President Muhammadu Buhari and other global leaders gathered in London for a two-day Global Education Summit that aims to raise US$5 billion for education globally. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted school systems, resulting in school closures in 2020, with many schools turning to virtual learning where it was possible. A recent report found that in low middle-income countries, less than a third of students are back to having in-person lessons. It is therefore more important than ever to shift our gaze to the impact of the pandemic on the education of our children and their short- and long-term health.
The goals of the summit are great and there is no doubt that Nigeria’s education system will benefit from some of the funds that will be raised. But will more money solve the problems in the system? Over the last decade, the nation’s education system has faced one incredible challenge after the other and in most other societies, education would be at the top of the political agenda. One in five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria. This is a statistic that should keep our political leaders awake at night and not least, our President.
Nigeria’s Education Crisis
The problems plaguing Nigeria’s education system include but are not limited to strikes in higher institutions, school closures due to the pandemic, which led to the West African Examination Council (WAEC) delaying final exams, causing many students to lose out on entries to the next level of education and the existing inequity between public and private schools. This inequity was further highlighted as activities in public schools ground to a complete halt while many private schools were able to switch to virtual learning. In addition to all that, kidnappings of staff and students from schools have escalated from lone incidences such as the kidnapping of 276 school girls in Chibok that caught the world’s attention in 2014, to almost weekly occurrences.
The education crisis should be front page news in the Nigerian media, the subject of protest and agitation and the burning topic on everybody’s lips. But it is not! Why? Is it because the catastrophic consequences of little or no education on the health, wellbeing and future of our children are not immediately obvious? It may be that young people are not sufficiently represented in the current administration and are therefore unable to speak up on matters affecting them. Whatever the reasons are, we cannot ignore the tragic consequences of an education crisis on the well-being of the nation.
Impact of Education on Health
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in Nigeria, we might again be faced with the question of the value of public health and social measures to limit the spread of the virus. The reality of our education system and its impact on our children’s education should be obvious, but what is its impact on the health of our children?
(1) Mental Health — Schools are increasingly becoming unsafe. Children who have experienced kidnappings as direct victims or witnesses could suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This could be harder to diagnose in young children who cannot express their emotions easily. However, the impact will manifest one way or another. The inequities in access to education, especially between public and private schools is becoming very evident. COVID-19 laid these differences bare, especially when we look at the gaping digital divide and how access to virtual learning was impossible for many school children. What is the impact of this in the long term? Will more money solve this? Probably not.
(2) Increased exposure to violence –School closures or absenteeism for any reason increased children’s vulnerability to violence, whether physical or sexual. Parents were unable to leave work to supervise their children, leaving them with limited adult supervision and in many cases, the extended periods in the home was the risk factor, especially where access to protective services was disrupted. Older children may also be exposed to drug abuse, which is a rising problem in Nigeria. Will more money solve this? Probably not.
(3) School meals in Nigeria (Nutrition) — The government has a national school feeding programme to provide meals to help children stay in school and reduce malnutrition, particularly children from low-income families. While this is a great programme, it has not been rolled out in every school, with some states doing better than others. Malnourished children will struggle with learning, engagement and critically, growth, as poor nutrition negatively impacts a child’s ability to learn. Will more money solve this? Yes, if well channelled.
(4) School dropouts and impact on health — This can affect long-term productivity and health seeking behaviour. Child dropouts could be required to engage in physical labour which could affect their health and leave them prone to chronic diseases. In addition, girl child dropouts are at risk of child marriage which will have lasting consequences on their education and well-being. Will more money solve this? To an extent, if well targeted, however decisive policy action and legislation is needed to ensure girls can continue their education.
(5) Poor health protection for children — Many Nigerian schools have poor emergency management and response systems. Although risk of COVID-19 is lower in children, it is not at zero and may get worse with new variants. Yet, many schools do not have regular water supply for handwashing and children learn in over-crowded classrooms or live in crowded boarding facilities. There have been reports of children contracting and even dying from cholera. Will more money solve this? Yes, if well targeted.
While more money may help solve some of the problems in our education system, we must also focus on implementing and sustaining interventions that require political will. The impact of our poor educational system has become an existential issue, unfortunately, a vast number of Nigerians do not readily perceive this. The decisions we make today about the education of our children will have huge implications, not only on the health of our children, but also on the very existence of our national constructs.
As the Government of Nigeria’s delegation at the Summit returns, the Ministry of Education must get to work immediately. The Government needs to urgently declare a national emergency on the challenges our schools face. The public must be aware of the impact of a poor educational system on the health of children and use their voices to remind our government of their responsibility. We may still have a window of opportunity to turn this challenge around, so now more than ever, our political leaders must seize the opportunity to do what is right for the future of our children.