By Sotonye Ijuye-Dagogo
As a former Chief Education Officer in the Rivers State Ministry of Education, I am fully inclined to support Governor Nyesom Wike in the abrogation of fees and levies in public primarily and secondary schools in Rivers State.
I notice that Governor Wike is trying very hard to turn over a new leaf since his second coming, trying to rebrand himself, away from the predominantly violent personality that characterized his turbulent first tenure. The governor is struggling to bequeath a worthy legacy, having wasted his first term on politics, unable to accomplish something that can stand the test of time.
Last Monday, June 25, 2019, Governor Nyesom Wike announced the outright abolition of payment of school fees in primary and secondary schools in Rivers State, the treasure base of Nigeria.
The governor's pronouncement came as a surprise to a segment of society that had all along assumed that tuitions at those levels of education have been free since the administration of Dr. Peter Odili in 1999-2007. Notwithstanding, that directive by Gov. Wike was a pleasant one.
The governor issued the executive order abolishing tuition fees and levies in a meeting with heads of primary and secondary schools at the Government House. He made it abundantly clear that he was not only abolishing tuition at the primary and secondary school levels but he had also outlawed all manner of levies, warning that dire consequences, which include dismissal and prosecution, await defaulters.
I support the governor on this laudable policy and encourage him to go beyond abolishing fees/levies and declare full scale Free Education at those levels by introducing free textbooks, free uniforms, free school buses and free meals. The government should also introduce afternoon schools for children that can't attend normal schools. Gov. Wike should complete those Amaechi's model secondary schools that are littered all over the state and convert them to schools of Basic Studies (remedial schools) for the benefit of students who need to make up for deficiencies.
Nothing can engrave Governor Wike's footprints on the sand of time more than a huge investment in education which is the surest way to guarantee the future of Rivers State and the long-term solution to the current scourge of insecurity.
The crucial link between education and security was succinctly made by one of the brightest minds in our polity, Chief Dumo Lulu-Briggs when he recently fielded questions from newsmen on the lingering insecurity in Rivers State.
Chief Dumo Lulu-Briggs said that "the root cause of this social malaise, this youth restiveness, this violence, is the societal dislocation engendered by the lack of adequate educational opportunities for our children and the ravaging unemployment of our youths".
The 2019 Rivers State Governorship candidate of Accord lamented that "from Akuku-Toru, Bonny and Andoni; from Eleme, Khana, Obio/Akpor and Emohua, gory stories of violent killings have put Rivers State in the news for all the wrong reasons. The media are awash with stories of scores of people killed in bizarre circumstances in Abonnema, Alakahia, Choba, Rumuohia, Rumuche, Rumuodahia, Mgbuodahia, Kaani, Port Harcourt, Aluu etc.
"Residents are fleeing their homes and communities, abandoning their farms and businesses, which are impacting negatively on the economic and social activities of an already overburdened populace".
Proffering solutions, Dumo Lulu-Briggs said that "while I implore all the youths involved in these killings to cease hostilities and embrace peace, I strongly encourage the Rivers State government to concentrate on creating jobs and creating the environment for businesses to thrive and ensuring that our children between the ages of 6-22 are preoccupied in school at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels".
Expectedly, the proclamation of abolition of school fees and levies in public primarily and secondary schools by Governor Nyesom Wike has elicited criticism from those who think that the governor is only playing to the gallery.
The President of the Initiative for Transparent Strategy and Good Leadership, Barr. Chizi Enyi dismissed Gov. Wike's proclamation as a mere ploy to score cheap political points, saying that Rivers State indigenes have been enjoying "Free Education" since it was declared by former Governor Peter Odili in 1999 and consolidated upon by former Governor Rotimi Amaechi up until 2015 when Gov. Wike abandoned the free education policy of the Rivers State Government.
Chizi Enyi said that "Gov. Wike has been governor for the past four years and this is his second term and he is coming to introduce free education. Free education is already known to Rivers people because Odili declared free education and all through Amaechi's eight-year tenure there was free education and Wike came and abandoned free education in the past four years and now he is coming to reintroduce it. So why should Rivers people be happy? They should be happy that he is bringing a new thing or what?"
My take on Barr. Enyi's criticism is that, Governors Odili and Amaechi may have proclaimed free primary and secondary education but it is obvious that the policy impacted only minimally on Rivers people. High cost of education has remained a major financial yoke on parents and guardians in the state.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. Governor Wike should be informed that the main reason for the lack of success in government's free education policy is not really about illegal fees and levies, which are evil, but the huge government investments in education that have failed to transformed public education system to earn public confidence. This failure has compelled parents to patronize expensive private schools thereby defeating the purpose of the free education policy, which is to reduce the financial burden on parents/guardians, enhance school enrollment and abolish illiteracy.
As it stands, only the extremely deprived in society subject their children/wards to the abuse of government schools. There are hundreds of thousands of such deprived families whose children/wards may never have good education because their poor financial situation condemns them to the ineffectiveness of public schools. Even now, mushroom schools are springing up everywhere and unfortunately, many poor parents prefer these so-called schools to public schools. Private schools that were once attended only by house helps and the poor are now social symbols of affluence attracting unbelievable fees.
The emergence of private schools is not a bad development only if they were to provide better services and competition alongside well-managed public schools and not to thrive only because public schools are dead and dying.
The major strategy to drastically reduce the very high cost of education on parents/guardians is not only to abolish fees and levies but to make public schools regain the confidence of the public so that both the rich and poor would readily patronize them.
To achieve this, the Rivers State education delivery system must be restructured to make public schools function again as they did until the mid1980s. As it stands, the system suffers from structural and administrative problems. It is a system that guzzles billions of public money but produces illiterates, examination cheats and cultists.
Again, as a former Chief Education Officer, I know that teachers in public schools are better trained and earn more than their private schools' counterparts, yet serious learning does not take place in these public schools. Teachers in government schools have better job security yet their students are not as good as those of private schools. Certainly, something is wrong.
The abolishing of fees and levies in public primarily and secondary schools by Governor Nyesom Wike is in the right direction and should be applauded. The no fees/levies policy would no doubt bring relief to many poor homes and improve school enrollment in the state.
But the real impact of free education can only be achieved through administrative restructuring and effective management that would ensure discipline in the school system, efficient inspectorate, teachers' registration and licensing, respect for seniority and competence in the appointment of principals and heads of schools, incentives for teachers in rural areas, students' registration etc.
Governor Wike is encouraged not to only make education affordable but also accessible and reliable. It should be free and qualitative.