Dupe Utsalo, an educationist, is the proprietor of Siloam School and president of the National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools, FCT, Abuja. In this interview with KEMI ASHEFON, she enumerates the challenges facing schools in Abuja
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RECENTLY, some private schools were closed down by the Department of Planning and
Implementation of the Ministry of Education. Why is it that some schools were published as accredited, while some were not?
As a matter of fact, there was a closure of some private schools in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja because the government observed that some private schools did not meet the minimum requirement for floating schools. They were given deadlines and I must say that quite a number of schools have met the requirement. For those who can?t, they have already closed down. Though there is an accreditation process on-going and some schools have been accredited and have their names published. This publication is coming in batches and we are awaiting the others. Parents should not think that those schools whose names are not published are not accredited. Many accredited schools are still waiting for the publication. Establishing a private school in the FCT has its guidelines and the body is doing all it can to ensure that all schools comply with this standard. Children should be in active schools and not just money-based schools. It should also be curricular-based and not society based. Among the basic requirements are a permit from the Directorate of Planning and Implementation, get a bank account which fees would be paid. There are some schools without banking relationship and they would be collecting fees directly. Also, you must have a school land and if you don?t, you must have the Certificate of Occupancy of the building you occupy. There are so many guidelines you must follow, but it is advisable that you go to the zonal education officer for advice. It?s beautiful having a school and it gives an inner joy.
But the problem with most schools here is that they all claim to be international, that they are Montessori and create an elitist air to deceive parents/guardians?
It is becoming worrisome that so many schools claim to be international when they don?t have any foreign student/pupil in their schools. I think they are using the word international so as to get parents fascinated and have their classrooms full. You can imagine a school operating a cr?che/nursery/primary arms in a duplex and it is referred to as international. Of course not, probably they used the word international to get more pupils/students. They could have a vision of an international school, but lack the facilities to implement it. We need to define which school is international and the ones not so. Some schools don?t even have expatriates in their schools and they call it international. They operate within a duplex cr?che/nursery/primary, but they claim that it is international. First, they must know the meaning of international and they would be able to decipher how to categorise themselves. On the Montessori education, I think most parents mistake Montessori for phonetics.
Was that the reason for the introduction of the electronic learning?
The e-learning that was introduced by the government and the former minister, Dr. Modibbo Umar had equipped a school with the devices which are already functional. The e-learning is about a child-to-a laptop and most schools have started already. Children work on their lap-tops and there are electronic boards/projectors. It is implementable and it is possible if you desire to do it. When I was buying the projector for our e-learning, I was almost complaining because it was N500, 000. I realised that it can never be compared to what those children stand to gain. Now, it is possible to record the teacher?s voice and their teaching methodology in class. All the parents need do is to click or download on a flash disk. Every parent has access to the voice of the teachers. The laptops are such that when they fall, they don?t get destroyed and even if it is stolen, it is useless to the thief because only the child who owns it has access to it. During our time in school, it was blackboard. Now, it is white-board and also the e-boards. The kids are eager to learn and most of them are exposed to laptops at home.
Don?t you think that this excludes children from poor homes, whose parents can?t afford laptops?
I think these laptops are affordable and are within the reach of everyone. For any parent to afford to pay for tuition, they would be able to afford e-learning for their kids.
But school fees in Abuja schools are high and may not be within the reach of poor parents?
But don?t forget the fact that some parents too would never bring their wards to cheap schools. If you charge N10, 000 as school fees in a place like Wuse II, Maitama or Gwarimpa, you would not get enough children in your school. How much would be paid to your staff? What kind of food would the children eat? Have you forgotten sports and school bus facilities? There are some parents who desire society based schools, they have the money and would want their kids to attend schools that are flamboyant and in vogue. Some take their children to schools where their friends are. In a particular environment where a proprietor wants to just fill up the space with children, the fees will be cheaper. The lesser the fees, the more children. But there are some who charge higher but maintain a standard. Some charge in dollars. It is difficult to even charge fees alike. The rent in Gwarinpa can?t be compared with what obtains in Wuse II. It depends on locality. If you decide to have a school in Wuse II and charge N10, 000 you face societal problems. People will not come; first you are termed as second class. Some schools charge millions and children are there. It all depends on the parents and the standards they want for their children. Already, the government frowns on schools charging dollars because they believe our currency should be used alongside our curriculum.
So, the parents/guardians are to blame?
I would not say so because raising children is in relative terms. So many parents are not keen about the curriculum but the vogue. How would you put your child in a school because of the flamboyance and you don?t bother to know what they offer academically? In curriculum studies, there is the child-centred curriculum, society-centred curriculum and the subject centred. You find some schools emphasising on the knowledge of certain subjects and their students perform excellently in those subjects. On the other hand, they refused to think of other subjects and the totality of the child. The society centred curriculum is big, flamboyant and meant for a privileged. There, they structure the curriculum for these kinds of people-travels, tourism, special packages and activities. Oftentimes, it is not child based. But with a child-centred curriculum, the totality of the child is involved. You think of how the child develops academically, mentally, morally, socially. The subject centred curriculum cannot stand alone and the three are interwoven. It is true that there is money in school but there is need for proprietors to have a passion for the child development. You think of the total development-from teachers to other issues. My advice to parents who are school-hunting is this: Don?t be carried away by the environment. Learn to have one-on-one discussion with the proprietors of the school; get to know the vision of the school, not necessarily the administrators. Ask for the curriculum, the qualifications of teachers and not because the school is the vogue. Ask questions whether they are government compliant? Do you agree with the vision/mission? A school that withholds certain information is no school. What is the rapport with the proprietors? What is the state of children in that school?
You would agree that there are challenges running a private school in Abuja, so what are they?
First, it is finance. You find out if you don?t have a land; you pay rent through your nose. We have the challenges of land allocation and it is big headache to most proprietors. The land we have our schools are bought from third parties at huge sums of money. To get a plot of land for a school project is Herculean and I believe government alone cannot educate the nation-it takes the efforts of both the private and public partnership. I believe that government should give land to serious school schools. Aside land allocation; there is the issue of implementing government policies that change regularly. Today it is 6-3-3-4 system, tomorrow, the system changes. Luckily, we have enjoyed a stable government policy since the inception of the Yar?Adua government. But beyond these challenges, we are progressing and helping in child development. School lands should be made available. Nigerian school curriculum is one of the best in the world. It is very detailed in all subjects. All we need now is to provide a serene environment for teachers to ensure a good delivery and execution. When these are in place you have a perfect child with perfect result. One of the banes of educational development is a good environment. One that is peaceful, where children will be willing to learn; an enjoyable environment with happy teachers.
Talking about teachers, there is a clamour now for trained teachers in most private schools? What do you think about this?
I have been in the teaching profession for 22 years and I can categorically say that trained teachers are the best. We have started setting the standards in Abuja that we don?t want teachers who are not trained in our schools. I can?t go to the bank now and become a bank manager if I am not an accountant. The rule is that we don?t employ anybody that is not registered with the Teachers Registration Council. Every teacher must be certificated. We are professionals and we must be registered. Very shortly, non trained teachers in schools may be advised to leave or improve on their knowledge. We are not saying any graduate can?t teach but when it comes to the methodology of teaching, only trained teachers can do that. I strongly agree with the government that only trained teachers should teach. At least, hospitals would not employ a teacher to inject people. If I hold a syringe now, the patient will run away, so why would a nurse come and hold a chalk in the classroom? There must be a flair for it, a passion that has undergone training. That you are in the Red Cross does not make you a nurse.
It is believed the students are given pass marks in private schools so that parents won?t withdraw them to other schools? Moreover, there is the issue of religious knowledge foisted on kids who are not of same religion?
It is not true because in public schools the number of students who fail can?t be compared with that of private schools because of many factors ? there are more students than the teachers can cope with and there is no one-on-one interaction with students. In private schools, the ratio of failure is low because we are more patient. On religion, I don?t think so. Before now, the policy was you either choose either Bible Knowledge or Islamic Religious Knowledge but now, you must offer both subjects and children choose the most suitable for them. It depends on the approach of the school because you can?t foist your religion on anyone. I think parents should also make enquiries if the school is faith based school or not. Some would tell you they make provisions for Islamic knowledge. For the assembly devotion, the standard prayer has always been the lord?s prayers, but there should be provision for IRK teachers too.