Of Secondary School Instruction and Infrastructure, By Uddin Ifeanyi

The one lasting effect of the novel coronavirus that is not as reported as its more proximate effects on people’s health and the economy, is its effect on education. Sure, it has led to the closing of most schools. And anecdotal evidence suggests that private school teachers have been the hardest hit of our white collar workforce – as some school proprietors unsure of where the next tranche of school fees will come from, have stopped paying their salaries. Pathetic though the current plight of teachers may be, the pandemic has hurt students the most. In places where data exist to make these calculations, the loss of future income that today’s students will suffer on account of having been kept away from school for so long might be unprecedented.

The burden, expectedly, falls on the fabled “poor and the vulnerable” segments of society. And this is not just because they have been particularly poorly served by attempts to move instruction online. In fact, except for the ranks of the upper middle class and the more affluent classes above it, very few Nigerian families could afford the infrastructure necessary to have had their children or wards attend even the most rudimentary online classes at the height of the pandemic. Even then, the students’ schools had to be rich enough to move instructions online, including through equipping each teacher with a laptop (or smartphone), the internet access to run the most basic Zoom classes, and the power to remain online for at least one hour. Then kids in each family have to have at least one laptop or smartphone between them. Enough data to keep these running through the daily Zoom classes. And power from the mains, a generator, or inverter to keep all these running.

These were the disadvantages most of our kids carried into the recently concluded examinations conducted by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC). It was also akin to the burden they had borne earlier with the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB)’s computer-based tests – to manipulate personal computers for the first time in the tense conditions of this life-changing examinations. The handicap of our poor and vulnerable children did not end with both these examinations, unfortunately. Barely were they done with the WAEC examinations than the private universities commenced their post-UTME selection processes. Not only were these held online. In the instances that I am familiar with, the candidate’s interview schedules were chosen by the universities – no chance for applicants to choose periods when their neighbourhoods will have light from the mains. And in one or two instances, the loss of internet access while the post-UTME interviews/tests were underway was considered sufficient to void the whole process. In other words, you had to have both assured power supply and a reliable internet service provider.

One objector to my plaint asked what a poor and vulnerable child would want with a private Nigerian university in the first place. Their fees are a pretty high hurdle, to begin with. In fact, I was reminded that this is the reason why we have a plenitude of public tertiary institutions. Which is okay, until you realise that the JAMB cut-off mark for admission is higher in our public schools than it is in the private schools. There is a narrow context in which this makes sense. Recognising that university spaces are way below the requirement for graduating secondary school students, private universities use high fees to sieve, and public universities use high scores to achieve the same goal.

But these disadvantages the children of the poor in very unfair ways. Too poor to have taken the online classes, which some secondary schools used to keep their students honed during the lockdown. Too poor therefore to attend private universities. But because they were not in school during the lockdown, their chances of scoring high enough to make the grade for admission into public universities remain slim. There is no doubt that a society arranged this way is not primed to be competitive globally. But that is to set the performance bar too high. No society works this way and is also able to guarantee that the basic needs of large numbers of the citizenry are met on time.

What to do, then?

I am loth to ask the solution off the incumbent government at the centre. Its Instinct – populist, and not fact-based at the best of times – would be to dismantle (or impose severe restraints on) public universities (democratising the problem, in other words). Far better though to leave the search for solutions at the regional and municipal levels. Irrespective of the models that the experimentation at these levels will throw up, successful interventions in our education space should aim to improve supply conditions – power, internet access, quality of instruction – in a way that strengthens the quality of our secondary school products generally.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

Source: Premium Times

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