Social injustices in Nigerian secondary schools and implications for education reform
By Chizoba Imoka
Whenever intense discussions about reforming Nigeria’s education system emerges in the public square or policy corridors, they are usually triggered by the release of yet another (!) poor WAEC/Jamb exam results. If you think further, you will see that these discussions are perpetually led by adults and fueled by their ‘21st century’ economic aspirations for Nigerian children. Implicit in these reform narratives (see:1969 curriculum conference,Ezekwesili, 2006 comprehensive reform plans, and the Unified private school examination amongst other) are some faulty assumptions. Firstly, that the success of students as well as the effectiveness of the education system should be determined by student performance in examinations. Therefore, the more we test and examine students, the smarter they will become. Secondly, adults are the experts – they know it all and best. On the other hand, secondary school students are mere recipients of knowledge and their lived experiences/identities have no role in the classroom or on how they experience schooling.
Consequently, students’ views do not have a central place in the education reform process. Thirdly, that Nigeria is a “post-colonial” society and schools are neutral spaces that do not absorb the unjust social relations and histories that occur in the broader society. But, how valid are these assumptions? What can the experiences of young Nigerians tell us about what needs to change in the Nigerian education system?
Preliminary findings from my ongoing doctoral research project shows the need to include student experiences and views in efforts aimed at making Nigeria’s education system culturally responsive, just and inclusive for all. Based on the responses from 1500+student survey entries and interviews with ten students from private and public Nigerian secondary schools, it is clear that student-learning and schooling experiences are heavily influenced by their social class, ethnicity and the stereotypes associated with their ethnic groups. There appears to be blatant discrimination against certain students by teachers, bullying between students and emotional abuse by school authorities especially when it comes to student grades. There is also a lot of variation in teaching and in some high cost private schools, the Nigerian curriculum seems to be reinterpreted to suit the agenda of the private school’s while absorbing the power dynamics of the local community. Below are some highlights:
1) Almost every student that filled out my questionnaire has said that they were severely punished (some were sent to detention!) or made to pay a fine when they spoke their indigenous languages in school. English was the superior language.
2) A self- identified “Hausa-Fulani” female student that I interviewed talked about the predominant perception in her Federal government school which suggested that Hausa students are not smart while the Igbos are deemed to be smart. So, whenever she/any Hausa girl puts her hands up in class to answer a question, the teacher skips them and goes for the Igbo girl. When she gives a “chorus” answer (screams out the answer) even when the Igbo student fails the question, she was punished. She talked about how this became a self-fulfilling prophecy amongst Hausa girls… their teachers did not expect more from them, so they did not bother.
3) The Igbo girl that I interviewed attended a high cost Catholic private school in eastern Nigeria – she talked about how she was taught in an insular way, as if the best identity one could be is Catholic and Igbo. So, students who were not Igbo felt excluded in the school. Even though you are not Catholic, you were forced to do all the Catholic norms.
4) Two students I interviewed were from Kogi and Akwa Ibom. They attended high cost private schools in Abuja and they talked about the intense bullying non-Hausa’s experienced in school. They talked about how “cliquey” the Hausa students were in their school and how they always spoke Hausa and out rightly tried to castigate anyone they thought was Igbo or simply not Hausa. To belong was to speak Hausa. Even the teachers spoke Hausa to the students but the male participant said when he tried to speak his indigenous language with his brother, he was shunned. The girl shared an experience where a Hausa classmate came to her to tell her that she hated Igbos, thinking she was Igbo… but she is Igala, and from Kogi state. I asked why they didn’t report these issues, they said teachers/administration ignored these issues simply because of who they thought their parents were or trivialized it as student banter. The participant from Akwa Ibom said that things got out of hand in his school that a bloody fight broke out after exams between non-Hausa’s vs. Hausas.
5) My participant who is from Akwa Ibom shared that a teacher said something very offensive about Akwa Ibom people. He reported to the principal and the teacher got fired. But he believes that the teacher got fired simply because of who they thought his father was.
6) One of my participants went to a Foreign (e.g: Chinese, Turkish, Japanese) Nigerian secondary school – she talked about how they were mandated to learn the foreign language (not English or French, e.g. Chinese, Turkish, Japanese) till SS2 but questioned why Nigerian languages were stopped at JSS2. She says that they also had to sing the anthem of the country every day.
7) My last two interviewees were neither Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba – even though Nigerian languages was offered, none of theirs was an option. The female participant said she felt like another line in the school’s balance sheet.
These is so much to say about these experiences, but, what is clear is that our schools are a microcosm of the Nigerian society. The ethnic divisions that play out in broader society are alive and well in our schools and amongst our teenagers. Interviewing students in a way that affirmed their numerous social identities (ethnic, religious, social class), talents and personal aspirations revealed these ethnic tensions. From these student experiences, it is also clear that our schools are not politically neutral.They are in fact social sites where social inequalities and unjust social relations are reproduced, consolidated and sustained. But this doesn’t have to be so. Schools could also be sites for students to be equipped with the knowledge they require to disrupt the social inequalities and unjust social relations in our society.
So, in thinking about how to change the Nigerian education system, not only do we need to solicit the views of students, we must put students at the center of the discussion. In doing so, we must look at students as whole and complex beings with multiple identities (ethnic, religious, economic, political, etc) that shape how they learn, engage and succeed/ fail in school. Consequently, all these identities must be honored, engaged and negotiated with in the process of facilitating student development. Just as important, we must uphold the symbiotic relationship between our students, schools and the society at large. Schools do not operate in a social silo. Students don’t stop being who they are in the broader society once they enter schools.
Therefore, in thinking about changing our education system, we must also think about changing our society at large. If some students report feeling excluded and punished simply because they are not from a “major” ethnic group or hold unique beliefs or come from a less affluent families, this is selective discrimination and it is what it is – unjust! We musttackle it head on, defend all children and ask urgent philosophical questions of ourselves: what needs to change in the way Nigerian citizenship is currently defined and operationalized to ensure that students who are not Ibo, Yoruba or Hausa still feel just as important in the classroom/school curriculum?Of course, this is an ongoing question that overflows into broader national conversation about federalism and the need for Nigeria to in practice, pursue a multicultural national framework based on equity, justice and inclusion for all.
In the interim, a lot can be done at the policy, civil society and school level. Curriculum wise, we must identify specific content that needs be included in the curriculum to ensure our children learn to honour themselves as evolving complex yet holistic beings, their cultural heritage and fulfil their existential responsibility of incorporating the noble aspirations/struggles of their ancestors into their human endeavours while enriching the world through their unique cultural root.
Our curriculum must also help students learn about shared histories between ethnic groups and appreciate the value of diversity. Doing this goes beyond the sad situation we currently see in schools where our indigenous knowledge systems and heritage are relegated to a few “cultural days” and simplified to the showcase of food, dance and clothes that are mostly imported from China! At the very least, we must develop a mandatory decolonial course that seeks to unify secondary students through their indigenous and national histories to interrogate these perceptions students/teachers have about each other, show what we have in common while affirming each other’s rights to be different.
Many innovative approaches can be considered in teaching such a course – providing an environment in which students from different ethnic groups work on critical projects together and learn about each other’s history and heritage in the process; encourage projects where students can create a theme song/anthem with a new language – this new language could be an amalgamation of different languages/histories/aspirations; encouraging students to share experiences of inclusion/exclusion and privilege both in school and outside of school; bringing in elders (especially from the “minor” (this word needs to be scrapped from our national lingo!) ethnic groups) into the classroom to share their experiences, exposing students to videos/literature that reveals pre-colonial trade/social linkages between African communities and how these linkages were critical in securing independence victory across the continent.
Such a course will only thrive within a broader schooling context and society that centres justice, honours every student as an equal cultural being and draws from their diverse knowledge systems/experiences to teach mainstream subjects and reinvent our reality.
The student accounts of being punished and some detained for speaking their indigenous language in school brings to the fore the decolonizing and anti-colonial imperative of educational change in Nigeria. It is about time that we re-negotiate our relationship with English language. The paradox with our obsession with English is our collective immunity to the dehumanization associated with the language. Interestingly, no matter our high we go in Western education or how polished our English is, as Black people, we will never be “English” enough for the White person.
For example, in Canada, a handful of white Canadians have expressed sincere amazement at the quality of my English. Upon hearing me speak, they ask: “How come you speak such good English?” Yet, I have spoken English my entire life as if it were my mother tongue! I am not even fluent in my indigenous language, Igor. When you are even accepted as a good English speaker, your accent is called into question! They say, “you speak too fast”, “you don’t enunciate well”. But in our globally diverse English world, whose English is the yard stick of perfect enunciation and accents? Even after we all go to school in Nigeria in English and go ahead to London or America to obtain a Masters’ degree, as a Nigerian citizen that wants to do a doctorate, you must still show proof of English by paying to write a test!
To an extent, this is bewilderment with my competence in English is understandable. The White person that asks such a question rightfully acknowledges that I am culturally different from them. Although, she/he may also associate English with intelligence, an attribute that a racist mind assumes is absent in non-Whites. So, why are Nigerian schools and parents not educating children not to be able to fully substantiate their cultural difference – through language, stories,self-knowledge, et? Instead, we are taught to be English/western imposters with experiences and aspirations like the English.
As a nation, it is self-destructive and intellectually lazy for us to imagine that the only way we can survive as a unified country is to position a foreign language, English, superior to our indigenous languages and experiences. I understand and appreciate the convenience associated with English language serving as a unifier. But this doesn’t warrant that our indigenous languages be regarded as vernacular and students being punished for speaking their indigenous language.
Lastly, no one can over emphasize the role of parents/homes in laying the foundation and setting the expectation for what it means to be a successful child in a racist world such as the one we live in. Sadly, poverty and unreasonable work hours in Nigeria is drawing parents apart from their children and in more cases now, breaking families apart. Nevertheless, Nigerian parents need a decolonization, social justice and healing retreat. In the quest to make their children “globally competitive”, affluent parents especially demand all sorts of divisive and colonizing experiences in private schools.
But as many young students who eventually go abroad to study will tell you, the KKK and racist class mates/bus drivers care less about who your parents are or the side of Lagos you lived-in or the secondary school you attended, all that matters is that you are Black and your ancestors are slaves! Indeed, racism no dey look Black man face. Whatever change that can happen in our schools and society at large owe a great deal to the role our parents play in modelling what is important and the environment that is made available to children at home and beyond. PTA’s must be retooled to deal with these issues and help parents teach their kids better and demand that their schools open the minds of their children. And to say the least, teacher training must be REVAMPED!! But this one is a discussion for another day!
Chizoba Imoka is a PhD candidate in Educational Policy & Leadership at Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She is also the CEO of Unveiling Africa, a non-profit that provides a platform for Nigerian teenagers to participate in community mobilization, civic and political advocacy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org