I join others in congratulating Obafemi Awolowo Foundation on taking the lead in drawing national attention to the “Impact of Covid-19 Pandemic on Children’s Education”. This laudable initiative is no coincidence as the introduction of Universal Primary Education (UPE) in Western Nigeria in January 1955 under Chief Awolowo as the regional premier was aimed at eradicating educational poverty. Sadly, sixty-six years later, due to the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic that has been ravaging the planet since the first quarter of 2020, there is a real danger of an epidemic of educational poverty not only in Western Nigeria but throughout Nigeria; indeed, it is a world-wide danger. Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the education of millions of children because of the closure of schools for a varying number of months in the vast majority of countries across the continents. Until the spread of Covid-19 is brough under control, the negative consequences on education will persist.
In Nigeria, primary education has suffered hugely as pupils nation-wide have been out of school for more than ten months. It’s only in a small number of privately-owned primary schools that some of the pupils might have been lucky to benefit in varying degrees from the introduction of emergency remote teaching and learning. And when schools re-open, it is almost certain that the pre-Covid-19 estimated 13 million of out-of-school children in Nigeria must have increased by one-half million or more.
In post-Covid-19 Nigeria, children’s right to free quality primary education should be the priority of priorities for all the thirty-six state governments. According to Chapter II, Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy (Section 18 (3) of the 1999 Constitution: “Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy; and to this end Government shall as and when practicable provide: (a) free, compulsory and universal primary education; (b) free secondary education; (c) free university education…” I would argue that the qualifier “as and when practicable” should not apply to primary education.
(i) The successful introduction and implementation of UPE in Western Nigeria 66 years ago ought to mean that the implementation of the constitutional obligation should be mandatory for all state governments.
(ii) Although the “Compulsory, Free, Universal Basic Education Act, 2004” is factually consistent with the constitutional obligation relating to “free, compulsory and universal primary education”, it is my considered opinion that the Federal Government’s intervention “for the purpose of uniform and qualitative basic education throughout Nigeria” (as stated in the UBEC Act) is unwarranted in a federal system. Specifically, after reviewing the implementation of the UBE Act a few years ago, I concluded that the Act should be repealed and the share of national revenues hi-jacked for the purpose by the Federal government should be shared among the states and local governments. I added that sub-national governments should have full responsibility for achieving quality basic education. The federal government’s role in primary education should remain limited to prescribing minimum standards as provided in the Constitution’s Second Schedule, Exclusive Legislative List, 60 (e).
(iii) Nigeria is a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and according to UNESCO, SDG 4 (the education goal) aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Specifically, by 2030, every country is expected to ensure that all girls and boys complete compulsory, free, equitable and quality primary education, leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.
My last word is the need for attention to tackling what the World Bank defined in 2019 as learning poverty: the percentage of ten-year-olds who cannot read and understand a simple story in their language of instruction. I would strongly recommend that all primary schools, public and private, should seek to ensure that every ten-year old in their schools can pass this test; it is a credible measure of quality education at the primary school level.
Once again, I commend the Executive Secretary of Obafemi Awolowo Foundation for organizing this Webinar on an important topical subject.
Adamolekun is a retired Professor of Public Administration at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Osun State.