, free but substandard education can really be a joke.
Consequently, parents that are now quick to withdraw their children to public schools must realise that their mates that are still somehow finding the means to pay the school fees demanded by private schools are doing so not necessarily because it is convenient financially but because they see qualitative education as a worthy investment and sacrifice they have to make for their children. It is not throwing money away if the value for the money is being delivered. Such parents must still be responsible enough to augment the basic training giving free to their children in public schools with unique learning exposures and hope the government really matches affordability with quality standard so their children will not be disadvantaged in future.
However, it is not only public schools that need attention regarding quality standard of education. Due to lapses in regulation, not all private schools can be said to be providing the optimum value in quality more so now that many see school-running as a good business venture and not necessarily an enterprise to deliver value before getting due returns, a development that is watering down delivery in the private school system.
The day of reckoning may have come for such bad examples in the private school system with the revitalising effort on public schools by state governments. The message should be clear to every private school owner: Deliver value to the tune of the fees you charge or lose students. If the competition by public schools, other low paying but value-adding private schools and school initiators with a model that is both affordable and of quality, continues and heightens the more in the next few years, some private schools will have to close shop completely.
Now, for private schools delivering value for the fees they charge, there is really no cause for alarm. Basic education is a very large market. And a good school situated in the right environment will always have a share of students that can keep it in business. Even back then in the 70s and 80s before the collapse of public schools, there were private schools though much fewer in number. And they had their relevance as parents that wanted the extra they gave preferred them to public schools. So, no cause for alarm if much value is being given. Any private school management that is concerned and worried now about pupils leaving its school for low or no-paying schools definitely needs to revisit its vision or mission statement to see whether there is added value in it that will make parents to prefer it, and if such values are really being delivered. And by value, I mean positive ones, not exposing students to criminality through cheating and exam malpractice!
Back to the public school system, which is the main focus here. If government as the owner of public schools is really serious with education, it must match affordability with quality. And government cannot afford to go solo on this, because there are several gaps to be filled to ensure quality, bearing in mind that there are over 10 million out-of-school children and a multiple of that figure already in school but need to get the best of education.
For instance, in another article published on this page a few years ago titled, The Role of Alumni in Resuscitating Education, I suggested a system or structure whereby schools older than 25 years can be largely supported by their old students. But that model will not work without a transparent private enterprise between government and alumni bodies ensuring the system is well-effected.
Public-private partnership is key to ensuring quality in school management, learning techniques and their implementation, teacher training and motivation, curriculum research and review, environmental friendliness, having proper ratios and metrics for good education, drilling essential cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of learning into students, handing unique learning opportunities, mass mobilisation for enrolment and support services for good learning outcomes.
All these the government cannot do alone. In retrospect, the 6-3-3-4 system, a workable system by all indices, has not really yielded its main gains in our country partly because an effective private-public partnership and collaboration was not put in place when it was introduced in the 80s. The reality is that things have gone so bad with our education, worse than how it was a few decades ago, that government must engage relevant private bodies for effective system running that will realise qualitative education. Neglecting such interventions and claiming to be on top of the education challenges facing today’s students is all a joke.

Omisore, an education consultant and author of the Smart and Brilliant Writing series, wrote in from Lagos via

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