Towards reviving Unity Schools

Unity schools were unique. Unity schools is the name coined for Federal Government Colleges and Federal Government Girls’ Colleges founded by the Federal Government of Nigeria for promoting national unity and integration. Students who passed through these schools till the end of the last millennium were privileged. They passed through a heritage which caused immense pride to swell from deep within them. Though there are 104 of such schools, there is a striking similarity in the attitude, behaviour and mind-set of students who passed through these schools. When they got into the universities, they easily bond with one another as the unity schools mirror themselves.

The last 16 years have witnessed a steep downward trend in the quality of these schools. This depreciation is part of the cause of the rancour on the pronouncements by the Federal Ministry of Education on the increase in fees and restriction on the charging of levies by Parents-Teachers Associations (PTAs). The directives have elicited reactions and counter-reactions, which might not result in improvement in welfare or academics in the schools.

Federal Government Colleges in Warri, Sokoto and Enugu were established in 1966. The other schools that had national appeal before them were Queens College and Kings College, both in Lagos State. They are effectively the first two unity schools. I am privileged to have attended one of the oldest of these schools, Federal Government College, Odogbolu, established in 1973.

Till the early 1990s, admission into the school was very competitive, though consideration was also given to students in the catchment area of each school. Merit was the foremost consideration. This ensured that each college admitted mostly brilliant students, precipitating healthy academic competition which helped average students raise their standards. The mix in the schools, however, ran deeper as they served as the ultimate mixing pot. The ethnic, cultural, religious and social backgrounds of the students were diverse. The children of the most influential people in the society had to coexist with the children whose parents were on the lowest rung of the social ladder without a sense of superiority. Once you passed through the gates into the schools, there was a levelling. One needed to learn interdependence to survive the rigours of school. A student in these school would learn sophistication and poise on one hand, while soaking the lessons of endurance, innovation, tolerance and tenacity on the other. There was no room for religious extremism and the schools upheld secularism while supporting the students’ right to religious association within properly defined boundaries. Education in the schools went beyond academics, it was well rounded and complete.

My school had a Mercedes Benz luxurious bus, and a Kia Asia, Toyota coaster and Nissan Urvan buses. There was a Peugeot 504 Station wagon for the use of the principal. A Steyr water tanker which had served for over a decade by the 1990s, a light blue Bedford truck and a tractor whose most used attachment was for taming the vegetation of the occupied segment of the expansive compound made up the remaining vehicles. The school is on approximately 600 acres of land. The blue Bedford truck was nicknamed ‘Blue Maria’ after it was used to transport some notorious students after they had caused a ruckus in school. Interestingly, other schools also had the same set of vehicles. There was a fair attempt to achieve parity between the schools.

The buildings were well built. Even with young, untrained eyes, we could see the solidity and the timelessness of the structures. Minor refurbishing and a coat of paint made the buildings new. We never heard or witnessed building collapse or roofs being blown by winds. The structures were built to last.

Now,  most of the ex-students will not send their wards to the colleges because of the fallen standard, yet they pour their resources into them because of the deep seated love for the alma mater.

As it is, I am not against increase in fees. I am rather interested in bringing the Federal Colleges to their places of glory, churning out well rounded students and becoming the destination for valuable and affordable education. This cannot be achieved by reactive policies. It requires a holistic approach to determine where the deviation from the ideals of the founders started.

It should not just be about stopping the rot but transforming the schools in all facets. Are teachers passionate? Do they pledge their lives to help build the leaders of tomorrow? Can the best teachers be recruited and retained? Will they be equipped to give up-to-date qualitative education? Would we be scrutinising the quality of the curricular? Would a student pass through a unity school and have optimum exposure to ICT? Can the product of this school compete with students of the private school? These questions beg for answers.

It is a herculean task to turn the schools around, and the earlier it is started, the better.

  • Animasaun is the Acting Secretary of Federal Government College Odogbolu Old Students Association.