At an “Education for all is responsibility of all” summit on 14th February 2013, the then Kaduna State Commissioner for Education, Alhaji Usman Mohammed shocked his audience by disclosing that of a total of 1,599 teachers selected from across the state who were given primary four tests in Mathematics and Basic literacy; only one of them scored 75 percent, 251 scored between 50 to 75 percent and 1,300 scored below 25 percent. When the same examination was conducted for 1,800 primary school pupils, according to Mohammed, most of them failed woefully. “We are not surprised about the performance of the pupils because how can they know it, when their teachers don’t,” he said.

The implication of only 251 out of 1,599 teachers scoring above 50 percent means that a mere 15.7 percent of those tested passed. That 1,300 out of 1,599 teachers scored below 25 percent also implies that 81.3 percent of the teachers tested performed woefully in an examination meant for Primary Four pupils. Unfortunately, while the then governor, Alhaji Mukhtar Ramalan Yero, may have properly diagnosed the problem, there is no evidence that his administration took any action against the teachers who were certified illiterates.

Incidentally, just three months earlier, on 10th November 2012, Yero’s immediate predecessor, the late Governor Patrick Yakowa had disclosed that a verification exercise carried out in the state revealed that no fewer than 2,000 teachers secured their appointments with fake certificates. While he did not disclose what happened to those teachers, Yakowa said memorably: “Teacher quality dictates the success of any educational pursuits…and no nation rises above the quality of its teachers.”

I have highlighted the foregoing to show that the problem of illiterate teachers in Kaduna State predates the era of Governor Nasir el-Rufa’i and he is not even the first to have conducted a test of their suitability. The difference is that el-Rufa’i has decided to confront the illiterate teachers who, aside the support of a powerful union, may also be taking advantage of the complicated politics of Kaduna State to fight back.

However, before we go to the kernel of the issue, it is important to reiterate that this is not a problem peculiar only to Kaduna. On 26th May 2012, the then Executive Secretary of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), Mr Mohammed Modibbo lamented about the quality of teachers in most of our public schools, after which he zeroed in on Sokoto State when members of the Senate Education Committee visited his office: “More than 50 per cent of the entire teachers in Sokoto State cannot read because they are unqualified. So how can they read the UBE books we sent to them? How would they be able to teach the children how to read?”

While I am well aware of the efforts Governor Aminu Tambuwal has been making in the last two and a half years to change that sordid narrative and the dramatic improvement he has recorded as a result, the point remains that we cannot continue to live in denial about a systemic problem that is national. When my friend, BolajiAbdullahi, as Education Commissioner in Kwara State, conducted the same primary four test for 19,125 teachers in 2008, not only did majority fail, 259 actually scored zero. But, as I said earlier, the problem is not restricted to any state or zone, it is national.

On 15th November 2012, the then Education and Technology Commissioner in Ogun State, Mr Segun Odubela said that following a verification exercise conducted by a team of consultants, about 6,000, representing 31 percent of 19,146 teachers in the state, were found to be unqualified while another 800 entered the service with forged certificates; including the case of a teacher “who would have commenced primary school four years before his birth”. In 2009, Oyo State (under Governor Christopher Alao-Akala) conducted an oral assessment exercise for teachers in the state public schools where it was discovered that accounts teachers couldn’t define Payee and social studies teachers didn’t know the meaning of UNESCO.

In case labour leaders have forgotten, let me refresh their memory with what happened in 2011 when one of their own, the then Edo Governor Adams Oshiomhole paid an unscheduled visit to a primary school in the state where he encountered an illiterate teacher. Asked for his working hours by Oshiomhole, the teacher first said he didn’t know, then he murmured, “7am to 4pm Sir”. Apparently bemused, Oshiomhole turned to one of the pupils and asked, “Where is your teacher?” Before the boy could speak, the teacher quickly interjected: “Na me”.

At a town hall meeting held in July 2013, Oshiomhole disclosed that from the audit carried out in the state, “We found that of all our primary school teachers, only 1,287, representing 9% out of 14,484 teachers have proper records in our system. 91% have various forms of discrepancies in their records. About 1,379 teachers, representing 11.5% claim that they obtained their Primary School Certificates after they had been employed as teachers. In fact, some obtained their Primary School Certificates not more than two years ago, from the school in which they were employed as teachers.”

The challenge of our educational system is huge. Personally, I came face to face with this problem in the course of my two-year stint as a member of the panel of assessors for the Nigerian Brewery Plc in their annual Teacher of the Year Award. My 15th October 2015 piece titled ‘Teaching Computer on Chalkboard’ (reproduced below) tells a compelling story of the tragedy of our education sector and the challenge of the teaching profession in Nigeria today.

Unfortunately, those who have attempted a radical approach to deal with the problem have been subdued by labour unions. A classic example was what happened in Ekiti State in June 2012 when both the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Academic Staff Union of Secondary Schools (ASUSS) directed their members to stay away from the Teachers Development Needs Assessment (TDNA) test organised by the administration of then Governor, Dr Kayode Fayemi. In the end, those illiterate teachers were able to morph into the opposition that eventually terminated Fayemi’s second term ambition.

It must be said, however, that part of the problem in the Kaduna imbroglio is the temperament of el-Rufa’i who has not learnt to build consensus around public policies. The leakage of selected scripts of the teachers was an act of desperation that stands condemned. But what is more worrisome is the growing culture in which organized labour believes it must, acting like a mafia, oppose any attempt that hints at sanitizing the system; especially if it means that a few bad eggs among them would be weeded out. It is not a productive stance and I hope labour leaders will sit down to reappraise their position. The question is: Will those union leaders put their own children in schools where teachers peddle ignorance rather than knowledge?

Whatever one may say about el-Rufa’i, he has demonstrated again and again that to make a difference in a society like ours, a public official should act like someone conducting an orchestra: you just have to back the crowd. Therefore, the decision he has elected to take regarding illiterate Kaduna teachers may not be popular, and one can query or deplore his methods, but we cannot blame him for attempting a solution. As @cchukudebelu quipped last weekend, the only place where someone who failed a primary four test still qualifies to impart knowledge to others is on Twitter!

In practically all the research findings on learning, the broad conclusion is that the quality of teacher is the single most important school variable influencing pupil/student achievement. And since you cannot give what you do not have, it stands to reason that an illiterate teacher can only produce illiterate pupils/students. And if, as President Muhammadu Buhari said on Monday, “an estimated 13.2 million children are out of school” in Nigeria due to no fault of theirs, should we continue to deny the several millions of others who are in school the benefit of quality education?

That we are all aware of the problem can be glimpsed from the fact that hardly any Nigerian with modest means now put their children in public schools. Only children in the villages and those from the urban poor attend public schools in our country these days. Yet, nothing demonstrates the fact that there are gems among many of these children that are being denied opportunities as succinctly as the story of Mabel Igbokwe, one of the scholarship beneficiaries of Father George Ehusani. By dint of hard work and self-discipline, Mabel has been on top of her class since she was, by the grace of God and the support of generous friends of Father Ehusani, “transmuted” from the Kpaduma slum primary “school” to an elite Catholic secondary school in Asokoro, Abuja.

To better appreciate where Mabel is coming from, I enjoin readers to go back to my column of 15th March, 2012 titled ‘A Father’s Love’ which I have also pasted below. It is a testimony to the power of quality education that a girl that was practically left to waste, like hundreds of others, has not only maintained an impeccable academic and discipline records, she recently emerged the Head Girl of Divine Mercy Secondary School in Asokoro, Abuja. In fact, all the three SSS3 students (from the six) who come from the Kpaduma slum, through the intervention of Father Ehusani, are all prefects in the school. The message from that is simple: If we give many of our children roaming the streets the opportunity for quality education, they will excel. Meanwhile, Father Ehusani is now confronted with the problem of looking for money to fund the university education of these children.

All said, while people may disagree with el-Rufai’s politics, on this issue of illiterate teachers, the governor did not just wake up to start conducting test, he interrogated the problem. On Sunday, el-Rufai posted on a small online platform, a May 2015 report he got from the Education Sector Programme in Nigeria (ASSPIN) in concert with the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID) which dissected the problems in the Kaduna education sector and offered possible solutions. That, he argued, explained why upon assuming office in 2015, he contracted the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) to conduct a preliminary test on all primary school teachers in Kaduna, an exercise he repeated in 2016 with “a notice to sharpen their skills for a final test at the expiration of the five-year deadline given to them in 2012 (by a previous administration) to upgrade their knowledge in pedagogic and content skills.”

However, the copycat governors who may want to adopt the ‘Kaduna formula’ should reflect more. One needs only to look at the education budget of most states to realise that many of the governors are part of the problem. Aside the fact that the votes for education are usually small, a high percentage of the money goes into procurement which then accounts for why teachers are not paid their meagre salaries as at when due while illiterate political office holders live large at their expense and that of other ordinary citizens. Besides, most of the unqualified teachers were brought to the system by politicians. Therefore, whatever may be the problem, teaching is still a thankless job in our country and one in which many professionals are making enormous sacrifices, even in public schools.

Despite the fact that the work environment is poor and the remuneration even poorer, Nigeria is still blessed with excellent teachers who are diligent at their work and eminently qualified for what they do. Besides, it will take more than sacking illiterate teachers to resolve the crisis of our education; we must return to the same communal spirit by which most of us were brought up as captured in the Yoruba adage, ‘Enikanlon bi omo, gbogboaiyelonbawo’ (it takes an entire community to nurture a child) which other societies have since adopted and adapted for the advancement of their people.

As President Buhari, who admitted being raised as an orphan, pointed out on Monday, if we must develop our society, education remains the only “launch-pad to a more successful, more productive and more prosperous future”.

The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi, Email: olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com