Barely six months after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported that the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria has risen to 20 million, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has pegged the figure at 18 million.
UNICEF’s Director/Head Advocacy, Child Rights Information Bureau (CRIB), Ms Mercy Megwa, said: “In Nigeria, primary education is officially free and compulsory, but 18 million of the country’s children aged between five and 14 are not in school. Only 61 per cent of six- to 11-year-olds regularly attend primary school.”
In a statement to mark this year’s International Children’s Day of Broadcasting (ICDB) on March 4 with the theme ‘More money for primary education’, the fund lamented the low enrolment of children in basic schools across Nigeria despite being free and compulsory.
“Adequate funding of primary education will create an enabling environment for increased demand for qualitative education, which is the bedrock of enhanced knowledge, improved behaviour and personal growth of the children,” Megwa said.
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Meanwhile, since the realization that Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in sub-Saharan Africa, and the world generally, conflicting figures are presented at various occasions by organisations and stakeholders.
In the last few years, the federal government has been giving figures of 7 million to 11 million, until UNESCO recently pegged it at 20 million, and the latest from UNICEF of 18 million.
While the figures keep fluctuating, reasons that have been adduced for the continued rise in the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria include financial incapacitation, violent conflicts, ignorance on the part of parents/guardians, lack of political will to confront the ugly phenomenon, socio-cultural complexities, distance to schools, physically challenged children and orphans, child labour and migration, among others.
The most endemic states of the out-of-school children problem, according to a federal government report, include Kano, Akwa Ibom, Katsina, Kaduna, Taraba, Sokoto, Yobe, Zamfara, Oyo, Benue, Jigawa and Ebonyi.
The Chief, Education of UNICEF Nigeria, Dr Saadhna Panday-Soobrayan, in a paper titled ‘Global Overview of Out of School Children’ he presented in October last year, said Nigeria’s out-of-school rates are flatlining and have hardly shifted in 20 years.
He noted that wealth plays a much larger role in inequalities, saying that, at the primary level, OOS rates among the poorest households are almost five times those among the richest households.
He said the study also showed that the countries with the highest OOS rates also have the highest rate of learning poverty.
However, the federal government has argued that the high figures given by the international organisations are more encompassing, with both secondary school students and youth who are out of school, but the number remained less than 10 million for children of primary school age.
Primary school statistics
On their part, educationists and other experts agree that to address the challenge of out-of-school children, emphasis should be placed more on children who should be in primary school.
UNICEF data showed the trend in out-of-school children at the primary level in the country from 2000 to 6,437,000, but that number kept increasing annually and in 2022 rose to 9,663,000.
Meanwhile, in the 2018 National Personnel Audit, the projected primary age population in Nigeria was 40,841,946, out of which 30,648,028 were in-school (6-11) and 10,193,918 (24.96%) classified as out-of-school. This dropped by 4.64% compared to 29.6% in 2012 (UNICEF, 2012).
On a zonal basis, the North West is said to have the highest number of out-of-school children in primary school, 3,490,671 (34.24%). Of this number, 2,047,532 (58.66%) were males and 1,443,139 (41.34%) were females.
The North East zone is second with 2,001,038 (19.63%) and of this, 1,341,856 (67.06%) were males and 659,182 (32.94%) females.
The South West zone is third with 1,451,740 (14.24%) and of this, 1,032,449 (71.12%) were males and 419,290 (28.88%) females.
The North Central is fourth with 1,329,111 (13.04%), of which 700,498 (52.70%) were males and 628,613 (47.30%) were females.
In the same vein, the South South zone is fifth with 1,208,182 (12%), of which 675,820 (55.94%) were males and 532,362 (44.06%) females.
Finally, the South East zone is sixth with 713,176 (7%); 542,466 (%) males and 170,710 (%) females.
Barriers to accessing school
Presenting a paper tagged ‘Root Causes, Dimensions and Manifestations of the Out-of-School Children Phenomenon in Nigeria,’ Dr Aminu Abdu Bichi said supply-side barriers identified as preventing access to continuous education include inadequate implementation of pre-primary articulation policy to public primary schools, shortage of teachers and caregivers at all levels of basic education schools, safety/security of the children, incessant and prolonged teachers’ strike actions and low teacher commitment.
Others include learner-unfriendly school environment; (most pronounced is inadequate school infrastructure), lack of provision for the education of special needs learners in basic education, weak or non-existent social protection of vulnerable children and non-availability of schools in some communities.
Though the federal government has committed to providing equal access to free, universal, and quality basic education to all Nigerian children of primary and junior secondary school age, yet it fails to solve the problem of out-of-school children.
The federal and state governments have taken several steps to strengthen the basic education system and improve access to vulnerable and marginalised children.
Most notably, the federal government introduced the Universal Basic Education Programme (through matching grants to states), school feeding programme, almajiri education programme, conditional cash transfers, teacher professional development and Better Education Service Delivery for All (BESDA) Programme among others.
According to data from UBEC, efforts were made to ensure quality and equity in UBE service delivery and broaden access and create learner-specific opportunities for all classes of the OOSC population.
The data showed that between 2000 and 2018, the number of students in primary education increased by 45 per cent while in JSS, student enrollment tripled.
Gross enrollment ratio (GER) in primary education improved from 85.1 in 2010 to 87.5 in 2018 and school net attendance rates improved from 64 per cent in 2007 to 68 per cent in 2021.
The report further said the primary OOSC rate declined from 37 per cent to 32 per cent between 2018 and 2021.
UBEC, however, admits that despite recent improvements and the persistent efforts of the federal government, the challenge of OOSC still poses one of the most significant areas of concern affecting Nigeria’s educational development.
Available data further revealed that 1 in 5 of the world’s OOSC is in Nigeria—approximately 10.2 million children in Nigeria who are OOS at the primary level and 8.1 million who are OOS at the junior secondary level, which accounts for 15 per cent of the total number of OOSC globally.
Also, 1 in 3 children is OOS in Nigeria, with 12.4 million having never attended school and 5.9 million having left school early.
It further showed that 66 per cent of all OOSC are in the North East and North West, 86 per cent are from rural areas, and 65 per cent from the poorest socio-economic quintile, while more than 50 per cent of girls are not attending school at the basic education level, and only 1 in 3 adolescents eligible for senior secondary education are attending.
A teacher, Sophia Emmanuel, said addressing the primary age of out-of-school children remains the most important because that is the foundation of learning and when a child misses that foundational learning, he or she will be struggling.
“When you get children to at least finish primary six, they will be able to read and write and so when they fail to attend secondary school, they will be able to integrate into the society if they can identify and read some words and from there, if the opportunity presents itself, they can learn more or go to secondary school,” she said.
She noted, however, that more emphasis should be placed on primary school-age children in rural areas, as that is where the highest numbers of out-of-school children are domiciled.
The teacher also commended some programmes adopted by government and international organisations, such as cash transfer and school feeding which, according to her, boost enrollment and attract more children to school.
She said if the government will strictly adhere to that and provide the necessary learning materials and infrastructure, among other things, like good learning environment, the number of out-of-school children will be drastically reduced, if not eliminated.
An educationist, Michael Sule, said there are many parents who do not want their kids to go to school, especially in the rural areas, not because they don’t see the importance of education but rather because of poverty and they need the children around to help out either on the farm or in other labour areas.
“If we concentrate on the primary-age children, especially those who have never been to school, and give them reasons to be in school, like providing them with a good meal, good playing ground, and make learning fun for them, no child will want to stay back at home to miss school,” he said.