Some Teachers Curse Students The Human Costs of Nigeria’s Failing Public School System

Without proper funding, little to nothing can be done to improve the state of public schools in Nigeria. Yet, over the years, little attention has been paid to funding these schools.

It was June in 2011, and we had just finished our Junior Secondary School exams. Our idle bodies were looking for something to do, and we became the embodiment of the proverbial devil’s workshop. There were about ten of us including me, Adigun, Young Star, Jama and Jigor. I was the class captain and the booklover. Adigun was a skinny kid who always came late to school and really enjoyed singing Fuji. Saheed Osupa was his favourite. Lekan or, as we knew him, ‘Young Star’, was the potential hip-hop artist and a ‘big boy’. He had even released a track by then. Jama was a junior, the rogue almost everyone in school was afraid of. Being a junior, I thought he’d have been a serious student, but he hardly ever showed up to his classes. Jigor was the most unbothered person. He had a carefree attitude towards almost everything. None of us were really close, but we ended up spending some time together that year. 

Every day, we would trek back to the schoolyard to spend the morning—ignoring the principal’s instruction to stay home. We found a spot that became our regular hangout—a run-down classroom near the extreme end of the school. There were a few abandoned classrooms like this, many of them in the far ends of the school. One time, heavy rain destroyed the roof of a classroom; no one ever came to repair it. The school just moved the students to another classroom. You could always find a spot in a public school in Ibadan to catch fun and waste time, either in a classroom that was falling apart or in the nearby bushes that typically flanked the outer reaches of schoolyards.

One day, when we were hanging out, Jama stood up unprovoked and said, ‘How far, guys? Ẹ jẹ́ká spark’. Lost on what he meant, I looked around for hints on the other guys’ faces. Then I got it. The others were already standing, ready to fight. Apparently, ‘to spark’ meant to throw punches for fun—like a boxing game: You paired with a person and you both exchanged punches to see who could make the most points. It was fun to watch, but terrifying to participate in. Jama took different rounds with Jigor and had the most points. After his round, Young Star paired with Adigun, with Adigun winning their round. Then it came to me. I would have declined, but my fascination by the game overtook my terror. I paired with Adigun. I got to hit him once, he ended up hitting me not less than three times. That was all within a semi-round of about ten minutes that, somehow, I managed to survive.

After sparking, we passed out with fatigue on the ground and fighting morphed into a discussion. Young Star started talking about a new track he was working on and how he would become a superstar. I enjoyed listening to him and we ended up talking about our future plans. I had always wanted to become a lawyer and that was exactly what I told the guys. Many of them cheered ‘La Habibeeh!’, a loose way of calling my name. Then it was Adigun’s turn. I expected him to choose a career like a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. Those were the common choices back then. But, Adigun surprised me when he said he wanted to own a tarmac, in his words, ‘Mo fẹ́ ní támáàkì. That was the second time that day someone would use a strange word in a conversation. He told us that a tarmac was where buses, cars and bikes load passengers for transportation, like a motor park. Now, you won’t find this definition for tarmac in a standard English dictionary, but that’s how cab drivers use the word. Owning a tarmac is not an easy career path. Even I knew that. You start as a taxi driver, rise through the ranks and someday usurp the incumbent chairman. In Ibadan back then, people died and properties got destroyed whenever anyone tried to own a tarmac. This was 2009, during the days of Tokyo and Eleweomo. I did not think any parent would dream to have their children tow this path. So, I was shocked to learn of Adigun’s choice. 

After Adigun, the others took their turns: mechanic, learning a trade and so forth—Jigor wasn’t interested in the topic. I, however, had never felt as out of place as I did that day. There we were, 12- and 13-year-olds, just finished exams and talking about our future and one wanted to own a tarmac, and another wanted to be ‘mechanic’. It seemed to me that most of my mates had no plans to continue with formal education. They had no regard for it. 

A Poor Academic Environment?

Maybe my school friends had lost interest in formal education because Nigeria’s public schools were a poor academic environment. The evidence was in our collectively poor academic performance. In Oyo State, more than 94 per cent of students failed the West African Senior School Certification Examination in 2011.

Only 5.6 per cent of students scored between A1 and C6 in English and 2.88 per cent of students scored between A1 and C6 in mathematics. It meant only a fraction of the students that year at least passed the most compulsory subjects: English and Maths. In my set, no one—at least that I know of—had a complete result (at least five credits in all compulsory subjects) except two people. We were more than 400 students.

There are things that went on in the public schools I attended that should not have happened. One afternoon, for example, some female teachers called some of the female students out of class and into the staff room to peel egusi. The teachers planned to either sell the egusi or take the vegetables home. Then, there were many days when a single teacher never showed up for the entire school day, from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon. When that happened, my classmates and I would end up playing. Sometimes, the school’s gateman called students to wash the principal’s car or a school authority figure would tell a student to cut grass. I slowly realized that there was no incentive to perform well in school. The motivating environment was simply not there.

A Glaring Funding Gap

Without proper funding, little to nothing can be done to improve the state of public schools in Nigeria. Yet, over the years, little attention has been paid to funding these schools. In 2016, despite its publicized commitment towards improving the sector, the government spent less than 9 per cent of the N12.2 trillion federal budget on education, falling below the regional average of 15.9 per cent spent by sub-Saharan African governments in the same year. This trend of poor allocation for education continues in the state governments. Oyo state only spent about 8 per cent of its 2012 ‘Budget of Restoration’ on education. Poor funding leaves infrastructural deficits in schools such as poor classrooms and ill-equipped laboratories, which disincentivize teachers. Money cannot solve all the problems in the education sector, but without money, no solution will be possible. 

Compared to other African countries, the political will of Nigeria towards improving the education sector is significantly low. In 2014, according to the World Bank, Ghana—which has an economy one-sixth the size of Nigeria—spent 21 per cent of its federal budget on education. That same year, Nigeria spent 10 per cent of its budget on education. Education receives lip service from the Nigerian government, not vital funding. 

Aside from meagre allocations, state governments have also shown a lack of political commitment to accessing federal intervention funds such as the Universal Basic Education grant. Despite the 68.9 per cent increase in this grant in 2018, some states such as Oyo, Ebonyi, and Ogun did not obtain the funds due to their unwillingness to put forward the counterpart funding—a measure for accountability—required to access the funds. As a result, state governments reduced the amount of funds put to use for the advancement of education for the common citizens. Yet, despite these clogs, many states still leave their already-underpaid teachers with unpaid salaries that accumulate each month. This was rampant in Oyo state during the Ajimobi administration and previous governments. Unpaid salaries leave teachers not only demoralized, but also embittered and students become the grass that suffers the fight of the elephants. The problem then starts to aggravate. 

We can trace the decline in the quality of public education in Nigeria to the World Bank-recommended structural adjustment policies (SAPs) the government implemented in the 80s, a period now referred to as ‘Africa’s Lost Decades’. Until this period, according to Olusola Ibukun in ‘Financial Allocations to Education in Nigeria, 1962-80’, Nigeria’s allocation to education was increasing. It rose from 8 per cent in the pre-independence era to 10.3 per cent in the years 1962-68. It further rose to 13.5 per cent between 1970 and 1974. However, in the 80s, Nigeria, like many other African countries, implemented SAPs that recommended reducing government expenditure as ways of managing the economic disruptions of that period. SAPs led to a reduction in funding across several sectors including education and public health. 

Between 1980 and 1988, the Nigerian education sector witnessed an 8 per cent reduction in budgetary allocation. Government spending on education further reduced in the 90s due to the political instability arising from the quick successions of military governments. During the military era, schools were neglected, and public education nosedived. This trend continued in the democratic governments that followed the military regime with the federal government allocating just 8 per cent to education in 2001 and a dismal 5.6 per cent by 2004.

Recently, however, there have been signs of increased commitment from the government towards public education. For instance, Oyo State allocated 22 per cent of its 2020 budget to education while Kaduna and Kano both allocated 25 per cent. While this is an improvement, the ultimate solution to improving public education in Nigeria lies in the implementation and utilization of funds towards filling the required deficits. Individual state governments alone will also not solve this nationwide problem—access to quality education should be one of the core pillars of every government. 

Quality Teachers—An Overlooked Concern?

Nigerian public schools lack qualified and strong-willed teachers. This is evident from the schools’ low levels of preparedness for exams, the lack of basic, essential equipment, and the little to no regard for excellence present in these schools. As a secondary school student, science students lacked basic lab equipment like beakers and testing tubes, and those who took computer classes did not have a single computer to work with. Our computer teacher simply printed out different parts of the computer and asked students to imagine the computer. 

Some teachers curse students. I remember one morning in 2014, just a few days before our WAEC exams, when one of our teachers cursed Jigor, pronouncing that he would not pass the exams. The chances of Jigor passing the exam were already slim—he never read or revised. Days later, as we entered the hall for our English Language exam, Jigor didn’t even know what exam we were having. 

In 2018, Kaduna State governor, Nasir El-Rufai, sacked more than 21,000 Kaduna public school teachers after they failed a test developed for primary four students. Of these teachers, he said ‘some with NCE certificate, degree certificates in education failed the test which is a big shock to me. These people are beyond redemption.’ It is too early to assess how this move has changed the education landscape in Kaduna. What is certain, however, is that for the public school system to improve, governments will have to be more deliberate and consistent.

The Importance of Supportive Ecosystems 

In their brilliant 1994 book, Emotional Contagion, psychologists Elaine Hatfield and John Cacioppo and historian Richard Rapson explain that positive emotions and foresights are contagious. At developmental stages, people associate effortlessly with what exudes constantly from their surroundings. They pick up these emotions and adopt them as theirs. As the Yoruba proverb says, ǹkan tí ẹyẹ bá jẹ ni ẹyẹ má a gbé fò, which loosely means that ‘a bird takes off with exactly what it has consumed’. In proper context, these emotions, when positive, are environmental privileges. When you experience discipline from your teachers, receive quality education, and are guided by concerned in-loco-parentis, you are more inclined to take your education seriously. But when you do not experience these things, you become a victim of circumstance who has absolutely no idea that they are a victim. 

Yet, when you explain this to public school enthusiasts, they will disagree using the handful of people who ‘made it out and turned out fine’. But this is a flawed argument. There will always be people who make it out of every extreme condition. These people have no special powers; they are products of special opportunities which, with hard work and consistency, they maximized for their premium use. These opportunities can be parentage, mentorship or other forms of advantages. Mine, for instance, was parentage. My siblings and I were all registered at one of the best tutorial centres available right from JSS3. Like me, another friend who passed his exams early as well, had constant tutorials back home and was around adults with foresight. Some combination of external help, environmental privilege and concerned parents was also the case for nearly all of my peers who also attended public schools and gained university admission on their first or second attempt. So yes, some people will make it out. But you do not judge the strength of a system by the few who manage to survive it; a better alternative would be to look at the opportunities the system affords on average. One out of every 100 or every 200 is far from an academic success story. It’s not even a story at all, but a shame.

A useful example of how environments shape life trajectories is the story of Malcolm X. Growing up in Michigan, United States, in the 1940s, Malcolm was a smart kid but had no particular direction. One day while in class, his teacher asked him what he hoped to become, and Malcolm said he would like to be a lawyer. In response, the teacher told him that such was ‘no realistic goal for a nigger’. According to Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm’s teacher told him: ‘you are good with your hands, why not try carpentry?’ Such discouragement was reflective of an environment that would sap Malcolm of all glimpses of hope. He would abandon school, become a thief, a gambler and committed many dirty crimes until he landed in jail. It was in jail that Malcolm regained hope, under some guidance, comfort, and confidence. He embraced education, did a lot of self-teaching and today, Malcolm is regarded as one of the greatest advocates to have ever lived. Malcolm embodies how a discouraging environment can destroy and what an encouraging environment can bolster. His life story indicates that when people are given enabling opportunities, they can conquer the world. His life shows us that quality education should not be underrated, especially at a child’s early stages.

What Happens Next

In 2018, three years after I left secondary school, I learnt that Jama, who was a year below the rest of us, had never graduated. In his final year, he was expelled from the school for fighting students of another school. I was not too surprised because that was the Jama we knew; a bully, who would corner other students and forcefully collect their belongings from them. I had spoken to him a few times. In one of those conversations, Jama had told me about his background; how he was from a family where people went about their ways; how nobody questioned him about how he lived. 

Stories of success and progress in life are inextricably linked to environmental privileges. The mere fact of being in a school with a working structure and decent teachers is enough to spur academic seriousness. This is not to say that everyone’s success is tied to a degree or a certificate; rather, that an enabling academic environment provides students with the opportunity to assess the possibilities there are and make informed choices for themselves. Adigun genuinely wanted to own a tarmac, but it was as a result of his environment—what he saw and what gave him hope. That public schools lack the capacity to motivate their students invariably leads to a lack of willpower in the students. 

I was heading to a lecture on a Monday morning in 2019, when my phone rang. I heard a thick voice on the other end of the call; it was Jigor and this was the first time I was hearing from him since we left school. The last thing I knew about him was that he had failed the WAEC exams. On the phone, we spoke in Yoruba. He asked how school was; I told him I was studying law at University of Ibadan; he replied saying a mọ̀ wípé ìwé ni ìwọ máa kà ńtìẹ, and it was true, as kids, I had always been the one who liked books. I asked where he was, and he said he was in a trailer. Later, he would tell me what he did for a living: travelling in the trailer alongside the driver from Lagos to Kano, and helping the driver to load and offload products. Jigor wasn’t sad about it. He had always said, ‘there is no point writing WAEC; after all, we will kuku fail’

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