Fortifying Nigeria’s non-formal education
In Nigeria, children who remain furthest behind in the education system are the heart of UNICEF’s priority. Amidst the twin crises of a vast out-of-school population and consistently low learning levels, particularly in the north, 40% of primary school-aged children are out-of-school in the north-west.
Factoring in the North-east and North-central zones, this figure jumps to 62 per cent. Disparities rooted in poverty, gender, and rurality, add to this education crisis.
A significant priority is to engage the Almajiri system more systematically. With parents sending their children, predominantly boys to distant locations for Qur’anic education, approximately ten million children fall under this system. Most children need access to basic education and adequate food, shelter and care and support.
Despite consistent policy efforts, till a decade ago, enrollment in primary school was far from universal especially for girls, and literacy levels largely unknown.
So why is this educational crisis pertinent to Nigeria’s development?
Nigeria, with a burgeoning population of approximately 219 million, is Africa’s most populous nation. About 50% of this population is below 18 years of age. By 2030, the child population of Nigeria is expected to rise to close to 126 million children. These growing numbers will strain Nigeria’s educational system with the provision of adequate resources and numbers of schools, classrooms, and qualified teachers.
However, this population growth could signify a potential demographic dividend for the country, if and only if the nation invests wisely in provision of quality social services, especially education. Bridging the current equity gaps and creating expansive, high-quality learning opportunities is imperative.
This task necessitates not just improving the formal education system but also integrating high-quality, curriculum-aligned learning for out-of-school children, internally displaced children, irregular attendees, and those enrolled in Qur’anic schools.
The role of GEP3 in reinforcing non-formal education
In its endeavor to address this educational quagmire, the Girls Education Project Phase III (GEP3), implemented between 2012 and 2022, has been pivotal. Supported generously by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), GEP3 enabled a partnership between UNICEF, the Federal Government of Nigeria, and six state governments to trial what works to get children into school, especially girls.
Achievements under GEP3 have been significant. These include:
Enrolling 1.5 million girls into school, including 247,365 in Qur’anic education through unconditional cash transfers to indigent households and extensive community mobilisation.
Implementing RANA, a literacy anumeracy programme in over 3,824 schools and Integrated Qur’anic schools (IQS).
Training over 67,000 teachers and IQS facilitators in improved pedagogical techniques.
Providing small grants to schools and IQS’s to rehabilitate infrastructure resulting in better quality builds at a lower cost.
Integrated data on schools and children in IQS’s into the Education Management information System allowing for better planning and budgeting.
Significantly improving performance in English and Hausa literacy, and in mathematics in GEP3 schools, with IQS’s outperforming formal primary schools (likely because of the older age cohort in IQS’s).
These initiatives, coupled with GEP3’s resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, through strategies like radio educational programmes and community mentorship, have showcased its adaptability in the face of adversity and demonstrating the criticality and viability of an alternate learning system.
Toward sustainability and growth
From its inception, GEP3 was conceived with scalability in mind. The project was evidence-driven, incorporating continuous research and evaluations. Innovations under GEP3 led to considerable cost savings, and the evidence-based approach made sure it was aptly tailored for the local context.
But the journey is far from over. The next steps necessitate a robust commitment to scale evidence-based solutions. The setting up of the National Commission of Almajiri Education by Federal Ministry of Education is a giant leap forward in recognising the role of non-formal education in Nigeria’s education landscape.
This will only be effective to the extent that it meets the holistic needs of children for food, shelter and care, and aligns well with basic education through setting and enforcing quality standards that allow for accreditation and mainstreaming, has well qualified facilitators that can offer a comprehensive suite of skills, is well resourced, and is based on sound data including on learning assessment.
Nigeria is at a crucial juncture. As global concerns about learning crises and economic stalling amplify, investments in education become even more crucial. It is time to bolster efforts, champion evidence-backed innovations like IQS’s and ward off a generational crisis that could define Nigeria’s—and by extension, Africa, and the world’s—future.
Munduate is the Country Representative of UNICEF Nigeria. She brings 30 years of experience in development work, including 18 years of service to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), where she served as Representative in Cambodia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Honduras and as UNICEF Deputy Representative in Pakistan.
Prior to joining the United Nations, she was Minister of Social Welfare in Guatemala.