With reports of over 21,000 of 33,000 primary school teachers in Kaduna failing recent assessment tests, one must wonder about the future of education in Nigeria. This is not the first time that we are receiving reports that teachers in Nigeria have woefully failed assessment tests. The problem of quality of teachers is not a problem only in public schools. Even in some private schools where parents pay an arm and a leg in tuition and other fees, some teachers are not qualified to teach children. Some teachers, even in their incompetence in the subject matter they are teaching, have the audacity to traumatise children in their teaching methods.
Primary education is the foundation for all education. Nothing can be built on a weak foundation. As a product of public primary education in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I can attest to the quality of public schools at the time. I attended a Universal Primary Education model primary school. The standards and expectations in academics and character, were very high. Today, I would not send my child to the same school. Class sizes have ballooned, and quality of teachers have declined. During the holidays, most teachers I knew in the public-school system had to go through teacher training. I don’t know if that is still the case.
There is no magic to improving our educational system. It takes resources, consistent policy, and sustained dedication to reverse the decay in our educational system. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development conducts the Programme for International Assessment tests. The PISA, which is administered every three years, tests 15-year-olds in 72 countries in the areas of Maths, Reading and Science. The 2015 results showed Singapore in first place for all three areas.
Singapore got its independence in 1965, and has had a consistent education policy, sustained over decades. The first and main strategy was to invest heavily in the quality of its teaching force. The objective was to raise the prestige and status of teaching and to attract the best graduates to teaching positions. Today, teachers are recruited from the top 5% of graduates in a highly-centralised system. All teachers are trained at the National Institute of Education to ensure quality control.
Another country that consistently features on the top 10 of the PISA results is Finland. In a YouTube broadcast on the channel, TopTenz, Host Simon Whistler lists the Top 10 Reasons Finland has the World’s Best School System. Briefly, some of the reasons are as follows:
“Top-notch teachers with extensive training” – teachers in Finland are highly regarded, on the same level as lawyers and doctors. A master’s degree is required for teaching.
“High levels of teaching autonomy”–teachers are given wide latitude to develop innovative teaching methods and strategies as well as determine the content of their lessons.
“Ample funds to help weak students catch up” – the emphasis in the Finnish system is equality. Poor children, and special needs children are provided with the support they need to catch up and keep up with other students. The nationwide objective is to achieve equity and that flows into the educational structure.
“Teachers don’t teach to the test” – there are no standardised tests until students get to their final year of high school. Teachers have flexibility on what to focus on which allows for them to take into consideration the human aspect of teaching and learning. One size does not fit all in learning and teachers have enough latitude to take that into consideration and give individual students the attention that they need.
“Kids start school late” – kids start school at age 7 in Finland. Before that they are in day care and pre-school where they focus is on experiential learning, not on reading or writing. They do not start learning to read until age 7 when they start school.
“Joy and play are part of the curriculum” – there is a Finnish saying that, “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily”. The learning atmosphere is more relaxed. There is little to no homework assigned; and kids have 15-minute breaks at least four times a day.
“Everyone attends public schools” – there are very few independent schools in Finland and even those are subsidised by the government. Because every child attends public school, everyone is invested in the success of public schools.
“Finnish kids have bright futures tailored to their strengths and interests” – 93% of students graduate from either a vocational or academic High School. At age 16, children choose between a vocational programme which prepares them for work in different fields or to go on to a polytechnic, or an academic programme which prepares them for university. Forty per cent of students choose the vocational route. Whether they go on to university or polytechnic, study is paid for by the government.
The top reason given for why Finland has the World’s Best School System is, “Equality amongst schools.”
There is one key thing to note from both Finland and Singapore: in both countries, the focus is on elevating the quality and prestige of teachers. Both countries also dedicate the funds to actualise their vision for their educational systems. We cannot wish for better foundational education without deploying the necessary resources to provide the structures and human resources required to reverse the decay in our educational system and prepare a generation that is expected to contribute to the development of Nigeria. It will not happen by magic. Change in the educational system can only happen by sustained and dedicated effort.
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