Back in August 2013, the nation watched a verification exercise in Edo state where a teacher was unable to read out her age declaration affidavit in front of then Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole. Many people were already aware of the state of Nigeria's education sector, but the fact that this exchange was captured on video made it all the more powerful, a moment engraved in history.
Unfortunately, that teacher is not the exception; she is the rule in Nigeria’s education sector. Conversations around the sector are dominated disproportionately by the ASUU strikes, but this is a mistake. The real damage to Nigeria’s future occurs at primary school level, where children are unable to get the basic literacy and numeracy skills on which all other educational attainment is built. The reason for that is obvious; poorly trained teachers.
At primary school level, the most important schooling factor is teacher quality. You can’t change the family background of a child, but you can make sure that if they get to school, they get the best teaching possible.
You Can’t Give What You Don’t Have
Considering this, Governor Nasir El-Rufai’s recent moves to improve teacher quality in Kaduna should be met with approval. A Primary 4 equivalent competence exam was conducted for teachers in Kaduna state, and two-thirds failed to get up to the 75% required to pass. Indeed, if you don’t know up to 75% of what a teacher of Primary 4 pupils should know, why are you a primary school teacher?
Such scandalous figures are not unusual. In 2013, the Commissioner of Education for Kaduna State suggested that 1,300 of 1,599 teachers across the state scored below 25% in basic math and literacy, with only one – yes, one – scoring 75%. As this state of affairs is unlikely to have significantly changed in the following four years, it is safe to say that the present administration still battles with these failings.
Opinions on El-Rufai are sharply divided especially on social media, but even his harshest critics may find it hard to fault his education reforms. He is attempting a change that has frustrated other state governors in other states. Accepted wisdom suggests that Kayode Fayemi's failed relection bid could be traced to a clash over competency tests for teachers. The teachers felt the tests were the prelude to a mass sacking, and dug their heels in. As elections approached, Fayemi backed down; but it was too late by that time, and the teachers voted for Fayose instead.
In contrast, Adams Oshiomhole, previously mentioned, discovered a similar level of rot. Having initially sacked many teachers, he reinstated some of them as elections approached, ensuring a successful handover to his chosen successor.
Unions. Unions. Unions.
Teacher unions are typically very powerful because they can organise against you at the polls. Unions, in general, protect their members, and the ones in Nigeria are no different, even if it means protecting the worst of the bunch. So El-Rufai’s move is particularly brave considering he is up for re-election in only 18 months.
Expectedly, the National Labour Congress Kaduna Chapter has come out against the move, calling the government’s side of the story ‘propaganda’, and suggesting that the teachers found wanting were trained by the government. In fact, protests have been staged across Kaduna.
But this claim does not hold up to scrutiny.
As mentioned above, in Ekiti, the teachers didn’t even take the competency test to begin with, and turned on Kayode Fayemi as a result. Unions display resistance to any sort of change, and the result, in this case, is to hold millions of children back from their potential. They know that many within their ranks are not up to the necessary standard, but place those substandard teachers above the wider interests of society.
El-Rufai is the latest governor to come up against this tendency, and if he succeeds, his fellow governors may find the courage to do what is required. In spite of this, the NUT in Kaduna has promised a total strike if the teachers are sacked.
Speaking proudly, the NUT chairman in the state, Audu Amba, said, “They are our members and we have a duty to protect our own.” But why should our children foot the bill for their protection?