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The War for School – How Lagos’ Project Zero is giving children a fighting chance

By Guardian Nigeria
05 April 2022   |   2:41 am
The weapons of conventional warfare have a knack for leaving destruction and devastation in their wake.

The War for School – How Lagos’ Project Zero

The weapons of conventional warfare have a knack for leaving destruction and devastation in their wake.

First Black South African President and global icon, Nelson Mandela, who wielded different kinds of weapons and fought different kinds of wars in his lifetime, concluded that, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) seems to be in agreement, especially with the fourth of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 4) which seeks to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

The first (4.1) of several targets is the quality primary and secondary school education of boys and girls everywhere by the year 2030.

The trouble is, in a post-pandemic world and the attendant global economic downturn, and with less than a decade to go, this target is looking out of striking distance for many countries. But even before the virus struck and helped shut down our planet, UNICEF had, in 2018, estimated some 258 million children and youth were out of school globally. 59 million of these were of primary school-age.

Topping the list, then and now, of nations with this challenge is Nigeria with between 10.5 and 13.2 million out-of-school children. Effectively, 1-in-5 out-of-primary school children in the world is Nigerian.

A sizable number of these children were in the densely-populated Lagos State. When he took office as governor in 2019, Babajide Sanwo-Olu and his team took a hard look at this bleak picture.

Fortunately, they were educated and visionary enough to realise education was – and still is – the most powerful weapon to change the world of Lagos.

Immediately launching the EKOEXCEL programme as a vehicle designed to improve teaching and learning basically which will in return help to improve the quality of education in Lagos primary schools, the administration began to turn the tide. Then COVID-19 happened, and the rest is slowed-down history.

Despite the extra costs incurred and resources deployed to keep the schooling afloat (and, in instances, online), the state government remained committed to its vision.

This was important in a Nigeria still plagued by poverty and insurgencies, particularly in its northeastern and northwestern regions. Overall, only 61 per cent of 6 – 11 year-olds attended primary school regularly, with 35.6 per cent of 36 – 59 month-olds receiving early childhood education. It is a bleaker situation in the North with a 53 per cent net attendance rate, and the female primary school attendance in the northeast (47.7 per cent) and northwest (47.3 per cent) less than half.

Gender, geography and poverty are major factors in the country’s Education Marginalization pattern and, along with sociocultural norms and practices, explain why 14 of the 17 states with the highest numbers of out-of-school children are in the north.

In the case of Lagos, with its relatively robust economy, a large number of parents and guardians cannot afford to send their wards to school, and it is a situation that’s worsened by the shutdown and general economic downturn. Many children have been forced to drop out of school and sent to the streets to help their families’ (and their own) survival.

Sadly, the streets also provide a lure into vice and the criminal lifestyle; and children and youth who would ideally be the hope of their nation, become instead agents of its potential downfall. It is in its vision (informed by SDG 4), that the Lagos State administration recently launched its Comprehensive Schools Programme for secondary school students.

Prior to this, in November, 2020 and as the lockdown was lifting, the administration, through the Lagos State Universal Basic Education Board (LASUBEB) and in conjunction with the organised private sector, had inaugurated Project Zero.

Project Zero is an intervention programme designed to tackle the menace of out-of-school children in Lagos State by enrolling pupils back into government-owned primary schools.

‘Zero’ is informed by zero tolerance for out-of-school children and is backed by Lagos State Child’s Rights Law (the right of every child to free and compulsory primary education).

Here, children of poor, indigent and low-income families are provided with school bags, school uniforms, sandals, socks, exercise books and writing materials to encourage and stimulate their returning and remaining in school.

Asides this public-private gesture, LASUBEB and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Poverty Alleviation provide aid and support to parents and guardians of the project’s beneficiaries.

Looking at Project Zero, over 7,069 out-of-school children have been successfully reintegrated into state’s public primary school system.

Nigeria is blessed with a youthful population (65 per cent is 15 years and under) and states as Lagos, in spite of the challenges of human and capital resources, are rallying allies from the private sector and the communities to prosecute a war to rescue this army of the young from recruitment into vice and crime. And through Project Zero, and the other intervention programmes, it is determined to leave no child behind.