Awo Free Education @66: Scholars, experts proffer way forward

•South-West governors give scorecard

Scholars and education experts on Sunday marked the 66th anniversary of the Universal Basic Free Education of ChiefObafemi Awolowo, by charting the path to go in sustaining the ideals of the policy.

Speaking at the anniversary Webinar, organised by Obafemi Awolowo Foundation, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children’s education, was dissected by stakeholders from both the public and private sectors, while state government in the South West also spoke to the challenges of providing education during the pandemic and the lessons learnt from the novel policies that were enacted.

At the interactive session, the Executive Director of the Foundation, Ambassador Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu said for the nation to achieve the much-needed growth, it was imperative to support the underprivileged children in the society, adding that the soaring number of vulnerable children in the country should be a source of concern for every Nigerian.

She stated that as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to wreak havoc on lives and livelihood, it had also become imperative to remember the vulnerable Nigerian child, whose educational career is being truncated by the pandemic.

“The launch of free education in the Western region, then, was a historic move by the government of Western region at the time. And the vision behind that at that time was a development that depends on humanity.

“According to Papa, the characteristics of a developed economy are inseparable and entirely human. So he believed, totally, in human development, even though it was almost 40 years later before the World Bank recommended it to all nations. Not only did he and his party propound human development, but they also did it in government. So that’s what we need to examine today.

“I believe it is in our best interest to look at the plights of the less privileged in the country, and see how they can be helped. These are children from homes that have no smartphones, no connectivity, no electricity most of the time, and whose parents are probably not in a position to help them through online teachings. So they have a lot of problems all around them,” she stated.

She expressed the hope that the webinar would come up with actionable strategies, pragmatic ways to help  such children and  move the nation forward.

Senior Special Adviser On Industrialization to President, African Development Bank, Professor Oyebanji Oyeyinka in his presentation, identified four ways in which the pandemic had affected the educational system in the country.

Professor Banji said that lack of access to digital devices such as radio, internet as well as rural-urban divide, are major factors, adding that inter-generational inequality and the problems of living in areas of extreme poverty could not also be overlooked.

“There are four channels through the coronavirus pandemic has affected the country’s educational system.

“Lack of access to digital devices such as radio, lack of access to internet; the rural-urban divide; children living in extreme poverty and intergenerational inequality. Based on these challenges, I would therefore advise that it is very imperative to change our approach to education in order to stand strong in upholding its effective values,” he said.

For Professor Adesoji Adelaja of Michigan State University, in his paper titled “Rethinking Basic Education Now and post-pandemic”, future growth will come mostly from people who work with their heads, not with their hands.” He added that education enables people to develop their ability to use their head, but the pandemic was posing a lot of challenges.

He was also of the opinion that the schools would not be safe for kids to go back to, until a vaccine is developed, but noted that vaccines cost money which Nigeria has little of now.

Retired Professor of History, Howard University, Professor Segun Gbadegesin spoke glowingly of the ideal and thoughts behind the free education policy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, noting that yesterday was the anniversary of the first class to mark the commencement of the free education programme.

Lamenting the departure from the ideal, he noted that strong commitment to public service and total development of human beings, which drove the passion of the late Sage and his team, was glaringly lacking in today’s leaders.

“What is lacking now is what Awo and his team had. The emphasis (of free education) is on the human being. To have human personality fully developed. We have veered off.”

The retired don observed that the existence of truly federal structure when the programme began, helped regions to successfully develop their agenda, saying that for the ideal to take the centre-stage again, true federalism must be reclaimed.

He concluded with a famous Awo saying “if it is good for one, it is good for all”.

Private school operators in Nigeria also brought up the challenges they had to combat due to the pandemic, at the interactive session.

They lamented that when government shut down schools, many of them, battled with inadequate power supply challenges and very expensive data purchase.

Managing Director of Oxbridge Tutorial College in Lagos, Dr Mrs Femi Ogunsanya, who spoke on their behalf, explained that the challenges, however, brought out the best in most of the private schools as many rose up to the peculiarities of the time and season.

According to her, “Before Covid-19, about 10.5million Nigerian students aged between 5 and 14 were out of school. Only 61 per cent of six to eleven-year-olds regularly attended private schools. Nigeria contributes approximately 20 per cent to the total global out of school population. This was before Covid-19. So there were already challenges in our education sector before Covid-19.

“Then came Covid-19 pandemic, and there was a great disruption to education. There was confusion, panic, fear, that feeling of uncertainty. Was Nigeria ready for Covid-19? No, we were caught napping by Covid-19.

“There are 80,000 private schools in Nigeria, and there are 18,575 of those schools in Lagos alone. 33 per cent of children are enrolled in private schools, meaning that the private schools are taking care of a small proportion of children who are of age-going-school in Nigeria.

“When the Covid-19 got to Nigeria, and government shut schools in March, it caught everyone of us by surprise and we all knew we had to turn to technology to confront this challenge.

“We turned to the online classes, but this was very expensive. Acquisition of laptops, ipads, and other gadgets, including purchasing Data were all very expensive, but all these were acquired in order to ensure e-learning took place. Data is very expensive in Nigeria, and this was one of the greatest challenges that we faced in the advent of Covid-19.

“Another challenge was electricity supply both in school and at home. This increased the level of expenditures because we had to depend on alternative power supply like generators. In the area of expensive data, we had to give our teachers additional funds to buy enough data in order to have e-classes from home.

“There were lots of investments in e-learning for private schools in order to meet up with the challenges of Covid-19. We also had training of teachers to ensure they kept the students engaged online.

“To take care of inadequate power supply at home, we told our teachers to switch to their hotspots to remain online. All this brought out the best in private school operators during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Commissioners for Education in Lagos and Oyo States, Mrs Sade Adefisayo and Barrister Olasunkanmi Olaleye as well as Special Adviser to Ogun Governor on Education, Mrs Ronke Soyombo, separately gave accounts of the challenges posed by the pandemic and what their various governments were doing to sort them out.

They all listed e-learning as the main go-to for them, to bridge the learning gap, caused by the lockdown as well as an increase in funding to cover new grounds to be explored like better access to technology and training of teaching and non-teaching personnel.

Quoting Adefisayo on the challenges, “Some students started learning trades when the school was closed for six months as some parents said school appeared not to be important. Many students didn’t come back. We trained the teachers on a lot of things about virtual learning, but we knew there was a slide. For vulnerable students, school is safer than at home. Technology is a major driver of how we are going to solve this problem. The pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, so leaning may resume online soon and we are already laying cables to schools.

ALSO READ: UNIBEN to bar students who refuse to wear face masks

Also speaking at the discourse, moderated by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of University of Lagos( UNILAG) in charge of Development, Professor Folasade Ogunsola, MTN Group, pledged to deepen its partnership with other stakeholders to further ameliorate the impact of the pandemic.

Senior Manager, Youth Segment of the Group, Omotayo George explained that to cushion the effect of Covid-19, MTN rolled out free data to enable the sustainability of e-classes in Nigeria.

In her words, “Once Covid-19 arrived Nigeria, and children were locked away at home due to the lockdown that was imposed to contain its spread, MTN thought about it and we knew we were going to have a huge problem in our hands because over 70 per cent of students are in public schools in Nigeria.

“We brainstormed on how students in public schools were going to continue learning via e-platforms, and this led to some of the things we introduced.

“We had an online resource where we aggregate relevant contents for nine to fifteen-year-old students to protect them from dangerous online contents.

“We also gave out free data, that is 15Gb data for students. It is still ongoing as we speak. We also had a lot of partnership with State Government, private organisations amongst others. We also did some thing’s around our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Professor of Counseling, University of Lagos, Professor Ngozi Osarenren in her presentation, said parents must focus on their children’s psychological, emotional and social wellbeing during this coronavirus period.

Professor Ngozi said this was indispensable because the children had lost touch with their friends that they used to play together with, prior to the arrival of the virus.

“During this coronavirus period, psychological, emotional and social wellbeing of our children should be of great concern as parents as it is the time the children become irritable because it is a new normal.

“They are not used to being caged. So, because of this, it gives a serious issue of trying to cope. Coping is a problem.

“The lockdown has taken away a lot of childhood experiences which are necessary to make a child functioning member of the society even as they have been told that they are not supposed to play the way they used to and it is play that makes them develop,” she said.

Professor Osarenren also admonished parents to be patient and teach their children the safety protocols as well as exposing them to the knowledge of the inherent danger if compromised.

She also advised schools to implore counsellors to engage the students on the psychological issues they are facing in order to prevent them from being dysfunctional.

“It only takes a lot of patience on the part of parents to help them to cope. How? The psychological wellbeing of every child should be of concern to us. Counsellors should be told to engage the students on the psychological issues they are facing

“This is because if we don’t focus, we are going to have dysfunctional children. Once you are not able to ensure that their psychological wellbeing and emotional wellbeing, we are going to have a problem,” she said.

Professor Wale Adebanwi in his short exhortation wondered why the least capable always get to be in charge of the country’s national affairs, while condemning the demonstrable efficiency exhibited in some states, in the handling of the pandemic in relation to learning.

For him, the Awo way, remains the way.

Professor Ladipo Adamolekun went constitutional in making his argument that government basically existed, among other priorities, to give free education to youngsters, pointing out that there is a real danger of educational epidemic looming in Nigeria.


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