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Unity colleges and the battle for survival

By Iyabo Lawal
17 October 2019   |   3:45 am
Once considered as some of the best in Nigeria, unity schools seem to be gliding from glory to the gutters, writes Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL

Queens College Lagos

Once considered as some of the best in Nigeria, unity schools seem to be gliding from glory to the gutters, writes Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL

On the outside, it is a symbol of pride, privilege, and pedigree. Inside it lurk pestilence, corruption, and death. It’s being a bastion of quality education, like many others of its kind across Nigeria, appears to have been quietly and gradually eroded until its rotten state spewed out putrid smell.

Decrepit septic tank discharging waste into water source meant for drinking; dirty kitchen taken over by giant cockroaches and defiant rodents; lucre-minded principal with flair for commerce and no scruples for conscience; and a government that does not listen to the telling tales until deaths are harvested in the fertile fields of one of the country’s famous schools, the Queen’s College.

It is no longer news that scores of pupils in that school became sick and some died because of the ineptitude and indifference of those paid to look after them.

From its glamorous state, Nigeria’s unity schools are becoming disgraceful. Where did things go wrong?

A glorious past
The first set of unity schools established by the British colonial masters; three new ones were added in Warri, Sokoto, and Enugu in 1966 while General Yakubu Gowon, in 1973, ensured there such schools in all the 12 states back then.

For at least two decades, the schools brought about cultural and religious integration, on the one hand, academic excellence on the other.

Speaking of such glorious past, Omoniyi Animasaun, an alumnus of Federal Government College, Odogbolu, in Ogun State, said, “Unity schools were unique. Students that passed through these schools till the end of the last millennium were privileged. Though there are 104 of such schools, there is a striking similarity in the attitude, behaviour, and mindset of the students.

“I am privileged to have attended one of the oldest of these schools, Federal Government College, Odogbolu, established in 1973. Till the early nineties, admission into the schools was very competitive though consideration was also given to students in the catchment area of each school. Merit was the foremost consideration. This ensured that each college admitted mostly brilliant students, precipitating healthy academic competition which helped the average students to up their ante.”

Animasaun added that the ethnic, cultural, religious and social backgrounds of the students were diverse with pupils from wealthy and influential families mingling freely with pupils from humble homes.

He said further, “My school had a Mercedes Benz luxury bus; a Kia Asia, Toyota Coaster and Nissan Urvan buses; Peugeot 504
Station wagon for the use of the principal; a Steyr water tanker; a light blue Bedford truck and a tractor. The blue Bedford truck was nicknamed ‘Blue Maria’ after it was used to transport some notorious students after they had caused a ruckus in school.

“The buildings were well built. Even with young, untrained eyes, we could see the solidity and the timelessness of the structures. Minor refurbishing and a coat of paint made the buildings new. We never heard or witnessed building collapse or roofs being blown off by winds. The structures were built to last.”

A disgraceful present
What happened again at Queen’s College is an indication of the fall from grace to the grass of unity schools in the country.

Two years ago, the college was shut down following the death of three boarding students who began vomiting and stooling after allegedly drinking contaminated water.

As if that was not enough, an outbreak of cholera soon ensued, leaving about 200 pupils in need of urgent medical attention.

Many parents, who have children in the school, had accused the authorities of negligence for allowing the pupils to drink out of the school’s water system when they knew it was unsafe.

Two years down the line, the college is back in the trenches. Another related disease has broken out in the school.

An airborne flu-like disease had broken out last week in the college raising fears of another Queen’s College, Yaba, Lagos.

However, the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education (FME), Mr. Sonny Echono had dismissed claims of a recurrence of food and water bacterial disease in the school.

Already, Echono and a team from the Lagos State Ministry of Health visited the school last Tuesday to investigate claims of an epidemic outbreak.

Facilities in the schools are begging for repair, quality of education has dropped and the welfare of the students is almost non-existent. Until now, many parents would do almost anything to get their wards into the schools. Today, they are looking elsewhere to give their children a quality education.

Slowly too, mediocrity has crept in and eroded merit as the disparity in cut-off marks created a divide. Some pupils are admitted into unity schools with as low as two marks in the common entrance examinations while some can only get into the same schools with at least 130 marks.

Some point to the shortage of teachers as another problem plaguing the schools. It is claimed that the Parents-Teachers Association had to hire and pay salaries of 40 per cent of teachers in some of the schools.

The poor and life-threatening facilities in some of these schools can only compete with facilities found in police colleges and barracks. The terrible state of facilities in the school highlights another problem – adequate funding. Related to that is corruption in the schools.

Mr. Lawrence Chukwuemeka, who has three children in one of the unity schools, claimed that it is not unlikely for school management to misapply funds paid by parents as levies.

“We pay our PTA levy regularly, but in the last two years, we don’t know what the school management is doing with the funds. There was a time my son had to leave school to have his bath at home. The boy said there is no water in the school. The parents are even ready to meet the principal and know the problems so that we can assist the school for the interest of our children, but we have no access to the school principal,” he said.

Three years ago, the Federal Government banned the collection of development levies by the Parents Teachers Association (PTA) in the 104 unity colleges across the country.

The Ministry of Education, which announced the ban, said the action was taken to alleviate the suffering of parents.

The statement signed by Bem Goong, Deputy Director, Press, in the ministry, had noted, “No PTA of any unity college is allowed to initiate any development project in any of the unity colleges without the express or written authorisation of the Federal Ministry of Education.

“The new measures are aimed at arresting the shocking trend where development levies imposed on parents by PTAs are becoming higher than the school fees charged by the government which established the unity schools.”

According to United Nations, Nigeria is one of African countries that spend the least of its gross domestic product on education (less than that of Somalia) with its average budget for education since 1999 is less than 8 per cent of the budget less than one third of the 26 per cent recommended by the UNESCO for developing economies.

Neighbourhood schools have not fared better. In the eighties and nineties, these schools were highly patronised by poor households, giving children the opportunity to acquire the education that the environment would not ordinarily have made possible.

But with the increasing rise in the level of poverty and unemployment and the desire to get rich quick, such schools have virtually disappeared and paved way for private schools mushrooming in every corner of the country particularly in Lagos State.

In 2013, Prof Aigbogun Erie, the National President, National Association of Federal Unity Secondary Schools (NAPAFUSS) said there was an urgent need to salvage unity schools from total collapse.

“When I came on board as the national president of NAPAFUSS, there were some challenges I met on the ground. The first was the fate of PTA-paid teachers. I discovered that PTA across the country was paying more than 2,000 teachers. Another is the issue of interference in PTA affairs by principals and the ministry of education officials. So, I felt there was a need for the ministry and parents to find common ground because no meaningful development takes place without cordiality.”

Search for a promising future
Several old students of the 104 unity schools in Nigeria had gathered in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital to discuss ways of restoring the past glory of the institutions that were established to promote unity and better understanding among Nigerians from various ethnic groups.

Among the old students in attendance were the Chairman, Executive Committee of the Unity Schools Old Students Association (USOSA), Ayo Joseph and the former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Prof. Chidi Odinkalu.

During the meeting, Odinkalu stated, “The idea of the unity schools is endangered, partly because Nigeria is endangered. We should not take either the existence of Nigeria or the continuity of the unity schools for granted. But the unity schools were part of investments in trying to keep Nigeria together.

“It was a soft investment that has turned out to be the best investment. The unity schools have come to stay as perhaps the biggest investment in human development and enlightenment on the basis of coexistence in our country. Today …wherever you are looking at, the future of our country is the question. As products of the system that invested in the future of this country, we’ve got to take that seriously.”

While Nigeria’s unity is always questioned, unity schools remain a veritable platform for grooming patriotic and nationalistic individuals are primed to be leaders of tomorrow. It is hoped the government of today will not mortgage the future of these ones.