When will Babatunde Fashola’s children resume in Lagos public schools?.
By Omo’ba Olumide Idowu
Permit me to confess that this piece is influenced or do I say incited by two sources. The first source is a very close relative based with his family in the State of Maryland in the United of America. The second source whose influence is far more enduring and inescapable is my first son, who recently resumed classes in a Lagos private secondary school in September, 2009.
My experiences with the two sources stated above though similar, had different colourations and continue to cause me to reflect on a personal challenge that may not be entirely peculiar. My new found resolve to escalate my worries and displeasure publicly, with the turn of things in the educational sector in Lagos and Nigeria is fueled by the damage that our collective silence wields on access to quality education at all levels.
First let me share with you a telephone conversation with my first influence, a relative in the US. My relative who has not been home for sometime called me on June 12 to felicitate with me on my birthday, which happens to fall on a date that very few Nigerians can forget. The relative beyond felicitations expressed genuine interest in the welfare of members of my immediate family, whom he has not seen for a while. Being more familiar with my first son, he specifically asked for him by name. He expressed interest in knowing how Pelumi is faring in his studies and coping with the responsibility of being man of the house when I am not at home.
I responded by proclaiming that Pelumi was fine and also added with the tinge of a proud father that he is doing very well in his academics, considering his achievements relative to his young age. He was curious to know his age and also his current class in school. He was impressed when I told him, Pelumi will be 9 years later this year and that he was currently preparing to gain admission into a secondary school in September this year.
My yankee relative displayed the natural concern of an uncle by insisting that I must take special care in short listing and deciding on the school that he will attend. He urged that beyond high standard of education, I must also attach importance to issues of safety and moral conduct. In his usual curious style, he sought to know the schools I was considering. I advised him not to bother with the names of my preferred schools because they are not likely to be familiar to him, cause of his relative long absence from Nigeria.
He retorted by claiming that he can still recall the names of all the popular secondary schools in Lagos and environs. At this point I had no choice but to mention the names of three private secondary schools in and around Lagos State that I had shortlisted for my son to attend. He was shocked when I confirmed that I was considering private schools and not public schools as my preferred choice of schools. Playing the caring uncle, my relative in Diaspora expressed shock with my choice of private schools as against public schools that according to him have a proven track record for high academic and moral standards.
He was miffed that I prefer to send my son to private schools who do not operate under any strict code of academic and moral standards. Still not convinced about my preference for private schools, he affirmed that all his children in the States are attending public schools and claims not to have any form of regret about his decision. Finally he capped his disdain for my decision by accusing me of not giving my son the great opportunity I had in passing through a well run and managed heritage public school such as Birch Freeman High School, Surulere. His passing shot was that if he turned out fine and I equally have no regret about attending a public school, he is lost on why this standard will no longer suffice for the generation of my son.
His multifaceted rationale for why I ought to have considered public schools above private schools provided me a golden opportunity to lampoon his long absence from Nigeria and most importantly his grave disconnect from the reality of what public education has become in Lagos and all other states in the country. With initial air of arrogance of somebody who has been given a wild card in a debate contest, I cautioned that he will not even wish the son of his worst enemy the nightmare of attending a public school in any part of Nigeria. I progressed in my argument that public schools at primary and secondary levels now only qualify as an option for people who place low premium on quality education or are too challenged financially to afford the rather steep fees of most private schools. I told him that the option of public school for my son is even made more unpopular by the fact that nobody in my social network has any of his children in a public school.
To further convince him that public school is not a sane option for somebody in my social class, I shocked him that children of public office holders (including those who superintend over the educational sector) and teachers in public schools do not attend public schools as a first option. Though no empiric research exists to confirm this assertion, it is common knowledge that most public office holders and professional Teachers now prefer to give their children the benefit of attending quality private schools at least at pre and post primary levels. At this stage he screamed and wondered if things have really become this bad and asked me to confirm that I was not exaggerating the facts to rubbish his advocacy for public schools.
Strangely the flow of our conversation changed from that of a debate with opposite advocates to a unidirectional discuss. He affirmed that it was immoral for any public office holder or Teacher in a public school at whatever level to enrol his or her child in a private school. In his own words he said this was akin to a married man vowing publicly never to eat his wife’s food or be found dead in her kitchen. He took it further by proclaiming that any public office holder whose child schools in a private school should resign his appointment out of shame, while any Teacher whose child schools in a private school should be sacked summarily without benefits. Still sounding incensed on phone he said he does not foresee any hope for the improvement of standard of public education, if people responsible for upholding its relevance continue to destroy it with ignominy.
As much as I regaled in being able to convince my relative on the justification of sending my son to a private school, I will confess that a strange sense of guilt descended on me after we rounded off our very reflective conversation. My guilt was informed by the selfish and disinterested stance of people in my social network with the rot in public schools. Though I am not proud to admit it, the laid-back attitude of professionals like myself to the decay in academic and moral standards in public schools, is buried in the arrogance that I and people like me will always be able to afford the high fees of private schools.
Beyond the misplaced comfort of being able to afford high fees, another preference of middle class professionals like me for private schools is the misguided notion that private schools provide the opportunity of planting our children in the right social network. As true as this intent may be, it is gradually becoming obvious that it has the grave consequence of further widening the gap among the next generation of Nigerians. The uninformed need to express social status through the choice of private school that one’s child attends is made more laughable by the deliberate classification that now exists among private schools particularly in Lagos. As much as I claim that my son is in a private school I will be honest enough to admit that the school he is attending will never make the A, B, list of “ivy league” secondary schools in Lagos.
My son’s confessed dream school is a nouveau rich private secondary school that shares border with the biggest mall in Nigeria. Fueled by his strong believe in his brilliance , he has challenged me several times to let him take the entrance exam of his dream school in order to prove he is good enough to be one of its privileged students. I as a parent, who knows it takes more than brilliance to attend certain schools in Lagos, continue to be economical with the truth with my son on reasons why his preferred choice of school is not expedient at this time.
This beyond doubt helps to confirm that my generation is guilty of creating unintended social dislocation that public education had helped to bridge in the past. I recall with so much pride while in a public school in Surulere that I had the son of a Merchant Bank Chief Executive in my class. The same Bank CEO whose name I won’t mention for reasons of privacy had another son who was two years my senior in the same school. I am sure it would be interpreted as a misnomer now for any of the children of a Nigerian Bank CEO to attend a public school such as the one I passed out from in 1987.It is instructive to mention that Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) who remains a reference nationally as an ideal definition for inspiring and visionary leadership passed out from the same public secondary school I attended.
Though I am proud to proclaim that I attended the same secondary school with Governor Fashola, I will be honest enough to confess that I will never allow any of my children to attend my old school in its current physical and environmental state. My old school which I will continue to be proud of is now sinking with dilapidated class rooms and devoid of basic facilities such as a library, school playground, standard laboratory and a befitting hall. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the school is that it continues to contend with the affront of desperate land developers who are bent on taking over a part of my history.
While I am not proud of the inadvertent role I have played in entrenching a culture of silence among my generation in relation to the grave state of public schools, I am of the opinion that politicians and public office holders have a bigger obligation to arrest the decay in public schools. Though I stand to be corrected, my strong persuasion is that things would never have become this bad if politicians and senior civil servants never had the alternative of sending their children to private schools which now come in different shades and sizes.
Without the intent of entrenching a communist state I now share my offshore relative’s view that it is immoral for any politician holding a public office or civil servant to enrol their children in private schools. In order to quickly address the decay and unpardonable descend of public schools as alternative only fit for poor Nigerians, I think it is high time the Federal and state governments make a statement on this issue. Personally I think we have gone past the era of appealing to the conscience of senior government functionaries, who see nothing inappropriate in sending their children to local and offshore private schools when schools in the country are closed down for months. The preference of some top politicians and senior civil servants to send their children offshore for tertiary education is made laughable by the fact that the assumed special kids of these privileged Nigerians study in public schools abroad.
I believe a Musa Yar’Adua’s government that has made it fashionable to criminalise bank debts, should also find it convenient to make it criminal for any public office holder, civil or public servant to have their children in private schools at primary, secondary and tertiary levels both within and outside Nigeria.
I am convinced beyond doubt that no private citizen will frown at enroling his child in a public school, if he’s convinced that its standard academically and morally compares with even that of a mid-size private school. Beyond expressing passive indignation, we all need to clamour collectively for a timely arrest of the gradual but consistent denigration of public institutions. We have all seen the consequence of the destruction of our public health institutions and how senior public office holders announce with pride that they are going abroad for medical salvation that is not available locally.
Though it is now the norm for government functionaries to go abroad for treatment, it is noteworthy to observe that the Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola has refused to join the fray of chefs who will never taste,talk more of eat their own delicacies. Fashola, against the popular wisdom of his ilk, is on record to have undergone treatment at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH). Though the Nigerian President is not persuaded to take the risk Fashola took by undergoing treatment in Nigeria, I have the Minister of Health to thank for calling my attention to Fashola’s “unenviable risk appetite” through the Minister’s public commendation of Fashola’s “indiscretion”.
Before I am accused of ignoring the educational sector that this piece is supposed to focus on, let me join several nameless, voiceless and powerless Nigerians to implore Babatunde Fashola to do something revolutionary about the image and plight of public schools. Fashola who continues to stand out in a crowd for the right reasons, will cause an unmistakable revolution the day he announces that all his children are now enrolled in Lagos State public schools. I really do not need to comment on the positive bandwagon effect that this will have on the decision of other public office holders in Lagos and in Nigeria as a whole. Fashola is best suited to kick start this culture change, because he has redefined the right
to hold public office beyond competence and the privilege of winning an election, to a genuine ability to conscientiously identify with the latent and obvious challenges the average Lagosian is forced to contend with by factors that will always be beyond his control. Success in this crusade by Fashola, would provide another credible opportunity to prove that Lagos is the barometer for popular culture in Nigeria and would continue through the exploits of its erudite Governor to be miles ahead of its closest peer in Nigeria.
When the children of Governor Fashola, his Commissioners and other senior state Officers begin to attend public schools, no one will need to tell a Principal to take full charge of his school or preach to a Teacher to attend classes regularly or be at his/her best all the time. Officers in the state Ministry of Education who plan curriculum and supervise Teachers, will show greater commitment to their job if they know their children will also become products of the standard that they prescribe for the children of everyday Lagosians.
We all need to begin to ask our representatives at all levels pertinent questions when they come asking for our votes and support during political campaigns. It will not be out of place for instance to ask a politician who claims he is committed to improving educational standards, how many children he has/or will enrol in a public schools. It will also not be an insult to ask a politician who desires to revolutionise the health sector, if he will subject himself and family members to treatment in these hospitals if they have grave medical challenges.
Beyond the good example that I expect Fashola and other public office holders to show, we all have an obligation to return our public schools to their old glorious state and refrain from consoling ourself that we can afford expensive and exclusive education that private schools offer. The standard of education and quality of manpower in any state or country is measured by the quality of education available to the vast majority and not that, accessible to only the children of political and economic elites who are often too detached from the reality of the average Nigerian.
Omo’ba Olumide Idowu,is the Head of Strategy and New Business in a Lagos based integrated marketing communications consultancy.
E-mail : mideidowu@yahoocom