A couple of months back a 17-year old cousin who was still in school joined my family. I asked what class she was in and she said JSSII.

The last result, she was 7th out of 183 students. I insisted on knowing her position in her arm of JSSII and she came back with 7th out of 183. I had to explain to her I meant her arm of JSSII as in JSSII A, JSSII B etc. She told me she was 7th in JSS II C which had 183 students. I then asked her how many arms JSS II had. The school was blessed with JSS II A – P. Seventeen arms of Junior Secondary School year.

An average of 180 rowdy kids per class; 3,000 kids in just one year of a Lagos state government owned junior secondary school within Alimosho local government area. Maybe 9,000 kids in that ‘half school’? Up to 1979 Birch Freeman High School had about 500 students in all. Up to the mid-'80s, University of Ife had about 13,000 students. Today a woefully under-resourced middle school principal must manage 9,000 students with help from chronically ill-motivated staff. Alarming WAEC, NECO, JAMB failure rates largely explained.

For years now it has been my opinion that we cannot expect too much in the educational sector given the rot that pervades the nation with the twin devils of inadequate revenue generation and theft of state funds setting all hopes to nought. With no solution in sight for these weakened pillars of our socioeconomic space, we must then ask ourselves what is achievable within our constrained circumstances and, having found the answer, mobilise all stakeholders (hackneyed word, yes) to pull together towards common objectives.

It is obvious that effective participation in even a pseudo-modern economy like Nigeria’s requires at the least nine years of formal education. Society and the state cannot afford to have any segment drop out of the socio-economy. Such cop outs from the system make threats like the current Boko Haram insurgency and even worse evils possible. It is thus incontestable that the state must provide free, quality and ATTRACTIVE education made compulsory for all citizens between the ages of six and 15. Having a child or ward, not in school between those ages must be criminalised with penalties stiff enough to deter offenders. Repeat offenders must be stopped from causing more harm to the child and storing up trouble for society by rescuing the kids from them.

We must do at least as much as they do. We must provide primary and junior secondary schools as good as the Rivers State government is creating, at the moment, with the necessary complement of adequate and well-remunerated staff. Neither a great environment nor the best computer systems can turn a six -year old tabula rasa to a teenager ready to master productive skills or acquire even more classroom knowledge.

Great schools cannot be created without motivated teachers and those of us who went through Nigerian schools up to the mid ‘80s can testify that Nigerian teachers were once almost universally well motivated so there is nothing in the character of those who chose the noble profession or, in today’s economic clime, were ‘chosen’ by the profession that says they cannot be great instructors and inspirations to our kids. Indeed, those of us who are fortunate enough to have children in Nigeria’s top drawer private schools can testify that this nation is still blessed with inspired and committed tutors.

While every child in state schools at this level must be provided with sufficient school kit (uniforms, shoes, books etc.) and at least one hot meal a day the tutors themselves must be paid living wages that are within striking distance of what their peers earn in the industrial sector. It must be reiterated that there is no greater contribution to society than the grooming of the proverbial future leaders (and followers, factory workers, farmers artisans etc.) thus a society must always find a way to fairly remunerate those called to the profession if it is not embarked on group suicide. This will cost quite a bit more than governments at all levels are willing and/or able to invest in education at the moment but I shall leave a discussion of how the financing circle can be squared for later.

Having ensured at great cost that every 15-year old Nigerian is fit for the 21st century does the ‘nanny state’ still owe the child anything? Yes and no. I propose that the state discriminates from the 10th year of schooling. The top 20% of senior secondary students should be supported 100% as they were in the first nine years of school. These are the nation’s greatest assets and they must not be abandoned at any time. The next best 20% of students at this level should be provided tuition-free education only while their parents pick up the tab for feeding, school kits etc. The bottom 60% should pay economic (enough to fully recover the state’s expense) tuition fees if they and their parents believe they can make good use of more education. Of course, they would cover all other expenses too.

Parents and students would be empowered with the feeling of being in control of their own future. Of course, a teenager should be held responsible for the choices he makes including a decision to slack in school and cost his parents money they might not be able to afford.

I predict that such a discriminatory system would rapidly turn around the annual lamentations over WAEC / JAMB results into celebrations. At the tertiary level the same ‘apartheid’ should continue with the top 20% being fully catered for by the school (you will understand the switch from ‘state’ to ‘school’ soon), the next 20% not paying tuition while the last 60% paying, not just economic fees but fees sufficient to generate a surplus to cover the cost of the partial and full scholarships for the top scholars. This isn’t enough to fix our tertiary education though.

I propose that the federal government encourage the creation of trusts made of up of a mix of financial, industrial, petroleum, service etc. companies. The 13 federal universities that existed up to the late ‘70s should be handed over to these trusts, along with one-off endowment funds of say $200m each. The trustees will be tasked with determining the needs of the schools, determining how to raise additional funds to move them to world class standards (hackneyed too) and be entirely in charge of their running, as long as, they are compliant with minimum standards such as the tiered structure discussed above. All expenses borne by the trustees should be tax deductible as an incentive and reward to them.

If we can make a pilot with 13 universities work then we could move on to handing over every federal university and polytechnic to similar trusts. Federal government colleges (unity schools) and colleges of education should be handed over to their host states. I personally would be much happier when I know the obviously limited administrative capacity of our federal government is no longer frittered on a sector it has no business being involved in as a player.

(Education for the first nine years is too critical to national development to be left to the whims of parents. It must be made free, attractive and compulsory.)

With the federal government having shed fiscal responsibility for education how do we address the ‘unfair burden’ then placed on the states? As part of the current efforts being made to restructure the sharing formula for federally collected revenue, an addition percentage of revenue should be transferred to the states to help them cope with the fiscal challenges. However, even an unlikely doubling of the state share of the current national cake will not quite meet the needs of this ambitious project. We must bake a much bigger cake and tax is the key.

The ECOWAS Union set a target for each member state to attain a tax to GDP ratio of 20%. As at today only Ghana (again!) and Cape Verde have attained this modest target with Cape Verde hitting 23%. Nigeria manages to collect just 6%, barely a quarter of the Cape Verde performance and about a seventh of the circa 40% of EU and OECD nations. We immediately see we have massive room for improvement and it needn’t all be as difficult as one would imagine in our corruption-tainted land. One of the ways ECOWAS suggested for its members to bridge the tax gap was for laggards like Nigeria to increase their VAT rate. Unlike Ghana and most nations of the world that charge 15% or more as VAT Nigeria charges only 5%. A fainthearted attempt was made a few years back to double this to 10% but it never took off.

VAT has been one of the few law enforcement and tax collection successes we have had in the last few decades and its success can be built on in increasing our tax performance. I would suggest a two-stage move of the VAT rate, first to 10% and, after a couple of years, to 15%. One of the many ancillary benefits would be the enhancement of regional integration as the higher VAT states within ECOWAS have baulked in the past from playing in the same field with Nigeria in view of the advantages its low VAT confers on its manufacturers’ price wise. Part of the reform, of course, would be the restructuring of the sharing formula for collected VAT. Obviously, such restructuring would be easier at a time when overall income is increasing.

There is, even more, we can do with education and taxes but mindful of the 2000 word limit I must stop here. I welcome challenges and other responses to this piece.

Abraham Idowu – BFHS 1974 - 1980

(The article was a contribution to the 2012 Alumni Magazine publication)

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