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Poverty eradication, new educational orientation & school for life

By Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa

On December 9 this year, I was at the Gregory University Uturu, GUU, Abia State at the second Convocation Ceremony of the young tertiary institution. I listened to several academic speeches but was thoroughly impressed by the Convocation lecture delivered by His Excellency Edward D. Singhatey, Vice-President of the ECOWAS Commission.

His speech on “Poverty eradication through capacity building and socio-economic empowerment” resonated so much with me, perhaps because this has become my life’s work. In our foundation- SOFEE, and much of the other work we do, our primary focus is on economic empowerment based on capability and capacity enhancement.

But whereas our interventions have been focused mainly at post-formal education points- young graduates, young businessmen and entrepreneurs or those transiting from paid employment to self-employment, Singhatey seems to propose a more radical approach to dealing with this issue. Read him: ”We fervently believe that what students in impoverished regions need are not more academic skills, but rather Life Skills that enable them improve their financial prospects and well being. These include financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills; health maintenance and management skills; and administrative capabilities, such as teamwork, problem solving and project management”. In other words, if we truly want to eradicate poverty in Africa, then the interventions have to begin at primary and secondary school levels and proceed through the universities and polytechnics. To buttress his point, he quoted a UNESCO 2015 statistics that showed, for example, that Niger Republic was second among the top 10 performers on primary school enrollment in Africa, yet Niger remains one of the poorest countries in Africa.

Ambassador Singhatey went further to assert thus: ”Emphasis should shift the goal of schooling from the strict achievement of standard learning outcomes, but towards making a positive impact on the  economic and social-well being of students and their communities. This model requires significant change in content and pedagogy”. This model he code-named “school for life”. He recommends that entrepreneurship and health modules should be mandatory curriculum at every level of education and then that student- centered learning methods should be used that require students to work in groups to solve complex problems and manage projects on their own, so that they can build important life skills.

To support this proposition for a rethink of our educational orientation which is not entirely novel, but which has not gotten enough traction in much of Africa, he quoted a few educational philosophers. Two excite me. Paulo Freire said: ”There is no such thing as neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world”. Today in Africa, much of our education is to achieve conformity to the existing system, not to liberate the people to transform their world. Little wonder we have a growing army of the unemployed educated.

Marc J. Epstein, a distinguished research professor of Management at Rice University, working together with Kristi Yuthas, a Swigert Endowed information systems management Chair at Portland State University pointed out: “For too long, governments and organisations investing in developing world education have operated under the unquestioned assumption that improved test scores were clear evidence that their investments have paid off. But if as we argue here, mastery of the basic primary school curriculum is not the best means for improving life chances and alleviating poverty in developing countries, that model is broken. Investing in interventions that produce the highest test scores is no longer a valid approach for allocating scarce educational dollars or the scarce time available for the development of young minds. It is time to seek out the interventions that lead to the greatest social and economic impact for the poor”.

I cannot help but agree with Ambassador Singathey, Freire, Epstein and Yuthas that we need to rethink education delivery in Africa. For example, it is true that the traditional definition of school quality in the developing world is based on content mastery. But we agree that using traditional schooling approaches during the few precious years most children will spend in schools leads to wasted resources and forgone opportunities for many individuals and communities. Therefore, governmental agencies and organisations that support and promote quality education for all children must move beyond traditional models to help children develop knowledge, skills and attitudes that are relevant to their lives and that can lift them out of poverty.

Ambassador Singathey concluded his wonderful speech with this: ”I also know that one private university, on whose ground I stand- the Gregory University Uturu, is graduating scholars who are sufficiently grounded in ethics and entrepreneurship. Thank God for a newer beginning and a grand shinning light and academic showing”. And to that, I say Amen! While I add my prayer that the agencies of government in Nigeria responsible for education and other private educational institutions must rethink our educational orientation and begin to teach life skills to all students at the earliest opportunity. This is the call for this season. I know that something is being done at the tertiary level today but the call is to make this ‘ school of life’ a cradle to the grave orientation that will ensure that many are quickly empowered at the earliest opportunity to be job and wealth creators. That is the paradigm that will help break the poverty cycle in most of Africa.

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