Going to school in Nigeria

Outside a local school

I have a good friend from college, Brian Hitchcock, who’s living near Jos, Nigeria this year, running the work of his non-profit Self-Sustaining Enterprises (SSE). You can see the website for more info on SSE and the blog that Brian and his wife Karen write.

I asked Brian to tell me about schools and schooling in that part of Africa, and he wrote that public education in Nigeria mirrors the US “in that they have pre-primary (K), primary (grades 1-6), junior secondary (7-9), and secondary (10-12). Children start school at age five, and the year is broken into three terms. They have the months of June July, and August off.”

Brian continued: “Generally, the government pays teachers and builds the school, but parents are responsible for maintenance and provision of anything beyond a basic allotment of things like desks. Consequently, many schools lack basic needs such as enough furniture for the students, decent toilet facilities, clean water, and a roof that doesn’t leak during the wet season.

“School is free up to grade six except for paying for uniforms and books. Books cost the equivalent of $20 US. Additionally, a family has pay about $2 per term per child for supplies, e.g., chalk, paper, etc. The government supplies the teachers’ books.

“From grades 7-12, the family has to pay about $50 at the year’s start and about $20 the second and third terms. After 9th grade, they pay about $7.00 as an exam fee. The student has to pass the exam to move on, and at the end of the 12th year, the student has to pay an exam fee equal to about $70. A student must pass all exams to graduate, and often students do this in bits and pieces for a couple of years. This is often due to the cost but also to the accumulation of missed school resulting in deficiencies in some subjects.

“Since the fees go up at 7th grade, many children don’t progress pass 6th grade, and since there are expenses for school, even though they are modest for primary school, there is a family hierarchy for school attendance. Boys are first in line, girls are second, boys from extended family third, and then girls from extended family. So many families here include children from family members who have died. There aren’t many institutional orphanages, and children who have lost their parents will live with aunts, uncles, grandparents. This is an added burden to already struggling families, and these children are last in line when it comes to school.

“The core curriculum for Nigerian schools consists of mathematics, English, science, and social studies. A student has to have attendance of at least 75%, not including strikes or government school closures. They don’t have snow days here, but in Plateau State where we are, they have crisis days when there is civil unrest and the schools close.” Read about some of the recent violence in Jos here.

Brian continued: “School, by government mandate, is supposed to be taught in English, the official language of Nigeria. The country has three main language groups – Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba – with hundreds of dialects. Often, teachers in local schools are not fluent in English and teach in the local language. Students then are not prepared to pass the exams because they can’t read, write, or speak English effectively.

“The lack of qualified educators is also a big problem. If you are the product of the schools I am describing, is there much chance that you are well prepared to be a teacher?  The problem of qualified teachers is even greater in the rural areas, as there is not much attraction for a young teacher to start his or her career in the ‘bush.’

“Nigerian teachers can go months without getting paid. Often, tired of not getting paid, the teachers strike, and these strikes can last for long periods. The entire primary education system missed a school year recently due to a teacher strike. Though not always this long, there have been strikes almost every year for the past 10. You can’t blame the teachers; it’s tough to make a living when you are not being paid.”

Most of Brian’s information is about schools in the city area; schools in the surrounding rural areas are a more sad story. Brian wrote: “Attendance at the primary level in the area where SSE focuses its work is about 35%. Most children are registered for school, but only 35% are there on any given day. Imagine trying to teach and keep progressing when only a third of the children were there the prior two days. This absenteeism is due to several reasons: lack of water, sickness, and family needs. Children, for example, have the task of fetching water for the family, water that is scarce during the dry season, which encompasses most of the school year. The children get up early – so that they can beat the animals to the water hole, since the animals stir up the water and make it cloudy – and they walk four to five kilometers to fetch water. By the time they return home, they may be late for school and are exhausted. Rural parents, in general, don’t have a high regard for school, and children will just stay home.

“Even if water is more accessible, it’s probably not clean water. At a rate as high as 40%, rural children die from preventable and treatable water borne illnesses before the age of five. Those that survive often suffer from chronic illness and stunted growth.”

The education center's dedication

Brian finished by saying that he, Karen, and SSE have started the Oasis Learning Center where they are, with future plans to build a boarding school that will bring together elite children from families with money and village children. “Those with money who pay fees,” Brian finished, “will help subsidize those from the village who are unable to pay much.” Brian wants to form relationships with schools in Europe and the US to give the local Nigerian students chances for further education.

Read more at SSE’s blog and see photographs of SSE’s work and the local people here.

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