By Gabriel Ojesekhoba
IN 1973, whilst in Primary 6, I sat for and passed my National Common Entrance Examination in flying colours. My performance eventually opened the doors to admission offers from St. Gregory’s in Lagos, Edo College in Benin and a school with a rather long bureaucratic name: Federal Government College, Ilorin, or FGCI for short. I had never heard about it, and thought that it was certainly not a “cool” place.
After my first visit to FGCI, with its unattractive, untarred roads and single level, bungalow-like structures, I was determined to go to one of the schools, not this backwater, village school! In reaching this resolution, I had miscalculated badly. I had underestimated my father’s insight and resolve, with regards to where I would get my secondary education!
There were arguments and counter positions taken, but my father’s decision prevailed. With no leave to negotiate, I was despatched off to FGCI, unhappy and pretty much against my will! Since I could not get my choice, I complied with the directive from my dad.
My eye-opening rite of passage had inadvertently commenced. I was to thank my father many years later for piloting me to this Unity School. At FGCI, we had a Merit-based System. I soon found out that this overriding principle which was put in place by the Federal Ministry of Education, and supervised by our amiable, fair and firm principal, Chief A. B. Olaniyan, was like an umbrella over every facet of life at FGCI. It governed practically everything we did. From academics to hostel life. From social interactions to sports, and so on. You had to earn your place and the respect of your peers. This was the case from entry to exit at FGCI, long before Performance-based Indices became the rave in the Nigerian work space.
Thus, after gaining admission into FGCI through the Merit-based System, it continued to moderate my daily engagement. We were placed randomly in different classroom arms, comprised of Forms 1A to 1D. A level playing field ensued, with all fresh students in each class offered the best that was available, by way of tuition, care and mentoring.
At the end of each year, students were ranked and the best-performing set were placed in the A Class, with the next set in the B Class, and so on, until the last set were located in the D Class. This was to become our experience throughout the 5 memorable years I spent there to secure my West African School Certificate (WASC). Through dint of hard work, the Merit-based System placed me in Class 3A, and I worked hard to ensure I remained in the A Class until I graduated, because it was undesirable to move from the A Class to the B Class, or from the B Class to the C Class and so on.
Yet, due to the Merit-based System at the point of admission, we all did reasonably well in our final exams. Those were glorious days indeed! FGCI was a melting pot. I had mates from all States in Nigeria, in equal measure! It did not matter where you came from, how you looked, who your father was, how rich or powerful your family was.
We were all given equal privileges. We were all assessed and considered on the basis of merit. Though academics was the main focus, we were also encouraged to participate in other activities, with the objective of making us rounded.
Fast-forward 43 years later to 2016 and I cannot help but be saddened by what has become of the once-prime Unity Schools, including FGCI, my alma mater. Apart from the physical degradation of structures in most Unity Schools and the relatively poorer standard of education and care now on offer, we now hear whispers of a plethora of unfair practices to secure admission, and unwholesomeness in the management and care given to students in Unity Schools. Also troubling is the seeming migration from a purely Merit-based System where there was equal consideration, to a situation where candidates from the local school catchment area are now the majority in each school. So my alma mater now has more of its current students from Kwara State. This ought not to be!
The objective of the founding fathers of the Unity Schools was to provide a platform to gather bright young minds from every nook and cranny of Nigeria and blend them together to create bonds that would promote nationalistic interests and engagements, and forge future de-tribalised leaders, for the advancement of our country and the betterment of our people.
I call generally on all in government, who are responsible for determining educational direction, and the Federal Ministry of Education in particular, to go back to the point where we deviated from the noble ideals of the founders of Unity Schools. Let these schools be restored so we may derive the full benefit that they have the potential to provide.
Ojesekhoba writes from Ilorin.