On March 3, I read a piece of news which has given me great joy, in the midst of all the bad news coming out of Northern Nigeria. The governors of Northern Nigeria have decided to abolish school fees in secondary schools across the region.
I remember back in the year 2000, while serving as Vice President, I convened the Northern Education Summit, at which far reaching recommendations were made. As the highest ranking elected leader form the northern states, I saw it as my responsibility to preach the message of improved access to education, especially in my immediate region, where I knew a major educational gap existed. I also believed that improving access to education was key to the revival of the economy of the region.
Unfortunately, all the states except two or three failed to make any reasonable move towards implementations of those recommendations. Because state governments are directly responsible for secondary education (with very important roles in primary education too), it would have been easier to drive a regional education renaissance from the state within the region, but the efforts of the summit and subsequent lobbying from my office could not convince the states. I was very disappointed.
I am very happy at this moment that the northern states have finally decided to do what is right, and hope that more states join in this effort. I have always advocated free education at primary and secondary levels, and believe the state should dedicate resources to funding both levels of education, even if it can’t do anything else. If we can properly build the primary and secondary foundations, our children will be able to make informed vocational or tertiary education decisions.
Now that these states have taken the big step forward in providing free secondary education, there is equally a need for expansion of facilities to cope with the growing number of pupils wishing to enter secondary schools. The states also have to actively recruit students by making a dedicated push for adoption in the local communities. State governments need to partner with local district heads, women (mothers and women leaders), market leaders, religious leaders and influential members of communities, to encourage more young people to attend school. If parents need to receive incentives to release their children to go to school, and this is the only option on the table, I believe no price is too high. I believe however, that sensitisation would work better than cash incentives.
The job of getting more of our children to school is not that of the state alone. But the state needs to see the community as stakeholders, and actively partner with them to drive the message of education. I remember in my father’s time, he had to be arrested and locked up for refusing to let me attend school. That extreme measure may not have been needed, if there was active community organising and sensitisation before the scheme was flagged off.
On a final, and very important note, the Northern states must ensure that girl children receive a priority access to secondary school education. We must remember that when we train a girl, we train a community. Educated women are more likely to raise a more educated community, improve family economics and lead economic renaissance from the grassroots. The economic outlook of the general region and Nigeria as a whole will improve if more of our women are given access to education.
As I have always said, education gave me everything; whatever you do, get an education.