Prof Uche Eze is the Commissioner for Education, Enugu State. He speaks on the challenges and successes of Gov Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi’s administration in the education sector in interview with our reporter.
How does your ministry regulate private schools in the state?
Private schools in the state are directly under the control of the state ministry of education. There is a department in the ministry that oversees the approval, quality assurance and other operations of private schools. When I came in, the first thing I did was to develop the basic minimum standards for the operations of private schools. We produced a booklet that contains what is expected of a private school for approval. The prospective owners are to write to the commissioner that they intend to open schools. There is what we call ‘site approval’. The essence is for the ministry officials to go to the location of the proposed school to know whether it has the land that can contain the nature of the proposed school. The area of land required for nursery is different from ones needed for primary and secondary. That is the level we stopped. Anything tertiary is not approved by the ministry because we have national regulatory agencies that have their own modes of operations.
When an individual applies, we have three levels of inspection. We have the area lead evaluator that is based at the Development Centres where the school is located. We have the zonal lead evaluator whom the area lead evaluator reports to. By the time the area lead evaluator has gone to the school and made a report, it goes to the zonal lead evaluator, who will also go with his or her own officials to crosscheck the facts submitted by the area lead evaluator. After that, the zonal lead evaluator prepares the reports and forwards them to the director, quality assurance in the ministry. By the time they had gone through and felt that the school is worth approval, then the director will do a recommendation to the permanent secretary, who will then report to the honourable commissioner.
However, we have the challenge of the human factor. What I experienced initially is that when the reports come, they look beautiful, and maybe I approve on the strength of that report. But I may be passing one day and see a school, and wonder the kind of school such is. On inquiries, somebody brings out an approval letter by me. I feel embarrassed.
What I did was to form an independent team. By the time the recommendations come, if they say I should approve, I minute it to the independent team to confirm. In confirming, I insist on pictures being attached so that I can see them. At a point, I told myself that for me to approve a secondary school, I must see it physically. These are the processes. But we have a challenge. Most of these proprietors that establish schools do not make contacts with the ministry until they had even admitted students. Some of them are when they are preparing for primary six exams, and they discover that they cannot register until the approval. They will then apply for the first time. When you go there, you see that somebody is just in one parlour operating as a school. And you insist that you will not approve. You close it. As you are leaving, they will tear off the seal and the following day, they are operating.
It became a challenge to us. About three years ago, we applied to the chief judge of the state, then Mrs Priscilla Emehelu, and requested an education court. She approved that, and assigned an education court magistrate to preside over it. That court would have helped us immensely, but as we were about to commence operations, Covid-19 came and schools were shut. We didn’t reap the benefits of the concept. When schools reopened, the efforts were concentrated on how to adjust to Covid-19 protocols.
Recently, we decided to seek solutions through the use of technology. We developed a uniform examination portal. The portal enables us to capture all the schools, both public and private. What we did is to block all private schools that are not approved from registration of candidates for any of our exams. What many of the defaulting schools are currently doing is to transfer many of their children to approved schools. Once the transfer is made, those children are no longer theirs. If you can’t write our exams from your schools, it means the school is not operating. Many parents are ignorant of some of these things. They don’t even know that these schools are not approved.
Recently, His Excellency gave us support by insisting that we have to close those schools. That is why this portal has actually helped us to regulate these private schools. Many of them exist in names because we have effectively blocked them. Before one year, many private schools will close down naturally.
We don’t even need to run around to ask them to close or not to close because we have an effective measure that is checkmating the system. Not less than twenty private schools had written me that they don’t want to operate again, and that I should allow their candidates to transfer to other schools. This is because before transfers are effected, there must be an approval. That portal has helped us to regulate the movement of children from one school to the other. Before, what happened is that if a child decides that he or she does not like a certain school, the next day, the child moves to another school. For instance, this year’s WAEC requires that one must write one’s exam in the school one passed through. Once you have passed SSII in a particular school, you can’t write WAEC in another school. Many shouted. That has been a major source of exam malpractices. Students in schools where malpractices are not allowed easily run to where such flourish to pass their exams through illegal means. Those they move to their schools are happy because they charge them so much.
This year, with the help of the portal, we had our records. Before the students came, I had downloaded the names of those to write the exams. When you bring your list, I crosscheck it with mine. Any name that did not correspond would be cancelled because it means that the person changed from another school. We want the children to know that it is better for them to pass exams through their own efforts. These children have many opportunities if we encourage them to study, but when we give them impressions that we are there to help them, they stop reading. They come with beautiful results and empty heads. That is to the detriment of society. That is why we are making different initiatives to make the system better. The greatest problem of the education sector is not money, but our attitude. The worst is the attitude of the parents.
In private schools, some parents want to control the management of the school, such that whichever way they want their children to be treated is how it will be. It has caused problems because some private school proprietors, in order to retain the children in their schools, dance to the wishes of parents. I wonder whether the generation of parents, who have their children in public and private schools, are products of examination malpractices! It appears they force schools to do certain odd things that are not in harmony with what will bring progress. This is what we try to find solutions to. We seek the collaboration of parents. We do not also want parents to interfere with the normal processes of schools. Private schools are very important components of our education system. But for them to be of practical use, they must meet the quality assurance demands which are set. It is a national issue, because quality is set at the national level, and states are expected to key in.
In this state, we try to control private schools, but not stifling their existence. They contribute to the educational development of the state, but they must fall in line with the standards. Some of them even think that the government has no right to control their operations. Some of them took me to court for insisting on certain policies. It is good because it offers the opportunity to see what schools should be like. School is not a business; it is a social service. Human development is involved. Every child in Enugu State is a responsibility of the government. Parents should choose where their children will go to school, but the government regulates what the operations should be to ensure that such schools are working in line with the visions of the government. Government exists for the welfare and security of the citizens, and part of the welfare is that we educate children who will tomorrow take up responsibilities and become good leaders.
How do you regulate the ghost-teacher syndrome in public schools?
I’ll not say that I’m unaware that it might still exist, but I am aware that when His Excellency assumed office, he took serious steps to ensure the elimination of ghost workers at primary and secondary schools. When Barr Nestor Ezeme was in the Post-Primary School Management Board, he carried out that exercise. He took over from me because I had started the process. I relinquished the assignment because he was in charge of secondary schools. The same thing happened at the Enugu State Universal Basic Education Board. When Chief Ikeje Asogwa assumed the chairmanship of ENSUBEB, he took over the process I had started, and they quickly did a biometric capture of those who were in the teaching force. They were able to eliminate those that were ‘ghosts’. I won’t say completely that your observation is wrong because they keep finding ways of short-changing the government.
The truth is that the state government is not sleeping. From time to time, we do annual school census in the ministry. That enables us to capture the number of teachers that we have at all levels, including private schools.
When we see discrepancies, we ask questions. But we try to be very careful because some people retire, and others leave when they find other jobs. There may be reasons why some could short-change the system. From time to time also, the state government approves the recruitment of primary school teachers. But we really need to do a proper analysis before one says somebody is a ghost teacher. You may go to a school and a teacher may be sick and therefore absent.
What about those that engage persons to represent them as teachers while they are doing other businesses, even outside the state?
We are always open for information. We have petitions. I am here today, and won’t know what our different education secretaries are doing. It is not humanly possible for me to visit those schools all the time. That is why we have chains of officers. We expect that reports come from that level to help us shape our monitoring apparatuses. We encourage citizens to give us confidential reports. I was in a place where some people were saying that a certain school belongs to the government. I asked them ‘who is that government?’ A school has been built to train one’s children, and you are there saying it belongs to the government. The government builds schools for our good, and we have to take the ownership. Citizens should report appropriately, and we shall surely act swiftly.
Are there cases of sanctions for erring defaulters?
Definitely. We have a disciplinary process. If it is a primary school, the board has a disciplinary committee, which is guided by the civil service rule. The chairman we have is no-nonsense. The moment you are found guilty, the victim is given the appropriate sanction. And a number of people have been sanctioned. Some could have escaped it because we didn’t have the information.
What is the fate of primary school pensioners in Enugu State, as well as their minimum wage?
Appropriate information on the status of the pension can be gotten from the person who is in charge of the Local Government Pensions Board. That office has the responsibility for that. I deal with those who are still in service. For the minimum wage, the state government is not sleeping to make sure that the teachers are paid. These teachers are our brothers and sisters. There is no way government can deliberately want to short-change them. This government loves the workers. His Excellency has been described as a worker-friendly governor. I also want to let you know that His Excellency has taken steps to pay minimum wage to those that he is responsible for. Primary school teachers are paid by the local governments. They are employees of local governments. The rule is that state governments do not interfere with the funds of local governments. We are trying how we can get the local governments to live up to that responsibility. That is why efforts are on top gear to see that this matter is resolved once and for all. We want our teachers to also enjoy the new minimum wage. Once they join their colleagues, the motivation to do their jobs will be more. I believe that before long, they will enjoy it with their counterparts at the secondary school level. The state is in-charge of secondary schools, and secondary schools have received theirs a long time ago. We plead with the local governments to ensure that primary school teachers are also paid.
How does your ministry collaborate with community stakeholders in ensuring efficiency in public schools?
As a policy, we have what is called school-based management committees at all schools. This committee is made up of stakeholders in those communities: the traditional rulers, women’s groups, youths, men, old boys, and religious leaders, among others. The committee is not headed by the principals of secondary schools and head teachers. The principals and head teachers are only secretaries. They appoint community members as chairmen of the committees. Their responsibility is to help in supervising activities in the school. They enlighten community members on the importance of education so that every child of school age will be in school. We don’t want out-of-school children. Some children are out of school not because their parents are poor, but because of ignorance. Some will say that those who have gone to school are not rich, unemployed and so on. The members of the committee have the responsibility of enlightening members of the community to ensure that their children and wards go to school. They serve as a liaison to the government. Government cannot take care of everything. In some communities, when a sheet of zinc is blown off by rainstorm, instead of rectifying it to avoid it getting worse, community members will wait for the government. At times, it could get worse and more damage incurred. Some will start calling the commissioner for intervention. The school-based management committee helps the government in handling some of these things. One of such committees met some rich members of a community. One of them donated 100 desks, one donated computers. This is a way to move forward. The government cannot do everything alone. Citizens are encouraged to play their roles as much as possible.
PPSMB organised an award to thank those that have assisted some schools. Part of our policy thrusts is community participation in the area of education. It may not be finance, it could be advice, information, and monitoring to ensure that those who are supposed to do certain things carry such out. We want them to intervene in areas of importance, but not in the internal running of the school system, which belongs to principals and head teachers.
How do you ensure discipline among teachers in public schools following reports that some of them don’t take their jobs seriously as reported in a primary school in Nsukka LGA?
I see this as information that has to be investigated properly. I need to get the name of the school and locations. One thing that assists us a lot is school supervision. ENSUBEB has structures in place which are supposed to enable regular supervision of schools. The education secretaries are at the local government level. In every local government, you have at least three of them. We have education secretaries at the Development Centres. They have that responsibility of ensuring regular supervision of schools. If such a thing happens, that means that the officer in charge had abdicated his or her responsibilities. The supervisory unit of the ministry and the quality assurance unit also move from time to time to ensure compliance with the practices. I will also call the attention of the area lead evaluator in charge of that zone to explain what has happened. These children, if you teach them, they learn; if you don’t teach them, they won’t learn. No teacher has any reason why he or she wouldn’t come to school without permission. If the head teacher is not there, and the teachers are not there, who takes care of the children?
Some government technical colleges are not befitting in terms of buildings. A case in point is Government Technical College, Nsukka. What is being done to make them better?
The hood does not make the monk. I agree that an environment has to be conducive. But such statement is relative. I don’t believe that there have to be air-conditioners for the children to learn. Beautiful buildings might not produce brilliant children. In education, what we refer to as a conducive environment is a building that is well ventilated, has seats and has provisions for instructional resources. These are the resources relevant to teaching and learning. At GTCs, you may be expecting a gigantic building, with tarred environment and air-conditioned classrooms. If you had gone to their production workshops, what you see will amaze you. You will see tools and relevant materials, and I know that the board, every year, supplies equipment to those colleges.
Last year, GTC, Nsukka, and GTC, Enugu, were in the news. They were at the Government House where they were rewarded for their productivity. Such activities give hope that one day, we shall have young ones who will lead us to scientific and technological innovations. The state government, every year, releases funds for renovation of school buildings. We cannot say that all our buildings are perfect, but most of them are conducive. His Excellency has invested a lot in school infrastructure, and it is ongoing.
The chairman of ENSUBEB called me a few days ago and said that His Excellency had released funds for renovation of some schools across the state. This means that it is a continuous process. His Excellency believes that by the time he leaves office, the school infrastructure will be 90 percent completed. It is a great achievement considering what we met on ground when we took over. Most of our schools were in near dilapidation. His Excellency has invested not less than N15bn in renovating both secondary and primary schools. And he is still continuing.
How much assistance do you get from LGAs in moving the education sector forward?
I cannot make an outright judgement. We have been in a period when the economy had gone into recession for about two times. Funding has been a problem. Local governments could have done better if they have access to more funding. It is not only payment of salaries that falls into their responsibilities. I know that the state government assists them to do more. Today, teachers’ salaries are taken from source. Even when the minimum wage has not been paid, their salaries are paid as and when due. We are still however expecting more from them education-wise. Most of the time that I discuss with their supervisors for education, I encourage them to as much as possible participate in school supervision. There is nothing that makes teachers effective like supervision. It makes them live up to expectations. With appropriate sanctions and encouragement when they do well, teachers are very compliant.
How is non-formal education being encouraged in the state?
There is an agency that is in charge of that sector. It is the state agency for mass literacy. Through the assistance of His Excellency, the non-formal education centres were revived in all the 17 local government areas. The only challenge they have is that because the local governments fund it, some live up to expectations while some do not. If the facilitators are not given their stipends, they won’t perform well. I have continually encouraged the person who is in charge to keep approaching the council chairmen to let them understand the importance of that sector. That sector is helping our people. Those people who did not have the opportunity of acquiring formal education make up from the non-formal sector. Many of them are picking up and going back to schools. When we write our First School Leaving Certificate exams, you see many of them coming to apply. Some of them pass very well. They want to participate in our basic education exams. From there, they write WAEC.
Last year, the state executive council approved the establishment of many centres in secondary schools to deal with those who want to pursue further studies. If the local governments support them adequately, I think the benefits therein will be harvested much.
How are missionary schools supervised in the state?
Secondary schools which were handed back to the missionaries are run by the state government in collaboration with the mission. The PPSMB still supervises their operations. We still have government teachers in those schools, and the government pays their salaries. They may recommend who the principal is, but the board has the responsibility of appointing the person as a principal so that the board can discipline such a person when he or she errs. For now, the primary schools they manage are the ones they established as private schools. The process of approving any private school is followed. They have to meet the requirements before approval is given. Some of their schools are still waiting for approval until they meet the requirements. For a school to be approved, it must meet the minimum standards. We don’t have the maximum. A school that can’t meet the minimum standards cannot train a child.
How do you envision self-funding for state-owned higher institutions in the face of scarcity of funds?
The way primary and secondary schools are being controlled by the ministry is not the same way tertiary institutions are being treated. Tertiary institutions have governing boards. The governing boards are the policy organs of those institutions which the management implements. However, to ensure that the government is adequately represented, the state ministry of education is represented in each of the boards. In the process of making policies, the ministry also makes. So the ministry is the link between the visitor and the school.
Be that as it may, ESUT, IMT, ESPOLY and ESCET are today emphasising entrepreneurship. They focus on getting students to acquire skills that are of societal needs. I also know that some of them get involved in direct production. ESPOLY has large poultry, fishery, piggery and crop production. That offers practical exposures to students as well as incomes to the institutions.
The new VC of ESUT came up with brilliant ideas. Very soon, you see ESUT producing many things. The same applies to IMT and ESCET. During Covid-19, they produced sanitisers, hand-washing machines and all that. This is the kind of things that tertiary institutions should be aiming at. It is knowledge that gives money. Everybody now wants to learn what they can do to earn a living even while in school.