I was scorned for assembling children as a young graduate — Lawal
James Lawal is founder/proprietor Greater Tomorrow International Nursery and Primary School and Greater Tomorrow International College, both in Arigidi-Akoko, Ondo State. On March 7, he turned 50 and as part of the celebration, he shared with DANIEL ANAZIA and DORCAS OMOLADE ORE, the success story of how as an unemployed graduate, he built one of Nigeria’s finest educational institutions from nothing
At first, it was just a dream, a burning passion to educate young people, but today, that dream has morphed into a grand spectacle, a testament to the idea that nothing is impossible if one is willing to put in the work and persevere. This is the story of Chief James Lawal, founder of Greater Tomorrow International Nursery and Primary School and Greater Tomorrow International College, both in Ondo State.
From his earliest years, he had passion for teaching, especially young people within the age bracket of 6 to 11. This led him to study Political Science Education at the then Ondo State University (now Ekiti State University), before moving to the University of Ibadan for his Masters Degree in Teacher Education, specializing in Early Childhood Education.
Prior to the completion of his Masters Degree in 1996, Uncle Lawal, as he is well known and called by his students, began the Greater Tomorrow Nursery and Primary School in 1992. He had just left a teaching position at the Ondo Basic Science School, where he taught for two years, and was perplexed at how to move forward in the world.
He said, “I left because I was not impressed with what was going on in the public sector. I was not pleased with the administration of the school; I felt I would not be able to maximize my potentials there. Even before going to the University, I had been telling people that I love to teach. It was like a taboo telling people that you want to teach at that time. My parents frowned at it, most especially my mum, who happened to be a retired Headmistress. She used to complain that there was nothing to show for all the years she had put into the service. But I continued to tell everyone who cared that I want to be a teacher.”
While in the public service, Lawal maximized his spare time by organizing extra lesson for kids in the neighborhood where he lived, which later became the template on which he built the future.
“A lot of people made jest of me then, they scorned me as a young graduate, who had just left the university for assembling children. But I wasn’t deterred by all of it; my style of life at the time was that I couldn’t continue to depend on my parents. I looked at my certificate and thought if the government found it difficult to provide employment, I should be able to provide jobs for the society. So I moved into the streets and called for parents to bring their children to me.
“One good thing was that my parents believed in me. One parent asked me how much the government was paying me. At the time I was earning N292. He decided to pay me N300 to teach his son. Then a lot of people started dropping kids and money,” he reminisced
An educationist to the core, Lawal drew a roadmap for his group of schools, while asking himself, what is an ideal school is. So he conceptualized what a good school should be – one that can compete favourably with any school within and outside Nigeria.
“We had a good vision of where we were going. We assembled the team, not quite, and three years after, we came first in Ondo State STAN (Science Students Association of Nigeria) competition organised by ExxonMobil. We travelled to Sokoto to represent the state and we came first in Nigeria. Ever since, we have represented the state and Nigerian in numerous competitions,” he said.
According to him, the college has produced some of the best students in West African Examination Council (WAEC) and science competitions, adding the group of schools has won all available awards in the country, but as a mark of principle, it does not celebrate old awards.
“We are among the best nine schools in the last WAEC. Beyond academics, we also engage our students in extra curricular activities such as basketball, which is the college’s main sport, and we have participated at the national level. The reason why we do not participate in other games is because they cheat.”
On how he was able to build the schools to an international standard, with world-class facilities despite the challenges, Lawal said, “We started from scratch, and whatever we got was what we ploughed back into the business — putting up physical facilities like buildings, laboratories, assembling the teachers and paying them good salaries. For the past two decades, we have been on one building project or the other. There is no time that building projects have stopped, and accessing the funds is a big problem. The bank rates are high.”
“There were lots of discouragements at the beginning. People don’t want you to achieve your dreams; even friends criticized what I was doing then. Nobody believed in what I was doing, but I kept my money in banks and believed in my vision. My philosophy of life is that ‘smallness is a metaphor for greatness’. A business should start small and grow to become bigger. Whatever starts from the top is a grave.”
His advice for those who want to start a school and be as successful as Greater Tomorrow, Lawal points out that having a strong vision from the start is important, stressing that it is not just to say you will start a school because you saw someone started a school and he or she is doing well.
“I don’t think it works that way. If you want to start a school, you must have a vision of what you want to do; if you don’t have a vision, you cannot succeed. You should be able to set goals and work towards achieving them. Then you have to do some write-ups; raise some hypothetical questions about raising capital; recognize the fact that you are human capital. I believe that I am human capital, so I turned my skills into capital, into funding. Save and turn your savings into investments.”
On the state of education in the Nigeria, Lawal called on governments at all levels to involve parents in the funding of public schools, noting that there is no free education in a capitalist economy.
“There is no point in deceiving ourselves; even while the country was in boom, the political class were not ready to fund public education. The UNESCO recommendation is 26 percent of the total budget, but which government has ever complied with it or even come near. So parents should be made to contribute a part of the funding needs of the sector, so that the facilities can be upgraded. All these political elites have taken their children out of the system.”
Ten years from now, where do you see Greater Tomorrow group of Schools?
“Ten years from now, obviously, we wants more of our students competing favourably at the highest level in the country. We want to improve on the facilities on ground; I think we are just about 30 percent done, in terms of physical facilities. So, I want to upgrade to a 100 percent. We have been having international students but we want to have more.”