By Abimbola Adelakun
The Kaduna State Government recently lamented the threat facing the future of its school feeding programme that was launched with much fanfare in January. The Commissioner for Education, Science and Technology, Dr. Shehu Adamu, said in a media report that primary school pupils desert schools after taking the free meals offered them. He said those pupils would claim they were going to get some water after eating, but it was only a ploy to sneak out of school before the day was done. These children return again the next day, bid their time until food was served and then, leave. Daily, the cycle continues.
Adamu therefore appealed to parents to intervene in their children’s rather shady behaviour so they do not put the programme in jeopardy. The parents, he enjoined, should make sure their children stay in school until closing hours so they do not defeat the aim of the initiative – which is, to attract out-of-school children, retain them, and hopefully boost education in the state.
While I sympathise with Kaduna State over this unwholesome development, I also think – judging, at least by Adamu’s words – that the government has yet to critically reflect its own fault in the matter. Their argument about what is going wrong with the programme is still extroverted. They have yet to demonstrate that they have considered what they did not get right and are about to correct it. By deflecting responsibility for the flaws of the initiative and placing it on parents instead, one thing is immediately evident: The Kaduna State Government did not define the problem of low school enrolment properly. The stomach infrastructure solution they have proffered may ultimately fail to achieve any purpose.
The first step to solving any problem is to understand why it exists. Developing and implementing solutions are predicated on successful diagnoses.
If those initial steps are wrong, no measures taken can ever be effective. In this case, it was probably assumed that Kaduna children neglected education because of poverty and feeding them would motivate these children to stay in school and just learn. That if they are well-fed, they are guaranteed to pay attention to their lessons. Also, feeding them is expected to boost their nutritional intake, vital for their overall academic success.
But poverty is not always the reason people forswear education. That is one thing socialists and populists in this government need to learn before embarking on these expensive programmes that propose to jumpstart development through top-down approaches. If Kaduna State carries out a demographic analysis of the children that have been attracted to school in the past two months because of free feeding, they will be surprised that not all of them are too poor to eat. Some, they are likely to find, are capable of feeding themselves but they still partake in the programme because free food at the expense of the government is something no one refuses.
Osun State is one state where a number of these supposedly people-oriented programmes have taken place. Osun developed the school feeding programme, otherwise known as O-MEAL, to cater for children daily. They have been on it for years and that programme has earned them huge bragging rights. In the midst of an ongoing economic recession, they have held on to their initiative and insisted it would go on regardless. The state is poor, yet supplies students with school uniforms from the Omuluabi garment factory. We sometimes see the governor himself – in a needless move to identify with students – decked in a school uniform.
Osun State was also the first to hand out the tablets, called Opon Imo, to some of the schoolchildren. Despite all these, there has been no significant improvement in their educational outcomes, if one judges by the woeful performance of students in the Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations. Even worse was that their last outing was a retrogression in many ways. Their previous years’ scores were poor, the latest one even poorer. That can only mean the state’s effort is not directly impacting education in the state in any discernable manner.
If left to me, the idea of free education would be scrapped at the senior secondary school level and schoolchildren would be made to pay a token that would cover their own education. For the most part, these socialist programmes have been more about garnering political capital rather than providing quality education.
Many of the states cannot even fund their own public schools and asking people to pay may be one way to save education, rather than expand existing socialist efforts. Of course, such a move will draw the ire of people who have permanently constituted themselves into advocates of the poor and by their activism, helped recycle poverty further in the polity. Yet, rather than embark on more socialist programmes that are barely impacting the poor, it is perhaps time to recalibrate and make people pay a token for their own education. There are those who are genuinely poor and cannot afford it. Yet, there are those who can and will do so if the overall quest is to boost education.
One hopes the Federal Government will learn from Kaduna State before proceeding on its own school feeding initiative. Since last year, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has been touting the many benefits of this school feeding programme for the economy, for the job sector, for education, without considering that his optimism may turn out to be unfounded. What if the food is not the problem, but just one single isolated factor among a plethora of factors?
No, do not get me wrong, the idea is not a total sham, it has its benefits. The problem is when the government single-mindedly carries on as if feeding children daily is some kind of magic bullet that can boost education in the state. When they are this consumed by an idea, they blindside themselves to the actual reality that affects education in Nigeria.
Currently, it is estimated that Nigeria has 11 million children out of school. To attract them to school with food may turn out to be a fail when they begin to leave school after being fed. The problem needs to be properly understood before we embark on an initiative. What is the place of culture and religion in poor school enrolment? Could it be that students do not see the import of education and they are able to, in their minds, disaggregate it from things they consider meaningful? What about the quality of education being offered? Are they enough to stimulate the interest of children in learning? These, and many other ideas, should be worked on before embarking on feeding children. Otherwise, these children will construe school as a feeding centre, with education as a mere appendage.
Luckily for Kaduna State, they only just started the programme. They can pause, carry out a proper study to understand how pupils in Kaduna conceive of education, the role their parents can be coopted to play in the programme, the demographics as well as psychographics of their target population, and a more bottom-up approach to reforms aimed at stimulating interest in education. It may be further helpful to look at the education in the state more holistically: the state of infrastructure, the teachers’ welfare, and very importantly, the creativity of teaching process. When a child goes to school in the morning with the intention to sneak out after he has been served lunch, and s/her actually does so, it could also mean that they have not made learning a worthwhile exercise for these children. To motivate them to learn, you have to reorient teaching towards attracting and holding their interest all day long. Governor Nasir el-Rufai will do well to look into those areas too.