Before government sends parents of out-of-school children to prisons

Nigeria’s Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, often wears a sombre countenance and perhaps for good reason: everything about education in the country seems to be falling apart on his watch. In his latest controversial step, he has threatened to jail parents who keep their children away from school. Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal examines if that is a policy worth the nation’s attention.
Unease lies the head that wears the crown and the nation’s Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, illustrates that point. The sombre-looking government appointee in the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is currently superintending over an education system that is haemorrhaging in all places. Everyone seems to be at their wit’s end except the private education sector.  

In the fright of the system likely bleeding to death, a somewhat knee-jerk announcement was made to the nation that the federal government would soon implement a policy to prosecute parents who refuse to enrol their school-age children in school.“Unless the issue of parents who refused their children going to school is made a crime, and we start jailing parents, the menace of out-of-school children will not be resolved. There are many who are still working behind culture and religion. So the ministry is to effect this policy so that any parent whose child of school age refuses to take them to school will be jailed,” the minister asserted.

It was muted sigh that greeted the October announcement by the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) that the population of out-of-school children in Nigeria has increased from 10.5 million to 13.2 million – the country is ranked as having the highest number of out-of-school children in the world. In April 2018, UBEC had pointed out that the previous statistics was not reliable and decided to audit the number.

At the moment, Nigeria is the world’s capital of out-of-school children with more than 13 million of them anywhere but in the classroom.
Yet, the government cannot be said to be looking the other way regarding the crisis that shakes the very foundation of the nation’s education. In desperation, the minister suggested that parents keeping their children out of school are trying to sabotage the government’s efforts at ensuring a better future for the younger generation.

While speaking on matching grant and other intervention funds for basic education in Nigeria, Adamu said: “In the six years preceding the (President Muhammadu) Buhari administration, between 2009 and 2014, the federal government spent about N360 billion worth of intervention on basic education covering textbooks, teacher professional development, construction of classrooms and library resources among others.”

In 2015, matching and non-conditional grants disbursements to 15 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory amounted to N68.4 billion while in 2016, grants disbursements to 29 states and the FCT amounted to N77 billion. In 2017, the federal government provided a total of N95 billion to 24 states and the FCT, and another N109 billion to 20 states and the FCT.Adamu further lamented that despite all grants and special funds provided things have continued to fall apart in trying to keep children in school. He blamed the state governments.

“Having come to this painful conclusion, the federal government decided to deduct from source, part of the last tranche of the Paris Club refund from all the states that have not been able to access their monies from (UBEC).“If this attitude of deliberate refusal on the part of states to provide counterpart funding for basic education continues, then the federal government will have no choice than to sustain its strategy of deducting counterpart funding of states percentage from source,” the unhappy minister added.

The idea of jailing parents who prefer their children to stay at home or roam the street is not new. It has been around for years. It has become a threat employed by many governments in the country when they appear to be bereft of ideas of how to contain the scourge of out-of-school children, argue education experts.

Take some examples.
In 2016, the government of Borno State had breathed fire and brimstone that it would prosecute parents who fail to enrol their children in school, when its Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Kaka-Shehu Lawan, said: “Any parent either out of ignorance or willingly refuses to send his child to school will be made to face the full wrath of the law. The government has directed the Borno State Basic Education Board to mobilise all children of school age to be enrolled in schools.

“It has also invested heavily in constructing new schools and renovating those vandalised by the Boko Haram terrorists in the course of the insurgency, so as to provide a conducive atmosphere for learning.” Perhaps, taking a cue from Borno, a year later, a professor of English, Ismaila Tsiga, also called for the prosecution of parents who fails to enrol their wards in the free compulsory basic education. Tsiga, a former education commissioner in Katsina State claimed that no state in the country had yet prosecuted any parents who failed to send their children to school for the free compulsory basic education as provided by the UBE Act 2004.

“About 10 million children are out of school in Nigeria and 9.5 million are enrolled in Almajiri schools. We can’t bring our children up that way. That is why we must collectively address the issues of Almajiri schools. And we have suggested how to do that.“We need to reform and upgrade them. Community should upgrade the schools by establishing Arabic schools that will provide certificates to our Almajiri graduates to build their career. The government should take steps to implement the Universal Basic Education, UBE Act of 2014 which makes provision for free and compulsory primary education,” professor said. Tsiga was mad that many years after the enactment of the UBE Act, “no state” in Nigeria had fully implemented its provisions of free and compulsory basic education. He was also worried that too few people in the north give birth to too many children.

“People have to address the issue of producing children they cannot maintain, especially the lower level people. There is the case of six low level civil servants in my office who have a total of 102 children,” he claimed.Just last year, the Edo State government vowed to arrest and prosecute parents and guardians, who violate the Child Rights Law, especially those who deny their children access to education. Yet, out-of-school children have been roaming the streets in full glare and no parent has been arrested and prosecuted.
Often found among out-of-school children are orphans and kids living with disabilities, children in Internally Displaced Persons’ camps and ethno-linguistic minorities. They urged the government to pay particular attention to these ones and the issue of low enrolment will be drastically reduced.

Perhaps, the government at all levels can learn something from the administration of former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan – using the Delta Education Marshals (DEM), which has been replicated, in some states of the federation as a template. The DEM policy was formulated by the state government then to eradicate ‘street culture’ and create what was called ‘learning culture’.The EduMarshals had its mandates to detect and prevent truancy; apprehend school-age children hawking or selling in shops during school hours; maintain school hours’ surveillance, arrest, return or register any child found outside during school hours. The EduMarshals were also to provide intelligence to relevant ministries, police and stakeholders on any matter relating to a child, to make a child less than 18 years of age to attend school or learn a trade (skills acquisition) and to ensure that the streets of Delta State were free of children during school hours.

The country can also copy the Osun State Education Marshalls template and there is the Oyo State government’s Education Monitoring Marshalls, introduced to arrest and discipline pupils loitering around during school hours.However, that is not happening in Nigeria at the moment. A 2018 World Bank report said only about 20 percent of young Nigerians who had completed primary education could read , noting: “Millions of young students in low and middle-income countries face the prospect of lost opportunity and lower wages in later life because their primary and secondary schools are failing to educate them to succeed in life.

According to the report, when Primary Four Nigerian pupils were asked to solve a simple two-digit subtraction problem, more than three-quarters of those asked could not do so.Stakeholders in the education sector believe the pronouncements and so-called policies by the government at all levels are far from being genuine. They argued that if the government expend the same energy and strategy they use in campaigning for elections and getting people to attend their political rallies and vote for them, they will likely succeed in helping parents to keep their children in school.

They argued further that jailing parents because their children are not in school is an ill-wind that blows nobody any good. According to them, parents who prefer their children to stay at home, roam the streets are often the impoverished ones – and there are many of them in the northern part of the country.

The stakeholders wondered who will take care of the children if parents are sent to prison. They said it is a no-brainer to also fine a parent who lives on less than $2 a day for refusing to send their children to school. They think it will be too arbitrary and will end up being counter-productive if the government does not first address the drivers – culture, religion, grinding poverty, and extremism – of the out-of-school phenomenon.

In the United States, depending on the state, an errant parent can be fined between $20 and $1,500 or a jail time of five days for his children’s absenteeism in school.A note of warning should be sounded though should the government make good its threat: an American mother died in jail while serving a 48-hour sentence, handed down because she could not pay her children’s truancy fines. She owed about $2,000 in fines and other court costs, which had piled up over more than a decade.

The government should also be ready to prepare foster homes that will cater for children whose parents are serving time in various prisons across the country. It will need to expand existing gaols. It will also need to build new prisons with fitting inscription that says: “Here languish poor, pathetic Nigerian parents who cannot afford to send their children to school.”

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