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Dissecting the education crisis in the North – Part 1


Kaduna State governor Nasir El-Rufai

The recent mass sacking of teachers in Kaduna by governor El-Rufai has brought the question of education in the North to the front burner. The teachers were sacked for failing to pass a P rimary Four teachers’ competency exam. A third of the teachers passed the exam so it’s not a case of everyone just being fired. Personally, I do not think there is anything wrong with the sacking. Being a teacher is a job and if they are unable to do the job, which is obvious by not being able to pass the competency test, then they should be fired. The kids being trained by teachers who are not worth their salt, carry the consequences for the rest of their lives. So why should they suffer for the teachers?

Still, the mass sacking has me thinking about the general state of human capital in the north. By human capital here, I mean the knowledge and skills that people possess, of which proper education is one means of increasing it. Human capital is perhaps the most important factor behind long term economic development. People who know more tend to do more, and tend to be richer. Societies with people who know more tend to do better and have higher standards of living than societies where people don’t know so much. Of course, knowledge is relative. The least knowledgeable societies in the world probably know a bit more than their ancestors, but that doesn’t matter. It’s really about what societies know relative to other societies.

If we are to judge knowledge by the level of education, then the north is in crisis. Adult literacy rates in any language in the north are as low as 30 percent in some states. In fact, on this statistic, the worst ten states in Nigeria are all in the north. For context, the global literacy rate is somewhere around 86 percent, with some states in Nigeria having literacy rates of 95 percent. This unfortunate statistic cannot be pinned on the older generation either. Youth literacy rates are just as bad. Bauchi state for instance has a youth literacy of about 49 percent and again the worst ten states are in the North. The statistics repeat themselves almost any way you measure it.

The obvious question is, why? Followed by “what can we do about it”? It is easy to think that this is all about improving the education systems, but the reality is the problems start way before that. They start in the womb.

Nutrition has been identified as one of the most important factors for brain development of babies in the womb, and children from birth until about five. Mothers who eat food rich in proteins, certain fats, iodine, and others, tend to pass these on to their babies, either in the womb or via breast milk. These nutrients aid the brain development of babies and set the stage for their cognitive ability, or their capacity to learn. The nutritional requirements for brain development persist until children are about five years. At this point, the stage is set for life. Children who get to the age of five in “peak” condition are set to learn more and do more for the rest of their lives, compared to children who do not get there in “peak” condition. To put this another way, children who get proper nutrition from the womb until their early childhood are going to be smarter and learn better than children who don’t get proper nutrition. This stage is set even before the child walks into a primary school.

So, what do the early childhood nutrition statistics look like? You can probably guess. Data from 2014 shows that some states in the north had only about 50 percent of infants receiving adequate nutrition in their first year of life. Again, the worst ten states are in the north. For context, the average in the South is about 95 percent. The statistics repeat themselves in most cases regardless of how you measure it. On average, children in the north receive a lot less nutrition than their peers in the south, and if all we know about the importance of nutrition for brain development is true, then they would also have less cognitive ability as a result.
What this means is, even before they get to primary school, even before they get to the hands of the poor-quality teachers, even before they get to the dilapidated structures, they are already at a disadvantage. A disadvantage that stays with them for life. The problems unfortunately do not end there. They continue into primary school too. But more on that in the next episode.

Nonso Obikili is an economist currently roaming somewhere between Nigeria and South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of his employers.

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