Out-of-school children: The prosecution threat
There are indications that parents who prevent or refuse to register their children of school age in school may be in for it presently as laws may soon be enacted to sanction such visionless parents. Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, stated this much during his recent weekend ministerial briefing. According to the minister, “Unless the issue of parents preventing their children from going to school is made a crime and we start jailing parents, the menace of out-of-school children will not be resolved. There are many who are still hiding behind culture and religion.” The solution being proposed by the minister to rein in the country’s embarrassing out-of-school figures is bold and even somewhat precipitate, but it clearly underscores his concern about the seriousness of the matter. However, if the proposition is not just a mere kite-flying exercise, then it must be stated ab initio that the implementation of the proposed laws will be tricky.
For starters, the laws will have to contend seriously with the poor economic condition of parents as well as religion and culture which the minister has rightly identified as factors which many less than discerning parents still latch onto while preventing their children from going to school. Perhaps it should be mentioned that the informal conversation around the proposal is still civilised because the minister is of the same ethnic extraction and religious background as most of the parents that will be affected by the proposed legislation. If it were the other way round, ethnic and religious sentiments would have taken the centre stage in public discussions of the matter. Even at that, it is more realistic to expect stiff resistance from some quarters in the days ahead as the import of the proposed laws sinks in.
Malam Adamu’s proposal stands good on paper but it might be more beneficial to understand why parents do not, or are reluctant to, send their children to school. The justification in the past for a man to raise a large family with multiple wives and children was to be able to have access to cheap labour in the largely agrarian economy of the time. Children were part of the economic assets available to parents and it would appear that they still remain largely so in some parts of the country, especially in the core North, because of poverty. Yet it is axiomatic that the deployment of uneducated and unskilled children as economic assets by parents because they are poor can only help to perpetuate poverty in families. Thus, poverty and ignorance play crucial roles in the unenviable statistics of out-of-school children and that is why it is more helpful to look at the situation that breeds a trend before applying seemingly draconian laws to reverse the ugly trend. Poverty is a crucial factor to be addressed, especially in a clime where education at any level is really not free.
The average poor and ignorant parent would rather use his children as economic assets than expose them to learning that will cost him something in addition to depriving him of the assistance the children would otherwise have provided. This is by no means suggesting that such a decision is optimal in the medium and long terms, but survival, even if momentarily, tends to recommend actions that are sub-optimal. The point we are making is that poverty within the polity, which has unarguably exacerbated in recent times, is an important reason some parents do not send their children to school and there is the need to tackle it head-on. In 2018, about 92 million Nigerians reportedly slipped into poverty. It should be worrying but not surprising that the out-of-school children figure rose from about 10.5 million less than five years ago to 13.2 million today because the economic condition of the average parent has also worsened. No one needs any rigorous empirical evidence to establish the correlation or nexus between the two negative indices.
The likelihood that the laws will achieve much in the present circumstances is small not only because government risks being misunderstood but more importantly because the laws would focus on the effects rather than the causes of high out-of-school figures. The importance of letting children of school age attend school needs to be put in intense advocacy. Different forms of leadership, including government, traditional and religious, should work in concert and be at the vanguard of sensitisation efforts. Again, in addition to the government’s current school feeding programme which has the potential to draw more children to school, a truly free education policy should be implemented at some levels of education in the country. The truth is that there is hardly anywhere in the country where free education in its true sense exists. Yes, Nigeria may be the poverty capital of the world today, but that should not be the permanent feature of the country. One way of ensuring that the despicable description does not remain the narrative of the country is to ensure that children go to school. This will put a stop to breeding uneducated, unskilled and unproductive populations and perpetuating misery.