The prevalence of illegal and substandard schools in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, brought about by gaps in the system, is a ticking time bomb that could explode anytime with devastating consequences
By Ayodeji Adeyemi
The name Splendour Montessori Zion Academy should ordinarily conjure the image of a highbrow school with good facilities.
But the school, situated within the deeper recesses of Kuje Area Council, Abuja is only splendid in name. This primary school, sited in a small two bedroom residential apartment, has a family living inside, throwing up the challenge of space.
Small wonder that the school consists of only three rooms, one of which is a make-shift space carved out of the veranda outside.
For a primary school that has pupils from nursery to Primary 5, it would require a miracle of mega proportions to fit them all in three rooms available for teaching. Consequently, some of the rooms were divided into two with chalk boards, as pupils presumably across different class range were shoehorned into the same room.
How students can learn in such an environment, where different classes are taught in the same room, could, indeed, be the subject of PhD thesis.
Even worse is that the school has only three teachers, throwing up the challenge of how they would split themselves among the various classes. And, even if they managed to achieve that feat, how could the three members of staff, be proficient in all the ten subjects required to be taught in primary schools?
Learning in such an environment would clearly be a herculean task for the pupils who risk having a narrow world view because of the dearth of educational infrastructure in the school.
Needless to say, the school has neither sick bay nor first aid facility, and in the event that a child has an accident or falls sick , there is no first line of treatment in the school. To make matters worse, the pupils also share the same toilet with the family residing in the apartment, a possible window for the transmission of all kinds of diseases.
Added to that is the unpalatable fact that the pupils also risk seeing objects or scenarios that are not suitable for children of their age like misplaced condoms or teenage children frolicking with each other.
Other necessary facilities for the proper functioning of a school such as a library, playground, administrative block, and examination or assembly halls clearly are a luxury that these poor pupils cannot even imagine.
The proprietress of the school, who did not give her name and is one of the three staff members, was insistent that school infrastructure was not a measure of good education.
“Look, I have been an educationist for a long time right from Lagos. What we teach here is good quality education. It is not all about the way the school looks it’s what they teach the pupils,” she said.
Never mind that the school lacked the basic infrastructure needed to teach the pupils.
Just like Splendour Montessori Zion Academy, Uche Summit Montessori School appears to be cut from the same cloth. Both schools have many things in common from the grandiose sounding name to the fact that they are both sited in a residential apartment and both have no sign boards announcing their existence.
Located in Bwari Area Council, Uche Summit Montessori School embodies all that is wrong with substandard schools. Established inside a two bedroom apartment, the school has no fence. .
This, unfortunately, removes the first line of defence for the primary school, making it easy for people with bad intentions such as kidnappers, or even terrorists, to attack it. It goes without saying that there are no security personnel of any ilk in the school.
Inside the apartment that is called Uche Summit Montessori School are several pupils from nursery to primary five sandwiched into small rooms that are sometimes divided into two or three classrooms. The division is usually done with chalk boards.
Pupils inside the room find it difficult to learn as the loud voices of teachers from one part of the room wafts to the other part, serving as a distraction to the pupils. But the teachers in the room could care less as they continue with their monotonous chore, a pointer to the poor educational qualification of the tutors.
Sadly the school is bereft of basic necessity it needs to function properly. Save for chairs, tables and chalk boards, both the interior and the exterior of the apartment have no semblance of a school.
Hence, expecting such a school to have a library, sick bay or other necessities that would make for a normal school would amount to building castles in the air.
But the proprietress of the school does not see anything wrong in the crippling educational setting of her school as she continually canvasses parents to bring their wards to the school. “For a child that is in primary three we charge N20, 000 a term,” she said smugly.
But while Uche Summit Montessori School is at least inside an apartment, Wonder Kids Academy in Gwagwalada Area Council is operated inside what can best be termed a shed.
The school building, made from plywood and roofed with zinc, consist of about three rooms. The rooms which are further divided with plywood have no asbestos ceilings to prevent the heat of the sun.
The classrooms which are small are packed with pupils. Once the sun is at full strength, the classes become hot compelling the pupils to use their uniforms to wipe off sweat. It’s indeed a wonder how pupils attending Wonder Kids Academy could imbibe knowledge in such an inhospitable environment. Needless to note, the school has nothing that makes it worthy of it being called a school, save for chairs, tables and black board.
If Wonder Kids Academy stretches the concept of a school to a breaking point, Zenith Primary School also located in Gwagwalada actually breaks it.
Established in an uncompleted building largely devoid of doors and windows, Zenith Primary School is perhaps an omen of what private participation in primary education may sink to if left unsupervised and unregulated. The school which is not fenced also doubles as the residential apartment of the owners of the school.
Pupils in this school have no exposure to any educational infrastructure whatsoever, as the building is bereft of what should make it a building let alone a school.
Just when one thinks one has seen the worst, then you are confronted with the stark reality that two of the three classrooms that make up the entire school, have no blackboards.
The teachers there have to use the unpainted walls as blackboard, perhaps as a cost cutting measure. If the school could cut cost further, one is inclined to think that it would dispense with the roof, leaving the children at the mercy of the weather.
Though the school building has a roof, the pupils are still at the mercy of the scorching sun as it does not have a ceiling to prevent the heat from reaching them.
When the proprietress of the school was informed that her school was not on the government approved list and asked if she had the guidelines for setting up schools, she had no coherent response to offer.
“So our school is not on the approved list?” she asked rhetorically, with an expression that did not convey surprise.
“My husband is the one that does everything concerning the school and he is not around. He is the one that can really speak,” she said.
Greater Height School, Mpape is definitely an upgrade when contrasted with Zenith and other schools mentioned earlier But that is where the good news ends as there is nothing that conveys greatness in the facilities of the primary school.
Apart from the fact that the school building is devoid of a ceiling, exposing pupils to heat from the sun, the floors of the classes are potholes.
This, however, is nothing in comparison to the state of the school toilet, a latrine bereft of a wall sheltering it which makes it easy for a snake to skulk inside. One of the female pupils who was pressed, and could not use the crumbling latrine, had to relieve herself on the floor outside where all eyes could see her.
Needless to say, it lacks every other essential infrastructure needed for the smooth and safe running of a school, such as library, sickbay amongst others.
The headmaster of the school, when confronted about the unsafe state of the toilet, blamed it on a bad wind which he claimed destroyed the wall sheltering the latrine. Identifying himself as Joshua, he explained that the school fee was modest. “We have students from primary one to five and we charge N7,000 per term,” he said .
The sad story of education in the FCT is that the area councils and even the metropolis are populated with primary schools such as Zenith and Splendour, Greater Heights and Uche. These types of substandard schools exploits the huge gap between e demand and supply as it relates to quality primary education, while preying on parent’s unwillingness to send their children to public schools which are mostly in a bad state, a far cry from their glory days.
Unfortunately, schools of this ilk are usually established in uncompleted building or residential apartment. Due to the space constraint, these schools are devoid of the minimum basic amenities needed for the normal and safe functioning of a school.
Whereas the guidelines for setting up primary schools by the FCT department of education requires that at inception they should have a minimum of a library, three VIP toilets, computer and health facilities and playground among others, these schools which have functioned for several years do not have such facilities.
Other minimum standard mandated by the education department that this type of schools lack include two hectares of land, three classrooms of 9m by 12m in size, large assembly hall, administrative block, water utility and farmland, among others.
In fact, many of these schools do not even have the school curriculums that should guide what they teach to their pupils. Another common denominator is that the schools are usually understaffed.
Indeed, the owners of these schools are people who do not see education as a social investment which should not be guided by the profit motive alone. Instead, they see it as an avenue to line their pockets, and are too willing to cut corners and cost, not caring what effect their actions might have on their pupil’s destiny.
While these type of schools typically do not charge large fees, usually between N7,000 to N20, 000 per term, they seek to maximize profit by having many pupils, while skimping on infrastructure and paring down essential costs.
This is why such schools, apart from failing to provide good educational infrastructure, employ unqualified teachers who take salaries as low as N10,000 and are expected to teach several subjects.
Some school owners, in an attempt to further feather their nests, even go as far as using their buildings after school hours as entertainment centres, converting them to make –shift beer parlours, football viewing centres, or rendezvous spot for women of easy virtues.
The next morning, the pupils in such schools run the risk of seeing misplaced objects that are not appropriate for kids.
Sadly, these schools are compromising the educational foundation of hundreds of thousands of pupils who could be potential leaders of tomorrow.
Already, they have succeeded in lowering the standard of education to a dangerous threshold, narrowing the mentality of pupils who pass through such environment.
But if these types of private primary schools are laying a faulty education foundation for thousands of pupils, some private secondary schools such as Noel College are further compounding the problem. Located at kwali Area Council, Noel College consists of five rooms, three of which are classrooms.
Apart from the walls and floor of the classrooms not being plastered and it being devoid of ceilings, the school has no fence making it easy for anyone to wander into the classes without being restrained. In broad daylight, inside the classroom, it is as dark as a photography laboratory.
For a junior secondary school that is expected to teach both science and art subjects, the Noel College is surprisingly bereft of laboratories and workshops for the teaching of Introductory Technology, Science and Home Economics.
But that is not the only thing it lacks as it also does not have a library, a Guidance and Counselling unit, computer facility, let alone a sick bay.
Other minimum standard mandated by the department of education that the school runs afoul of include assembly hall, four hectare land, administrative block, four VIP toilets and water utility.
Sadly, the students in this school will end up not seeing test tubes or performing simple experiments in the laboratory. They would also not know how to use simple technology tools. Still, the absence of extracurricular activities in this type of schools further aids in cramping the little creativity quotient left in this students.
Even though the principal of Noel College refused to speak with the reporter, one of the staff revealed that the school would start admitting intakes into Senior Secondary School, SSS, classes by September.
Not surprising, students nurtured under these type of education background find it difficult to both express themselves articulately and write coherently.
Bimbo Obasuyi, principal partner, TBOJ consultant, an educational service providing firm, observed that these types of student usually have difficulty in understanding instructions. Consequently they find it problematic to carry out simple tasks, let alone complex ones, she notes. They are also usually not confident and are unable to make good independent decisions.
By the time they go through higher institutions many of them are like old fishes wrapped in a piece of paper, with the tertiary training having no effect whatsoever on them.
Little wonder, he said, that many companies complain that Nigerian graduates are not employable due to the bad education foundation laid in their basic and senior school years.
A basic school consists of nursery, primary and junior secondary, while the ones with senior classes 1, 2 and 3 are senior secondary schools.
Unfortunately, these types of schools make up the bulk of basic and senior schools in the FCT. While it is believed that there are over 2,000 private schools in the nation’s capital , the Department of Quality Assurance, DQA, of the Education Secretariat, which has the statutory mandate of inspecting, evaluating and monitoring all schools within the territory, has only 434 schools on the approved list.
This could mean that the bulk of the private schools do not have approval to operate within the territory.
Early this year, the department through a press release claimed it had uncovered about 556 illegal schools operating within the territory, with the intention of shutting them down.
This, however, spurred the House of Representatives to kick against the planned closure, arguingthat it would amount to throwing the baby away with the bath water, displacing about 100,000 pupils and putting thousands of teachers in the unemployment market.
A member of the House of Representatives, Albert Adeogun, PDP, representing Ife Central, East, North South, who raised the matter in the hallowed chambers argued against the closures of such schools, observing that the public schools within the FCT were not sufficient to cater for the educational needs of the increasing population.
“The closure of the schools without placing the children in other schools that can absorb the large population will expose the children to crime and abuse. That may be the consequence of this policy,” he said, adding that the children might become victims of unfortunate circumstances by virtue of the closure of the schools.
“They may never have the opportunity of furthering education which will not augur well for the country,’’ he added.
Although it was widely reported that the House had mandated the Committee on FCT to investigate the closure of the illegal schools, a close source observed that the issue was only mentioned in passing, admitting that no investigation had taken place.
Employing the Freedom of Information Act, this publication petitioned the DQA for the list of illegal schools it said it had discovered, but the department refused to oblige the request under the guise that the request was receiving attention. Instead, it chose to release the list of approved schools consisting of 434 schools.
The DQA, in responding to the request in a letter dated 27/04/2016 wrote that “on the list of illegal private schools, please be informed that this request is receiving attention and we will communicate with you accordingly”. At the time of compiling this report, a month after the request was made, the DQA had still not obliged the application for the list of illegal schools.
Even so, the department does not term all the schools that are not on its approved list illegal. This is because of the schools that have commenced the procedure of getting approval, a process that could stretch between four to eight years or even more.
A school like Tiny Toes Academy located in Lugbe falls into this category. Though the school is not on the approved list, it has been certified to commence academic activities due to its excellent education infrastructure such as air-conditioned classrooms, computer rooms, first aid facilities and playgrounds, amongst others.
Another reason why a school may not be on the approved list is because the approval status, like a driver’s license has a time frame, and would thus become invalid after the expiration period.
Unfortunately, some schools once they have gotten that approval do not bother again to renew such when it has lapsed, which accounts for their names not being on the approved list.
This lacuna has however created a money making avenue for the officials of DQA, particularly those in the zonal offices, to have their palms greased. Officials who go out to inspect these schools, especially the ones that have started the registration process but are finding it difficult to obtain the final approval, are readily presented with money envelops and snacks.
Though the inspectors may not necessarily demand the money, it is however implied, and these schools who want to remain in the officials’ good graces roll out the red carpet for them.
The principal of one of such schools who pleaded anonymity for fear of being scapegoated observed “When the inspectors from the department of quality assurance come to visit us we give them money and snacks,” she said showing this reporter her school’s certification to commence academic activities.
When asked why her school had not obtained the final approval despite having the necessary infrastructure she noted: “the set of buildings we are using were meant to be for residential purpose that’s one of the reasons why we have not gotten approval and maybe the inspectors are waiting for us to bribe them,” she alleged.
The icirnigeria.org also found out that schools set up by former officials of the education secretariat or by associates of powerful politicians, sometimes do not bother to get the final approval since they have people who would cover for them. A school like Britarch Schools in Lugbe, which consist of basic and senior schools, seems to fall into the latter category.
It was gathered that the highbrow school which is not on the list of approved schools, is owned by associates of a very powerful politician. When this reporter went to speak with one of the head teachers, she dismissed the reporter offhandedly, insisting that the school was on the approved list.
“Let them dare come and close it,” she hissed, a scenario this reporter did not even hint at.
Still, some schools have found ways of beating the system. There are those, for instance, who obtain approval for only a primary school but latter go ahead to establish a secondary school without seeking further permission.
Also, there are others who get approval for a basic school in a particular location, but then go ahead to open one or two branches of the school in several other locations without authorization. Some even stretch this by obtaining approval in a different state and using such to open schools in the FCT.
Ayuba Didaam, director and head of DQA, explains that the approval process for schools is in stages and could take years. “We have a set of guidelines with specifications and when the school meets the criteria, we then recommend it for commencement of academic activities to which the education secretary has to approve, “he said adding “Immediately that is done we continue with our inspections and it is only after about two years that the school can now request for the final accreditation which is the last stage.”
Didaam observed that the final inspection for approval is not done by the department but by an independent team consisting of university professors, experts from National University Commission, NUC, and other professional bodies.
He concluded that “once the school scales through the last stage, the final accreditation comes as a document from DQA approved by honorable minister.”
Though this reporter sought to have another interview with Didaam after the field investigation, the repeated attempt to secure such proved abortive as he had an increasingly busy schedule.
Alaba Olusemore, managing consultant, Nesbet Consult, an educational training firm, warns that the prevalence of substandard private schools amounts to a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. He observed that such schools are grooming an army of half-baked professionals and citizens that could wreck the nation’s future.
He therefore wants the government to take the bull by the horn, paying more attention to the development of the formative years of its citizenry, which he insists consist of basic and senior schools.
“Children who pass through such crippling educational setting cannot be creative. And when you do not have creativity in a system, there will be no invention. This can impede the productivity and development of any nation,” he warns.
Olusemore, however, does not spare the government holding them equally culpable for the prevalence of substandard private schools. He maintained that the government had forfeited its moral rights to enforce standards in private schools since most public schools are falling apart. He noted that government’s insistence on standard for private school, while public schools were in bad shape, amounts to double standards.
“If the government cannot even maintain standards in their own schools, what do they expect from private people who see it as a profit making venture?’ he frowned.
Olusemore has an ally in Bimbo Obasuyi, principal partner, TBOJ consultant, an educational service providing firm. Obasuyi, like Olusemore observed that substandard private schools were churning out bad products with no value to the society.
“Children who pass through such schools will not have the right values which do not bode well for the society, “she said.
Anthony Ogunleye, assistant director and public relation officer, education secretariat, FCT Administration, on his own part blames the mentality of the school owners for the prevalence of substandard schools.
“People have come to see the operation of a private school as a means to make maximum return from little investment. This is why you see a three bedroom building being used as a basic school. One room is the crèche, another the nursery school, while the third room is the primary school,” he observed.
Agreeing with Ogunleye, Didaam explained that the continuous influx of people into the territory had created a gap that is being exploited by the providers of substandard schools. “No matter how much planning is made into the expansion of the public provision of education, before you finish the planning the influx has overtaken the plan,” he said.
So what is the way out? Olusemore wants the government to invest again in public schools, equipping them with the right infrastructure and with well-trained motivated teaching staff. He insisted that in doing this, government would render the business of substandard schools unprofitable as their patrons would opt for the public ones.
“In other climes private schools are meant for the children of the affluent while the rest of the population go to public schools which have been well equipped by their government. We should strive for such a system, “he says.
Still, Olusemore counsels the government to invest in the training of private school owners, imbuing them with the right attitude to education. He also wants the government to create a fund, where private school owners can access loans at friendly rate.
Obasuyi on her own part wants the government to strengthen its inspection of private schools, while also improving the standards of public schools. “The government should create an environment where it is no longer lucrative for half-baked schools to operate,” she says.
There are however those who are nudging the government to partner with religious bodies to create mission basic and senior schools. Proponents of such ideas believe that such schools, subsidized by government to charge affordable fees, would help lure children away from substandard schools.
The FCT which is the purview of this report is however not the only hotbed of substandard and illegal schools. Indeed most state of the federation are plagued by an increasing armada of substandard private schools churning out half-baked students in millions.
If such a situation is not arrested and reversed experts warn that the country might be faced with a bleak future in which the bulk of citizenry are neither innovative nor productive. For a developing nation, that would spell doom.
This story was reported with support from Ford Foundation.