By Ayodele Okunfolami
Following the death of two students and the hospitalisation of hundreds of others during an outbreak of diarrheal diseases in Queens College, Lagos, recently, health authorities have advised that the school remain closed until the whole school environment is fit for habitation.
This sad development is a bad advertisement for boarding schools in Nigeria and Federal Government Colleges, popularly known as Unity Schools, in particular. As Queen’s College, otherwise known as QC, gets quarantined and sanitised, attention should be on other schools to prevent a recurrence.
Along with the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and National Sports Festival, the Unity Schools were established by the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War. These were reconciliatory and reconciliation moves initiated to heal a devastated and broken nation and promote harmony among the citizenry.
That is why all Federal Government Colleges have their motto as pro unitate, which is, “for unity” in Latin, except for Queens College, Lagos, which uses “Pass on the Touch”, and Kings College, also of Lagos, whose motto is Spero Lucem, which both have some colonial undertones. FGCs were designed as melting points for the binaries of gender in their formative years, from different parts of our union, to live together in boarding secondary schools in order to obliterate any stereotyped bias or suspicion of any culture or creed. Approaching half a century after their setting up, have these schools served their purpose?
First question to be asked is whether the nation is more united because of all these compulsory unity schemes? How has the NYSC united Nigerians? Do parents south of the Niger sleep as comfortably as they should, if their wards are posted to the North to serve? Or, does the northern graduate maintain his saintly pride when posted to the south? Who, today, gives a heck about how his state performs in the comatose National Sports festival? A microscopic gaze at Nigeria today reveals a nation on the fragile fault lines of politics, religion, region and class. Expressing ourselves can hardly be done without turning the guns on ourselves.
Although markets, the media and marriages have done a lot in knitting Nigeria and Nigerians together, archaic measures imposed on us by draconian decrees won’t bind us, it is deliberate infrastructural development and socio-economic prosperity that holds any society together.
And so, the choice of education as a means of keeping us in harmony has always been a good move by previous administrations. This is so because education opens and shapes the human mind. As a matter of fact, educated minds speak the same language and, therefore, erase all borders. However, the discriminatory cut-off marks at the point of entry into public schools are dividing Nigerians.
When a pupil with distinction is denied admission because his state’s cut-off mark is high, while another pupil with a poorer common entrance score is admitted because of the low cut-off score set for his state because it is deemed educationally disadvantaged, it only sows seeds of discord and animosity towards the educationally disadvantaged state. It is no better for those that are privileged to be admitted. The student that gained admission with a high score is dragged behind in class for the duller student, or the weaker student suffering inferiority complex, to catch up. Any society that makes the weaker and slower comfortable at the expense of the more capable cannot progress.
This discriminatory cutoff marks really need to be reviewed. It is this cutoff marks in secondary school admission that morphs into federal character in adult civil service employment. This has led to mediocre bureaucrats that can’t even earn the trust of the government that employed them. Today, cerebral assignments are outsourced to private consultants while the public servant is left only to clock in and clock out of his un-enterprising office. In fact, what is happening in QC is a culmination of two years of maladministration by the now transferred principal.
Because of Nigeria’s glorious past, FGCs are blessed with landmass that, in addition to their dormitory amenities, library and laboratories, they boast of sufficient sporting facilities. Football fields circuited in athletic tracks, basketball, handball, volleyball, tennis and other ball game courts are available for the students’ use.
My alma mater, FGC, Ikot Ekpene, even had a hockey pitch. These are absent in almost all private schools today. So, instead of sustaining this outdated disparity in admission based on prejudicial policies, states that can’t make their quotas based on academic competences can fill it up with students that would have proved themselves considerably in primary school sports and other extra-curricular activities like music and others arts.
This, of course, changes the dynamics of FGCs as educational institutions as it would turn the screws in employment of pedagogues of various disciplines and admission of a variety of students with diverse potentials. So instead of states remaining educationally disadvantaged they can be proud of using their comparative advantage. It also redefines our psyche that unity doesn’t mean being the same.
It is because we have boxed education only into the passing of examinations that there is high corruption in the quest for admission into these Unity Schools. Pending when the Federal Government hands off secondary education, which should actually be in the purview of states, funding must be taken seriously. Because government can’t do everything, the stoppage of other sources of aid from Parent-Teacher Associations and other development levies by the Minister of Education last year was not a well thought-out decision. Alumni of these institutions must also get into the mix of making these Unity Schools capable of producing tomorrow’s problem solvers. The decrepit infrastructure in these schools must be urgently looked into to avoid another QC epidemic because frankly, no one will send his preteen to a life threatening substandard facility in the name of keeping Nigeria one.
Finally, if there can be cutoff marks for entrance examinations, there must of necessity also be caps for intake of students. These schools are overpopulated, putting a strain on their limited facilities. Deathly outbreaks as occurred in QC can be forestalled or better managed if student populations don’t exceed the optimum. And, if Gowon’s unity theme must be sustained, admission into each school must have an even share of pupils from all the states of the federation.
Okunfolami writes from Festac,
Lagos, via @ayookunfolami