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An albatross called ‘free’ education

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As all public and private schools resume for a new academic session, political leaders across the country especially the South West, must sit down and review the idea of free education with a view to determining its very essence and how far it has achieved its objectives over the years. That the education sector has been bedeviled by myriads of problems in the last couple of decades is an open secret and the fact that rather than improve, things have continued to nosedive up to this stage where almost everyone has resigned to fate that the problems have assumed an insurmountable dimension. Yet if a critical examination is undertaken concerning the root cause of the pervasive rot in that sector, it’s no other than the adoption of free education by some states of the federation especially the South West.

The pre-independence leaders who conceived of the idea of free education were propelled by a noble thought of trying to avail the children of the downtrodden access to a legacy that could rewrite their family history, impact their fortunes  positively and make them be at par with the children of the rich and influential in the society. But those were an era of very stiff and healthy competition and rivalries among learners when the government’s largess was put into very good use. It was a period when education meant everything and everyone was ready to give whatever it took to achieve the Golden Fleece. No wonder then that the beneficiaries of free education at that period soon became captains of industries and professionals of various and varying degrees.

The decision of the Unity Party of Nigeria in the second republic to once again experiment with the idea of free education as one of its cardinal programmes in all the South West states recorded only a partial success. The influx of all manner of learners into all schools at the period led to an upsurge in school population, and without adequate provision to cope with such turn of events, a crack in the wall was noticeable. Inadequacy of teachers to handle such large population led the government to seeking assistance of foreign teachers who though were ready and equal to the task were confronted by an army of learners without requisite aptitude. Around the same period commenced the monster of examination malpractice, which since then has assumed a highly disturbing and worrisome dimension.

Later, free education became a political gimmick aimed at capturing votes even when fledgling governments never had any serious intention of taking up the huge financial implications of such promise. Well-equipped laboratories and well -stocked libraries became history and in the absence of purposeful engagements, public schools became training grounds for cultists, hooligans and thugs.  Neither the learners nor their parents show any level of commitment since, to them, nothing is at stake and no matter how hard any teacher strives in trying to bring out the best in the highly reluctant learners, he is met with a serious brick wall.

The most agonising aspect of it all is that in an atmosphere of chaos that most public schools have become, where the fickle-minded and utterly lazy set of learners far outnumber the few studious ones, it’s only a matter of time for bad influence to spread and effect of peer pressure soon take its toll on those from good homes. Non-readiness to settle down to serious academic engagement and placing of more value on outright frivolities are now the hallmarks of most public school students. It is largely to avoid such arrant nonsense that has often led most parents to showing preference for private schools which then in turn gave rise to the proliferation of mushroom private schools charging high school fees but recruiting irredeemably poor set of teachers.

For sanity to return to both public primary and secondary schools, the first solution is to jettison the idea of free education. It is interesting to note that some state governors have already started giving same issue a second thought and the earlier others follow suit, the better for the sector. For both parents and their wards to view education with the seriousness it deserves, there should be some level of financial commitment. Without it, all the government’s investments will continue to go down the drain.

In a way, free education even encourages irresponsible citizenry when people are made to think that the world is all about bringing on children indiscriminately and then pushing the responsibility to the government. It is due to the same factor that so many children easily turn hooligans and touts terrorizing the entire society. Again,  when viewed against the backdrop that most of these sane parents don’t pay any form of tax to the government, the continued shouldering of their children education by the government represents a double loss to such government  It’s not only through free education the government can assist indigent pupils and students. Government can set up scholarship board to seek out exceptional learners deserving of such encouragement.

Government must always keep its own side of the bargain. It’s deceitful to promise free education without providing all the amenities required. Education is highly capital intensive and any government making any promises must first of all sit down and do the necessary calculations. It amounts to total mockery when schools are run without adequate teachers, without standard libraries manned by librarians and without well-equipped laboratories. It is a tragedy of incalculable national proportion when teachers pretend to dissipate energy imparting knowledge to supposed learners during normal school time, organizing extramural classes after closing hours, and spending holiday periods for same purpose of learning and at the very end assisting the same set of learners to write their external examinations.

Oyewusi, an educationist wrote from Lagos


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