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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Pat Utomi: Educating The Nigerian Bottom Of The Pyramid

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[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ore of the children of the poorest of our compatriots are educated in private schools sprouting across the breathe of slum dwellings in urban conundrums like Lagos. But my understanding of realities did not hit until a British Professor from Newcastle walked into my office not so long ago. It was like Bartimaeus meeting Jesus. Lord that I may see.

I have since seen plenty. In tow with the Newcastle University academic, James Tooley, were members of an association of owners of down market private schools and some men of faith, covenant keepers who had embraced the mission of helping improve the quality of those schools. One of these men of faith had been in a class I taught at the Lagos Business School and told Tooley he knew a man evidently born for a cause like this. They were members of the Association for Formidable Education Development (AFED)

My instant reaction was, Oh God, not another cause. After 30years of being a champion for poor widows and investing much time and energy in youth matters, physically challenged people etc., surely not one more cause. Then Tooley began to bang on the gates of my conscience and soul by making simple points. Without these schools Lagos will need another 400 billion Naira a year to educate the children there and evidence based research suggest that children from those outperform those from Government schools by a wide margin and there are probably up to 18,000 of them in Lagos.

For a second, I paused. I can see. And I saw convergence of ideas. Now I know why it was a pastor who had been in my Class at the Lagos Business School that brought Tooley and these so called slum proprietors to my office. Why did I not see immediately. I was the same one that celebrated CK Prahalad and encouraged companies to see the wealth at the bottom of the pyramid. I was also the one constantly talking about demographic dividend and saying progress can come when we eliminate one of the major sources of inequality within and among nations by ensuring fair amounts of decent healthcare and education reach all, no matter where they were located, a point for which Princeton University Economist Angus Deaton gave a good account in the 2013 book; The Great Escape and Origins of Inequality. That, in my book, made him deserving of the Nobel Price in Economics.

Tooley, perhaps likening me to Thomas, the Apostle, who refused to believe when the master appeared to the group in his absence, urged me to go and experience it. I agreed. A tour of select schools in the company of the National President of the Association for Formidable Educational Development who set it up. What an experience. The visits turned out to be about more than learning.

My arrival to the first of the schools I have visited, so far, took me aback. The children were holding up welcome posters, a five year old with a bouquet of flowers greeted me as I got off the car. Garlands and cultural dancers were part of the fare. Someone, I thought, may have misinformed them, so I needed a quick opportunity to correct the error of presumption that I was someone important. Indeed the images that struck me as the welcome unfolded was of Chief Aja Nwachukwu who was Minister of Education in the Tafawa Balewa cabinet, visiting schools in the 1960s.

But the substance of the visit, which unfolded as I listened to addresses of welcome, from the students, Teachers and school owners was enlightened for doubters. I could feel Tooley whose email I received shortly after he returned to Newcastle, further urging the visits, smiling as the points he tried to convince me about, came home.

At Shangotedo in the Ibeju –Lekki axis, as in schools on the Mainland, from Ebutte Metta to Makoko, seeing how much appears to be evidently accomplished with so little I was immediately drawn to an initiative on primary education I recently pioneered.

The idea started about three years ago when I was reflecting on how world class education at the Primary and Secondary level with values and leadership modules or emphasis, could be brought to the children of the more socio-economically challenged of society as part of a movement for social justice. Inequalities, as the Gini Index shows, our country running policies that is sifting society, with some becoming super rich, and others being consigned into a permanent underclass. The one great equalizer was quality education and the idea was that through CVL we could create free quality schools for the poor. Two locations, one in Ikorodu and one in Delta State became takeoff examplars. Land was acquired and given by the community in both places, and the Foundation of a multinational manufacturing firm approved some money to support construction. We planned to get friends to adopt a child for #50,000 a year. Working with the Art of Living Foundation in India, whose schools around Bangalore I had visited two years ago. The model was certainly not a Bottom of the Pyramid model of a private sector providing value at base price, just as Nigerians thought milk was for the more materially well off until Cowbell sachets hit the market and generic herbicides and pesticides in small packages were taken into rural areas by the Candel company.

The idea of value for money retail education may not have been properly understood as my visits showed they were perceived to offer more value than governments schools which were themselves too few and far between in the slum neighborhoods.

The evident value they were offering can literally be felt and held. With so few government schools and the massive goal displacement that meant the teachers in many of those schools would be off chasing small businesses and hawking shoes, most of the children would have been in the way of trouble and danger to society, on the streets. Then you look at the numbers of who is breaking out of the slums and it is clear Bottom of the Pyramid private enterprise is doing a lot more for progress and social equity than social enterprise and government schools.

The question is how best can we raise the quality of the contribution of AFED which has been carrying the bulk of the weight of educating the future of Nigeria. This question requires an urgent answer.

More comprehensive look at how we educate for rapid economic growth needs also to get on the agenda. In my view this will involve incentives for these Bottom of the Pyramid enterprise schools to rise to the dreams and ideals the students conjured up in the presentations they made to me. Champions for developing the regime of incentives need to work with champions for private vocational education and the variant I call executive vocational education. That new form involves taking unemployed university graduates and giving them both entrepreneurship training and specific vocational skills over a short period like six months, because of their exposure and maturity.

With these shaping the broader look on reforming education we may begin to truly look in the face the great source of inequality in our society.

Pat Utomi is a political economist, a professor of entrepreneurship and the founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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