It is no longer news that Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world – about 16 million. Some stakeholders are calling on the government to see how the private sector can help, reports KOFOWOROLA BELO-OSAGIE.

It  is not debatable that the huge number of out-of-school children is giving Nigeria a negative image internationally. With the highest population of children not in primary school globally, there are concerns that the country may not meet the 2030 deadline for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Four, which are “inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all.”

In her speech at a distance learning conference at the University of Lagos, Commonwealth of Learning (COL) President Prof Asha Kanwar said up to 47 per cent of Africa’s population are under 18. “There were 264 million out of school in 2017, with the highest numbers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). SSA has 21 per cent children, who are denied the right to education.  Young people under 18 constitute  47 per cent of Africa’s population.  The number of youth is expected to double by 2055,” she said.

During his ministerial screening, former Education Minister, Mallam Adamu Adamu told senators that the number of out-of-school children has hit 16 million from 13.2 million. Ten million, he said, represented children out of primary school and six million, children missing out on secondary education. Adamu saidthe situation became so bad because of poor funding of education by states and the Federal Government. In response, Senate President, Ahmad Lawan said it was necessary for the legislature and executive to work together to ensure that the out-of-school children were reabsorbed into the system. “It is our responsibility to get these children out of (the streets). The senate and the executive need to work together to get these children back to the classroom,” Lawan said.

Getting children who are not in school back to school may not be something the government can do alone without private sector’s help. A renowned researcher in private education, Prof James Tooley doubts the figure, saying he did not believe that the number of out-of-school children  is as high as that. In an interview in Lagos, Tooley said he believed that many of the children said to be out-of-school were attending low-cost private schools  not recognised by the government.

The professor of education entrepreneurship and policy at the VINSON Centre for Economics and Entrepreneurship, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom (UK), whose research on low-cost private education spans Nigeria, India, Pakistan and South Sudan, said he would research the issue of out-of-school children in Northern Nigeria – like he did in Lagos – to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

He said: “The out-of-school situation is a very complex issue.  When I came to Lagos first, 16 years ago, everyone said there were a large number of out-of-school children.  I went to the poor areas and found that they were not out of school; they were in low cost and unregistered ones.  We found only four per cent of children were out of school.

“When it comes to other parts of Nigeria, I heard the same issue.  I visited the north and the east, I see a lot of low-cost private schools.  It occurred to me that out-of-school figure in Nigeria is much lower.  People throw these figures around for various reasons.  There is definitely an interest to exaggerate the problem, but all I  know is that  when I have been to the northern or eastern states, I have seen children attending low-cost private schools.  It is my hypothesis.  Based on my research in Lagos, I am now hypothesising about the north.  I am going to raise funds for the research.”

But, Kaduna State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) Chairman, Shehu Sani Othman, does  not agree that children not in school in the state are attending low-cost private schools. He told The Nation that a house-to-house survey done in Kaduna revealed that those not attending public school were actually not in school. “Actually what we did in Kaduna was that we went house to house to find the number of children and what schools they attended.  If they did not attend school, we classified them as out-of school,” he said. Othman also said the state had invested in building enough public schools – though he noted that many children attend private schools that are both recognised and unapproved.

“We have mushroom schools here.  The government closed about 20 of them sometime last year.  Some are still operating in makeshift structures.  We will not conclude they are not offering good services, but they are not recognised by the government.  To be licensed, schools must be inspected; have the right facilities; quality teachers, and use the right textbooks.

“We have enough government schools in Kaduna that children can attend.  Right now, this government is erecting new schools in highly populated places like Kaduna metropolis, Kafanchan, and Zaria.  We don’t know why parents would patronise mushroom schools.  It may be that the schools are closer to their homes or because the parents do not want to pay more to patronise the recognised private schools,” he said. Tooley’s research about low-cost education space in Lagos in 2003; 2009 and 2012 did a lot to help low-cost private schools gain recognition in Lagos.

It also ushered in the first intervention in the private education sub-sector support by the Department for International Development (DFID), which ran the Developing Effective Private Education Nigeria (DEEPEN) for four years (2014-2018) to enhance the capacity of low-cost private schools to deliver quality education to children from under-privileged backgrounds and improve their operating environment.  Schools under the Association for Formidable Educational Development (AFED), the group with the largest number of low-cost private schools in its fold, benefited from DEEPEN programmes.

DEEPEN’s research showed that over 15,000 private schools, many of them serving low-income families, were educating more than 1.5 million children in Lagos alone and were saving the government close to N1billion it would have spent providing education for them. Tooley said low-cost schools operating in Nigeria deserved government support as they were saving the government a lot of money educating children who would otherwise have been a burden. He also said research had showed that children attending these schools performed better than children attending public primary schools – evidence that they could deliver on learning outcomes.

“Sixty-two per cent of children in AFED Schools performed better in literacy compared to 18 per cent of children attending public schools.  In numeracy, 64 per cent of children in AFED schools did better compared to 24 per cent of children in government schools.  In other words, already our (AFED) schools are doing better than public schools.  About N958 billion will be needed by government if our schools were not there.  These schools are valuable,” he said.

According to the Director-General, Office of Education Quality Assurance, Mrs Ronke Soyombo, Lagos presently has 18,000 public and private primary and secondary schools.  Of this number, the Lagos State Government runs 1014 primary schools and 672 junior and senior secondary schools.

AFED National President, Mr Kanu Orji Emmanuel, said the group has over 6,000 private providers operating in Lagos alone.  He said the group’s motto: “Education for All”, aligns with the United Nation’s SDG on Education as its members believe that all children deserved to be educated regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. He said AFED wants to build on its success in Lagos, Edo, and Anambra states to extend its tentacles to all parts of Nigeria, particularly the north.  However, the kind of recognition AFED enjoys in Lagos has not come easily in other parts.

Orji said the high number of out-of-school children in Nigeria calls for immediate action by all stakeholders.  He called on government to recognise AFED as a veritable stakeholder that could help reduce the number of children roaming the streets. He called for governments to enact policies that would help private educators to thrive. “It is unfortunate that the yardstick used for schools in places like Ikeja (a city centre) is the same used for schools in Ikorodu and other areas. There must be some level of consideration for where schools are operating.  Low cost education does not mean poor quality education.  We have people who graduated from these schools who are making waves.  The University of Lagos recently retained two AFED products after their graduation because they made First Class. “The basic thing is that we are all together in this.  When we talk about over 10 million children out of school, it is not a joke.  That is the population of three African countries that I know.  Government should pay attention to people with ideas , who can help overcome this problem.  We need private intervention; and to thrive, the schools need enabling policies,” he said.

Original news article can be found here.