I can empathize with the family of Oromoni whose son, Sylvester, was reportedly beaten to death by senior students of Dowen College, Lekki, in Lagos State. My son survived a similar fate; he was nearly killed by seniors at Government Secondary School, Piakasa, in Abuja. The Piakasa senior secondary school, relocated to the highbrow Maitama area of Abuja, is a special science school owned by the FCT Administration.
Although my boy had a senior who “protected” him in the school, he apparently annoyed his seniors by his cultured manners and by a deep baritone that captivates in discussions and also in singing, one of his hobbies. Prior to Piakasa, he graduated from some of the best and most expensive private schools in Abuja. On hindsight, it was an unwise decision to enroll him in the special science school. At the point of decision, however, I thought I was killing two birds with one stone – immersing him in a reputed public science school where he would be “toughened up” for life in the real world.
The experiment was a spectacular failure on both counts. And we nearly paid dearly for it too.
The jealous seniors managed to lure our son away from his protector one day and, after giving him the beating of his life, they kicked his ribs in for good measure. We were invited to whisk him away and to a hospital where doctors managed to bring him back to life and repair his limb. Just as swiftly, he was taken away from the school and re-registered at another private school where he remained a day student until he finished high school.
The decision to make our boy a day student is the reason that I look beyond the foul play at Dowen School, Lekki, and the foolish attempts to paper over the rot that has eaten deep into the training of our children at the basic education level – from primary to junior high school. This rot is endemic and pervasive; it does not discriminate in boarding life between public and private schools. And the problem is squarely located in the entire process of character training for our high school students in Nigeria.
We know how this began – when policymakers decided to take away parochial schools from religious proprietors to manage as public schools. Or rather, to mismanage as public schools. The mismanagement led to the decay of learning that encouraged the mushrooming of private schools for parents that could afford them.
Private schools are a lifesaver and I should know. However, the only problem that it has, and the reason for the tragedy in places like Dowen College, Lekki, is not that they are run strictly as business enterprises with profit as the primary motive. The problem as I see it is the mindset of proprietors to shield their schools from parental intervention, the ignorance of most parents, compounded by misguided collusion of parents who are or want to make friends with the proprietors, and almost criminal neglect by policymaking of the rights of Nigerian children who live in sheltered environments outside their parents’ homes.
Let’s interrogate these three issues.
To begin, however, it is important that we understand how this problem is inadvertently and ignorantly promoted and sustained by the three parties – proprietors, parents and government. The problem is the boarding school setting, which constitutes a clear and present danger to the well-being of children that are annually deposited therein by excited and proud parents.
Each time I look at my diploma certificate, it says I satisfied the school “in character and learning” for which I merited the promotion to a graduate. In every school, character formation and learning are imparted by qualified teachers. However, after their classroom exertions, these highly qualified teachers then leave while boarding students are handed over to a motley of hard pressed and poor care-givers, the hall masters, gardeners, cleaners and cooks. Most of them are appointed with an eye on ensuring that they are paid as little as possible to boost the after-tax profit of the school owner. In highly priced private schools, they walk on eggshells among children of the influential and famous.
The biggest challenge of public and private boarding schools right now is, therefore, the management of after-class care in boarding schools. This is not a recent challenge, it was there but muted from the very beginning. The difference today is that, in the colonial and immediate post-colonial eras, school proprietors lived very close to the students and within the four walls. Being on the ground enabled them to get information quickly and to decisively intervene when abnormal tendencies reared their heads. There is today a huge gap in close and constant supervision of after-class care, which cannot be closed by hard-pressed, underpaid and overworked minders. Inevitably, enforcement of the rules of after-class conduct devolves to only senior students who are expected to fill the gap, having been weaned in the school culture.
The point, however, is this: What if the after-class culture is one that is developed, enforced and sustained over the years by seniors? What if this becomes the “school culture,” which we now know as being barbaric and punitive in practice, designed to perpetuate constant harassment and intimidation of junior students right from the onboarding process?
This is the position that we find ourselves today. Student cults become mere icing on the cake, a natural progression from the “creative” ways that seniors sustain the culture of bullying and intimidation. The Nigerian boarding school environment has become ungoverned spaces to which proprietors, parents and policymakers pay lip service. It is now a space that after-class minders neither have the courage (because of low pay and low self-esteem) nor the authority to enforce discipline.
School proprietors know that their boarding facilities have the potential to become ungoverned spaces. Rather than invite parents into a partnership that effectively manages their wards and creates safe learning environments for junior and vulnerable students, they continue to fend off parents and to unilaterally manage as best as they can.
The result is that, each year, we churn out quite a good number of malformed youths into society. As it is, a few of the products will go on to dig up successes from the business underworld. Some will take to the social media to mock those who applied themselves to learning, character development and ethics. And in many places, our society hails them as they attempt to make up for character and mental deficiencies with wild displays of their ill-gotten wealth.
In their school days, each set of malcontents attempts to outdo the set before them, upgrading the oppressive culture that they have inherited. Profit-facing proprietors know what is happening, but they also know that the key to more wealth is brushing the mess under the rug and taking in more students to swell their bank balances. The proprietors do their best to manage the dysfunctional system that they allowed to germinate and grow – rather than use every such manifestation to launch reforms that are beneficial to students’ physical and mental development – and overall health of society.
There is one more thing that private- and public-school proprietors mostly ignore. Experts speak of the three skills that combine to create holistic development of a child – cognitive, affective and psychomotor skills.
Cognitive skills are reasoning and mental development skills that enable a child to understand and remember what is taught in the classroom. Proprietors, most of whom are not professional educators, focus on this aspect of child development as they are promoted from class to class.
Affective skills improve emotional wellbeing of the child. Teachers are expected to impart and promote virtues and principles that activate emotional balance in their students. However, it remains a matter of speculation what is being taught and how much of it is followed up in practice at the boarding environment.
Psychomotor skills enable a child to put into practical use or demonstration the things she learns in the classroom. It can be as simple as breaking down concepts into an infographic that simply explains or deepens complex concepts. Or building prototypes from a theoretical explanation. A child trained to develop and apply psychomotor skills finds it easy to compete in every endeavor, athletics, maintenance of equipment and appliances, building prototypes, catering, fashion skills and so much more.
The current WASCE syllabus lists tens of odd skills that students are expected to select from, master and pass in the regional examination. The number of such subjects offered by students each year in a school becomes a function of how well the school encourages psychomotor skills among students. It is a fact that most schools neither have the training manpower, the facilities nor the interest to develop psychomotor skills. It is a shame because this could have easily displaced the time and interest that malformed senior students invest in bullying or cult activities.
School proprietors are clearly part of the problem. At the end of the day, I doubt that they can change the system by themselves. They have neither the facilities nor manpower to do so because they are so focused on maximizing profit. And they do not have the interest because this does not impact their bottom-line, which is what, unfortunately, counts in most private school business in our country.
The solution must, therefore, become the responsibility of parents and governments at various tiers. And it is to them that we shall turn next.