An advert on a bus last week forced me to think more deeply about this period of students going back to schools after a long holiday. It continued to gnaw at me, “Up to N4 million loan for your children school fees” and forced me to ponder what parents go through these days to pay their children school fees.
What pushed me to look deeper into the economics and sociology of school fees especially as it concerns private secondary schools and universities were two moments. One, narrated by a friend, was somehow an epiphany as I never knew private universities charge as much as what he told me. My friend was thinking whether to allow his daughter attend a private or public university and he was weighing the options when we spoke. As he could afford it, his seemed a relatively easy decision but I reminded him that he should be prepared to send his other children to private universities too.
The second one was when my son and I exited a bookshop, the third we would visit, in order to get his texts for senior secondary school. I am aware that some schools force parents to buy their children texts from the schools, a clever way to charge more than necessary and thereby milk the parents, my son’s school do not do such. A result, we were told, of a vibrant PTA who did not subscribe to the option. While I love books and I buy them regularly, nothing prepared me for the amount of money I parted with for my son’s textbooks. Instinctively, my mind went to the late Bola Ige, former governor of the old Oyo State, whose government gave us free texts as part of the free education programme of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). I enjoyed this while I attended primary and secondary schools and shared with my son how this must have saved my parents considerable money as we also had relatives living with us then.
I remember further how we must return those books at the end of each session before we collect our report cards. Lost or torn ones must be replaced without much ado as a list of what each student collected at the beginning of a session is well documented. This went on smoothly without any government official coming to our schools to monitor or oversee the process. By the way, we were given chairs and tables as well and I could still see the OYSG inscription on those chairs and tables in my memory. Sadly after the military takeover of December 31, 1983 those books were sold completely thereby killing a laudable idea. We sure do remember under whose watch such a decision was implemented.
More painfully, however, is that there has been no concrete attempt at recreating such a wonderful scheme. Instead, what we have now is our leaders telling us that free education is not possible and thereby producing a generation of illiterates who do not have access to quality education. The federal government allocation to education in this year’s budget is around six percent as opposed to UNESCO’s recommendation of 26 percent of a country’s annual budget. Our government proposed N448.01 billion for education out of a budget of N7.30 trillion and nothing was budgeted for education in the supplementary budget submitted earlier this year. Ditto for nearly all states, as public secondary schools are relics of what they used to be which no sane parent will take his child to except when you don’t have an option. I know parents who have withdrawn their children from Lagos State Model Colleges due to inadequate facilities and security issues as kidnappers descend on the schools regularly. The federal government colleges, which many in my generation attended, can no longer cater adequately for the teeming students; their teachers were also on strike for the better part of this year.
This has led to a rash of secondary schools, which are either too expensive or poorly run to offer qualitative education. As I dropped my son armed with evidence of payment of sundry fees, a quick survey of the crowd at his school revealed students with similar backgrounds, mostly middle class who came with their parents in gleaming cars. Not sure if any has parent without a car as there are no children of carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers or butchers in the school and so our children are growing up insulated from the harsh realities of living in Nigeria at a level. The first day I took my son on a ride across Lagos in public transport, he was apoplectic that danfo buses do not have air conditioner just as the sweaty odour of some passengers made him squirm. He wondered why they could not buy deodorant thereby justifying my decision to make him take public transport.
This is our reality today and hopefully we are not breeding more Marie Antoinette of the Quills mangent de la brioche fame who said peasants should eat cake if they don’t have bread. By the way, can we start a campaign to restore public secondary schools? It is possible.