By Mojeed Alabi

Despite their status, Lagos is ready to collaborate with owners of about 14,000 unapproved private schools in the state, currently providing education to over 1 million pupils, to rejig the sector

For Mrs. Hennessey George, a beautician living in Oke- Ira, a suburb of Ogba in Ojodu Local Council Development Area (LCDA) of Lagos State, her plan was to enroll her niece in a public primary school due to paucity of funds to register her in a private school. But such hope was dashed last year due to lack of a functional public primary school in the community, as the only school in the area is a mere shadow of itself as a result of the dearth of facilities and classroom congestion.

Determined to fulfill her plan, Mrs. George recalled how she had in September last year approached the only public primary school in the community – Oke- Ira Primary School – to enroll her eight-year-old niece, she simply identified as Mafema, who had just been brought to Lagos from their village in Benue State.

But, from her impression right from the school gate, she had to change her plan since it was visibly clear that the school environment was not conducive enough for effective teaching and learning process. She said: “The classrooms were not only overcrowded, the teachers were lost in the midst of the crowd, as the pupils were cramped into the classrooms for lack of adequate classroom spaces and sufficient facilities. When I considered the distance and lack of facilities, I discovered that what we wanted to save in terms of school fees would still have gone into other needs without meeting the expected results.”

In view of these challenges,Mrs. George told New Telegraph that she decided to enroll the little girl at a nearby low-cost private school, which she said though cheaper, it is better than the public school in terms of facilities and enhanced learning environment.

However, Mrs. George is not the only one in this dilemma, as most parents who ordinarily would have enrolled their children and wards in public schools had to resort to private schools, where the school fees are out of the reach of low income families.

Also, in the same predicament is Nike Lambert (not real name), who attends Bridge School on Balogun Street, Iju-Ishaga, another sprawling Lagos community. According to the pupil, her parents had attempted to enroll her at Fagba Junior Grammar School, but had to change their plan due to the sorry state of the school, forcing them to enroll her in a private school that shares a three-flat apartment with two other tenants.

Lambert explained: “In our school, we are always distracted by the activities of other tenants especially whenever they are cooking. There are times we have to be forced to vacate the classrooms, particularly when the families are frying one thing or the other.”

Worried by this development, some stakeholders and parents in particular, noted that the poor state of public schools led to the proliferation of substandard private schools mushrooming in all nooks and crannies of the state. At Oke-Ira, for instance, almost all the streets have a minimum of two private schools, which investigations by New Telegraph confirmed were not registered with the state government. According to the operators, their fear is not unconnected with the belief that as soon as they are registered with the government, they would suffer under the yoke of heavy and multiple taxes. One of the schools, The Wonders Nursery and Primary School, located on Atundaolu Close, Oke- Ira, could hardly be recognised as a school, as there are no signs indicating that a school exists there.

The school, which is located close to Progressive Nursery and Primary School, occupies an abandoned building owned by the Holy Ghost International Church, and uses single undivided hall as classrooms from Kindergarten to Basic III. The classes, which are simply separated by a row, share teachers, most of whom are mere secondary school leavers. According to the school owner, who initially disguised to the reporter as a mere supervisor, Miss Celestina Ehiohere, the decision not to put any signpost indicating the presence of the school was intentional. She said: “This school is a product of circumstances.

We actually started as a daycare service provider when I was staying with my aunt, and we only occupied a single room on Shorinmade Street. But, after two years when we would have waned the babies, their parents would take them to another place to start school. It was then that we realised the need to upgrade our facilities as a school to provide education.

“Then, I enrolled for a National Diploma programme in Accounting at the Satellite Campus of the Lagos State Polytechnic, at its African Church Grammar School, College Road, Ogba,” Ehiohere said. Less than two years the school started, she recalled how many parents flooded the school to register their children and wards even beyond the capacity of what the school could carry. She, however, lamented that there had been several instances when officials who claimed to have come from either the local or state government charged her various fees for different purposes.

“But, whenever they come and I tell them the school has no money, they would collect whatever I give them so as to remain in business,” she added, saying the only challenge was that parents do not pay the wards’ school fees. The school, which Ehiohere noted charges N8,500 for Basic classes and N7,500 for Kindergarten and nursery categories, is able to receive payment from only about 70 per cent, stressing that as a result of this, the school hardly pays its teachers or meet other obligations.

“Whenever we ask the parents to take their wards to public schools, they simply tell us that public schools are too far from them,” she said. Investigations by New Telegraph indicated that most of the private schools parade unqualified teachers. One of the teachers in the school, Deborah Ajayi, who teaches Basic III, is said to have just finished from Seal Foundation Secondary School, Ogba.

Ajayi, who could not disclose exactly her monthly take-home, simply told New Telegraph that her salary is not up to N10,000. Another school in Oke-Ira, which is owned by the Welfare Officer II of the Lagos State chapter of the Association of Formidable Education Development (AFED), Mr. Lanre Amu, located behind the Ojodu LCDA Secretariat is another low-cost school that is struggling for survival.

The school – Oxlam Nursery and Primary School, which currently occupies an uncompleted building, according to the owner, is recognized by the state government but that it had not sought renewal of its name search since 2008 due to financial constraint. He said: “You know registering a private school in Lagos State used to be a real big issue until AFED came to intervene on behalf of its members.

Yet, we cannot meet up with many of the requirements, and that is why we are being categorised as low-cost schools. “Now we are making efforts to upgrade our standard, but it will take some time because parents cannot afford to pay good fees, which is the only source of our revenue.

If we approach banks for loans, they charge as high as 30 per cent interest rates. And, because parents do not pay, we have resulted to offer scholarships to some of our pupils, because if we fail to do so, many brilliant pupils would have been roaming the streets since public schools have failed to provide the people with enhanced learning environment. ”

This is the situation in many private schools across the state, and the nation at large, where facilities are not only unavailable, teachers are unqualified. Reacting to the development, the Director of Quality Assurance Department of the Lagos State Ministry of Education, Mrs. Ronke Soyombo, said of the identified 18,000 private primary and secondary schools in the state, only about 4,000 have the state’s approval seal. She said the department, which was created barely about seven months ago, is working towards identifying the schools and grade them based on their assessment performance.

However, other stakeholders, including the state’s wings of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT); the Academic Staff Union of Secondary Schools (ASUSS) and the Teachers’ Registration Council (TRC), lamented the situation in the schools, which they alleged arose due to the dearth of teachers in Lagos schools, and the lack of appropriate quality control measures on the part of the government.

The Chairman of ASUSS in the state, Mr. Kazeem Labaika, during a chat with New Telegraph noted that there were about 11,300 vacancies in all the 1,007 public primary schools in the state, even as she insisted that the circumstance has caused the current overcrowding in the classrooms.

While commending the Lagos State Government for approving the recruitment of over 1,300 teachers, he said it would take similar consistent steps and provision of more infrastructure to address the challenge posed by substandard schools. In a similar development, the TRC Coordinator in the state, Mr. Gbolahan Enilolobo, said until honour is restored to the teaching profession through adequate reward system and strict implementation of the act establishing the agency is enforced, every Tom, Dick and Harry will continue to own schools.

Addressing some of the identified challenges is what seems to have inspired the programme of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), which is tagged; Developing Effective Private Education in Nigeria (DEEPEN).

According to the programme Coordinators, Gboyega Ilusanya and Stephen Bayley, the country could not afford to clamp down on the private schools, especially those regarded as low-cost; saying the burden they carry is far higher than what the public schools could shoulder.

A research findings carried out by DEEPEN indicated that the 18,000 private pre-primary, primary and secondary schools in Lagos State provide education to about 1.5 million pupils compared to the 1,678 state-owned schools catering for about 1.1 million pupils.

Rather than forcibly clamping down on the private schools, DEEPEN is strongly suggesting inclusive policies on the part of government through the provision of staff training, capacity building for school owners, and continued awareness campaign.

According to the programme, clamping down on the low-cost private schools will not only aggravate the socio-economic challenges facing the state, but will also increase the spate of violence in the society. This is exactly the style being adopted by the Quality Assurance Department, which claimed to have sought the collaborations of individuals and key stakeholders in the education sector including AFED, the Association of Private Educators of Nigeria (APEN) and the National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS).

According to Mrs. Soyombo, the state recognises the impacts of private schools, especially those in the rural communities, and will do everything right to cater for them. She said: “Today, we are at the awareness stage. And for those who are afraid of multiple taxation, this office is directly in charge of registration of schools, and that no school proprietor should pay any money to anyone else.

“The state operates a single account now, which is domiciled in Skye Bank Plc. So, those school owners who said they obtained registration forms at Fidelity Bank Plc should realize that there is nothing like that. We are ready to work with everyone to achieve success in the regulation of the state’s school system.”