By Adesegun Ogundeji
THE involvement of young school children in the recent ‘Ita Faji’ building collapse has understandably elicited widespread public comments in many quarters. Naturally, blames have equally been fairly apportioned in some cases. The avoidable tragedy is regrettable and our hearts genuinely go out to all victims of the sad episode. We commiserate with the family of the deceased and wish those recuperating speedy recovery.
It is common knowledge that the challenges in the management of private schools in Lagos State are enormous and hydra-headed and the state government has been tackling them technically and systematically. Considering the population of school-age children in the state, studies have shown that the 1,010 public primary schools and the 670 public senior secondary schools in the state are not sufficient to provide access to the kind of quality education that the state government envisioned.
At the inception of the current administration, under the guidance of the Deputy Governor, Dr. Idiat Oluranti Adebule, who also superintends the education sector, a Need Assessment of Public schools was conducted. This led to the discovery that the sum of N69 billion was required to fix the public schools in the state. In view of the enormity of fund required, it was decided that it is logical that the intervention is done in phases.
Given this scenario, government sees private sector operators as partners in progress. Hence, it reviewed previous tactics deployed to regulate the proliferation of private schools in the state by previous administrations. It, therefore, resolved to interface more closely with education service providers in the state. Based on this, government decided to regulate, advise, educate and enlighten the operators on the benefits of voluntary compliance with regulations, the need to raise standards and deliver quality education.
Additionally, the three decades old Education Policy of the State was reviewed by the current administration towards improving education service delivery while issues bordering on private schools operation were equally extensively dealt with in the policy. This is to ensure that the state operates a contemporary education policy that is also in tandem with global best practices.
Subsequently, interactive sessions were held with stakeholders while guidelines for registration hitherto shrouded in secrecy was published and made public. The process of registration was made less strenuous and seamless; transaction became more transparent and rackets of extortion broken.
It is to the credit of the current administration that the Private Schools and Special Programme Department was separated from the Quality Assurance Directorate. This was to ensure transparency, introduce checks and balances; reduce corruption, extortion, indiscipline, recklessness and impunity.
In order to ensure seamless interaction between the state government and private schools operators, proprietors of Private schools were encouraged to organise themselves into associations which government now relates with regularly, apart from the quarterly stakeholders meeting it holds with them. To further encourage and empower them, the associations were introduced to the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund to enable them access soft loans to improve their facilities and enhance quality of service.
It is important, at this point, to stress that the guidelines on the establishment of private schools in the state is not by any means cumbersome. The first step is to go for name search in order to ensure that there is no identity clash amongst schools already operating in the State. This is followed by site inspection which was designed to advise and guide intending proprietor on what to put in place to meet the approval criteria. The approval inspection is conducted to ascertain that the conditions for registration have been complied with.
It has always been the policy of the current administration to ensure that this process is not in any way compromised. As a result of the level of interaction between government and proprietors, most of them were encouraged not only to register their schools, but to also ensure that they embrace best practices at all times. Consequently, the current administration has registered more private schools since its inception. For instance, of the 5,302 schools so far registered in the State, 1574 (representing 30%) were registered under this administration without compromising standards.
It is, however, imperative to emphasize that this figure does not include the over 6000 applications that are at varying stages of approval process. In order to ensure that the process is flawless and less complex, the state government recently recruited 122 Education Officers who are now involved in monitoring and evaluation. The major goal is to ensure wide and effective coverage.
With this, monitoring and evaluation becomes easier and some schools found to be operating under unacceptable conditions were shut down. But then, it must be stressed that government is not favorably disposed to schools closure in a country with alarming rate of out-of-school children and unemployment as it does not want to add to that figure. It will be recalled that, in times past, closure of schools had elicited huge public outcry.
Through constant monitoring and evaluation, many schools have been sanctioned for sharp practices such as examination malpractice. Consequently, it needs to be stated that such practices have greatly reduced, given the many measures that were introduced.
In a nutshell, the state government has been preoccupied with reforming and managing private sector participation in the education sector. It is, therefore, the conviction of the current administration that its good vision and legacies in the sector would be sustained, and even surpassed, by the in-coming administration of Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who incidentally is also quite passionate about education.
On a final note, Dr. Adebule captures the gains of the current administration in the education in the following words: “The government has ensured that overzealous personnel no longer use the instrument of office to extort members of the public to satisfy their greed. I have no regret in ensuring this and I will strive to preserve this legacy until my last day in office”.
*Ogundeji is Deputy Director, Public Affairs, Ministry of Education, Alausa, Ikeja.