The Nigerian Boarding School and its enemies – By Femi Olugbile
A few days ago, Queens School, Ibadan performed the opening of a multipurpose hall dedicated to the memory of one of the school’s illustrious alumni, Dr Ameyo Adadevoh. This was a lady who literally stood between the people of Lagos and a threatened epidemic of Ebola virus. It seemed only a few short months ago that the alumni of the school, led by the indefatigable amazon of Nigerian Psychiatry, Dr Taiwo Adamson, held a gala event in Lagos to raise funds for the project. At the event, current students were conspicuously present, looking immaculate in their uniforms, and all looking as if they were already dreaming of becoming future Ameyo Adadevohs.
It was easy to assume that the students were enjoying the same culture of civic grooming and world-class education that those before them had thrived on. Unfortunately, that was not exactly the case.
And it is still not the case either for the tier of schools that might be considered the equivalent of the so-called ‘Public Schools’ of England. The reference here is to schools such as Government College Ibadan, Government College Ughelli, Kings College, Lagos and the like.
The recent drama surrounding the efforts to rebuild Government College, Ibadan to its old glory is illustrative of the issues experienced by this class of schools in Nigeria. They are elite schools of merit, not free, but accessible to the children of the poor and the rich, because the fees are deliberately pitched at a low level. Government College, Ibadan, for example, was owned by the government of Western Region. Enrollment was through highly competitive entrance examinations undertaken across the nation. You can recollect that in your class, in the school, there were children, not just from the Western Region, but from the East and the other regions of the country.
Those years in boarding school in Ibadan were among the most impactful years of your life to date.
In 1979, the ‘progressive’ UPN government that held currency in Ibadan and in Lagos decided to take Education to the grassroots. The best schools, including Mission Schools, were taken from their owners. Their enrollment numbers were massively increased. New schools were built on the football fields of some. Education, such as it was, was made free for all.
The people at the helm, Bola Ige – ‘the Cicero of Esa Oke, and Lateef Jakande – ‘Baba Kekere’, were your ideological heroes then, as they still are now. But they were wrong. They were levelling down, rather than levelling up. Where they should have been pushing for new schools to come up to the standards of the old ‘centres of excellence’, they seemed to take a perverse pleasure in tearing down the pretensions of the ‘big name’ schools, in many cases abolishing their boarding houses.
High-flying young children, rich and poor, that should be nutured as the outliers and cream of their generation are ruing the fallout of that policy move to this day.
Many private schools have tried to step into the breach by building elaborate facilities and offering ‘British’ or ‘American’ education. Apart from bearing names that can be seen as an expression of a sad inferiority- complex and lack of self-esteem, the fees of many of these schools are way beyond the reach of the children of the poor. Despite that, the experience they offer cannot be compared with what those good government schools offered in their heyday. But at least they are there.
Alumni Associations, driven by a passion to give back, are stepping in to try to give the students of today some of what they enjoyed for a pittance in the days of yore. The Alumni of Government College, Ibadan have spent billions of naira trying to revive their boarding house system and recreate the civilized ambience in their old school. They have even signed an agreement to take over the management of the school for a period. Strangely, they are meeting resistance, because some pressure groups in Ibadan worry they are trying to ‘buy’ the school and take away the government’s promise of ‘free education’. It is a sad development.
In Lagos, the problem is of a different complexion. Government is an overweening regulator with a proclivity for knee-jerk reactions. Children of one private boarding school that is part of a chain were filmed in sexual shenanigans while on a foreign group trip. The regulator shut down all the schools in the chain ‘indefinitely’. The ridiculous decision was rescinded after a few days, even as investigations proceeded apace find out what went wrong, punish the culprits, and try to prevent a recurrence. There is another school that has been under lock and key for several months, after the sad death of a student. The social media were awash with lurid stories of wrongdoing. The government, in tandem with public sentiment, shut the school down, its body language showing that it believed the sensational stories. Prominent citizens and non-state players got into the fray. Eventually the nation’s prime centre for forensic pathology carried out a postmortem examination and pronounced the cause of death.
The truth, when it emerged, was inconvenient. The government could not find the spine to retrace its steps. Even a coroner’s sitting, normally a sober medico-legal exercise lasting a day or two, focused exclusively on hard pathological evidence, became theatre, with adjournments and legal pyrotechnics.
The question remains – why was the school closed in the first place? Why could investigations not have gone on, even as other children continued in their school? Leadership, afterall, is not holding a wet finger aloft to determine the direction in which the wind of public sentiment is blowing. It is, as Bill Clinton showed in returning a Cuban boy to his parents in Cuba in the teeth of public opposition, calmly doing the right thing, irrespective.
Hopefully the Boarding School system in Nigeria will survive its present travails and continue to be a builder of future possibilities. The old schools will return to glory, and new excellent, affordable ones will join them. Perhaps.