Covid-19 and worsening menace of out-of-school children

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the education, especially as it concerns children from rural and poor background, even as the country battles with increasing number of out-of-school children. SAMSOM BENJAMIN examines how the pandemic has worsened an already bad situation.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) report titled Protect A Generation indicate that there are 258 million children out of school globally.

The total includes 59 million children of primary school age, 62 million of lower secondary school age and 138 million of upper secondary age globally.

The report pointed out how children from the poorest households across the globe have suffered the greatest loss of family income, missed out most on education and faced the highest risk of violence at home.

Similarly, Save the Children, an international agency, said the coronavirus pandemic has caused the largest education emergency in history, with 9.7 million children globally not returning to school in 2020.

In a global survey report which was launched recently, the agency said children who fall behind in their education run a greater risk of dropping out completely and falling victim to child labour, child marriage and other forms of exploitations.

The Country Director, Save the Children International Nigeria, Mercy Gichuhi, in a recent statement, said Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the education of children from poorer backgrounds and is widening the education gap between rich and poor.

According to her, “Save the Children conducts largest global survey of its kind among some 25,000 children and adults on the impact of the pandemic.”

She said it was necessary for the government to think about how to build a resilient education system to withstand future shocks, as it re-opened schools after closures.

Nigeria situation

Country Representative, Malala Fund, Crystal Ikanih-Musa, said Covid-19 pandemic has forced an additional 39 million students out of school.

She said this was in addition to the over 13.2 million children that were already out of school before the pandemic.

Ikanih-Musa, said this at a press conference to launch a report titled: Girls education and Covid-19 in Nigeria, regretted that the pandemic was frustrating girls’ education crisis in Nigeria.

She warned that, “If leaders don’t act now, we risk losing another generation of girls.”

Pandemic impact

Some parents, who spoke with Blueprint Weekend, said they are ready to skip a school year because they were not willing to send their children back to school till Covid-19 pandemic was over, while others said lack of income was the reason their wards were out-of-school.

A Fashion Designer, Mrs Eunice Ovie, said: “The safety of my children is my topmost priority for now. Even though the government has said it is safe for the children to resume, I will not risk the lives of my children.

“We will wait to see how things unfold. We have employed private teachers to teach them from home for now.”

Similarly, Mrs Murna Azi said, “My children did not resume because my husband lost his job due to the pandemic. He was retrenched last year. They said they would call him after the lockdown but he has not heard anything from them. We are planning to register them in a public school pending when things pick up.”

Nigeria’s fragile education at risk

In a chat with Blueprint Weekend, the Programme Officer, Youth Empowerment Initiative, Kemi Abodurin, said the pandemic poses a serious challenge on Nigeria’s fragile education sector.

“Since the onset of Covid-19, millions of children in Nigeria have been forced out-of-school. For vulnerable and disadvantaged children, the impact has been worse.

“For an already fragile education system, the Covid-19 pandemic poses unprecedented challenges on the government, students, and parents, which will highlight and could amplify some of the cracks in the system.

“As the nation begins to grapple with these challenges, a key question arises: Is the Nigerian education system designed to adapt rapidly to the changing world?

“Given the state of affairs in the world today, the nation’s ability to ensure continuation of learning will depend largely on their ability to swiftly harness available technology, provide adequate infrastructure, and mobilize stakeholders to prepare alternative learning programs.

“Generally, Nigeria’s education sector is not adapting, and is expected to struggle on that front for the foreseeable future.

“However, the consequential socio-economic burden will be borne disproportionately by children of the poor, as compared to those of the rich,” she stated.

North worst hit

Significantly, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), Deputy Representative in Nigeria, Ms Pernille Ironside, on Wednesday, said 69 per cent of Nigeria’s out-of-school children are located in the northern part of the country.

She said Bauchi state has the highest number with 1.1 million children that are out of school followed by Katsina with 781,500.

She made the announcement at a Northern Nigeria Traditional Leaders virtual Conference on Out-of-school Children held in Kaduna.

Ms Pernille said a ministerial strategic plan states that Nigeria has 10.5 million children aged 6-14, out of school.

“When we speak of out-of-sohool children, who are they? It is too easy to keep them nameless and faceless. The latest MlCS data tells us that 69 per cent of out-of-school children in Nigeria are in northern states,” she said.

“These children are in your communities, on your streets, in the households, in your council area. Other sources say the number of out-of-school children is higher.

“But the focus is not the precise number, the focus should be on boys and girls in your communities who lose out on education, lose out of livelihoods, and lose out on hope and the future they can have for themselves, their families, their communities and their country. Nigeria loses out on a literate and skilled workforce it needs to grow economically.

“Nigeria needs to take leap to bring more children into education and into learning. Partnerships and collective actions are essential.

“This is the reason why we are here today at the Northern Nigeria Traditional Leaders Conference on Out-of-School Children. Together we can take the quantum leap to give more children the opportunity to go to and stay in school,” she said.

Ms Pernille explained that in the North-east and North-west states of Nigeria, more than half of primary school aged girls are not in school.

“There are several reasons why these children are not in school. Gender is an important factor in the pattern of educational marginalisation.

“In the conference, we will not only discuss these barriers, we will focus on actions that need to be taken to reduce them. Many parents in northern Nigeria prefer Islamic education over formal education but they are not mutually exclusive. Children need both. “They also have a right to learn to read and write mathematics and develop the knowledge and skills that will enable them to be contributing citizens of Nigeria.

“One approach to address both needs is the integration of basic education subjects into Islamic centres, Quranic Islamiyya and Tsangaya to reach more children with basic education skills. Approximately 26 per cent of Muslim children in northern Nigeria only attend Islamic education,” she said.

She further stated that UNICEF recognises the key role of traditional institutions in northern Nigeria to positively influence parents and ensure that children under their councils are literate.

Way out

In a chat with Blueprint Weekend, the Executive-Director, Connected Development (CODE), Hamzat Lawal, urged governments at all levels to provide inclusive learning to support all students through current Covid-19 challenges.

He said, “In countries such as Nigeria, education should be viewed as a high government priority. Help in increasing awareness of the pressing need for the country’s children to be educated, especially those from low-income families, will benefit the country’s economy in years to come.

“Government aid is needed in terms of investing in educational tools of the future alongside a total revamp of the educational sector. Reforms in the national curriculum post-pandemic would be an effective way to bridge the gap in inequality.

“Aid provided in this direction can be viewed as an investment in human capital; the more educated a country is the more productive. Of all sustainable missions surely the most pressing is to improve lives, and there’s no better way to do so than proper and sound education for all.

Hope in sight?

The federal government, last week Thursday, expressed excitement at the fact that the number of out-of-school children in the country which stood at 10.1 million in 2019, reduced to 6.9 million in 2020.

The Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, stated these during the annual ministerial briefing on the activities of the ministry in 2020.

According to him, the sum of $611 million secured through the World Bank credit facility to support Universal Basic Education recorded a massive enrolment of out-of-school children in 17 states.

The Minister said the National Association of Proprietors and School Owners of Nigeria alone saw the enrollment of one million children, adding that 900,000 Nigerians were ‘taken off the shelf’ of adult illiterates in 2020.

Adamu, who said more out-of-school children would be enrolled in school in 2021, stressed that a $500m loan was secured from World Bank to drive the Adolescent Girls Initiative for Learning and Empowerment programme, to ensure girls were taken off the streets, trained and empowered to live normal and quality lives.

He said, “I can, however, tell you that through the BESDA initiative, we have reduced the figure of out-of-school children from 10.1 million to 6.9 million.”

Similarly, President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday directed the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development to coordinate and lead the deployment of a national plan to address the issue of out-of-school children in the country.

Inaugurating an 18-member Presidential Steering Committee on Alternate School Programme (ASP), co-chaired by the ministers of humanitarian affairs and education, the president said it was unacceptable to see children abandoning formal school to engage in menial jobs and child labour in the markets, streets and workshops.

Buhari said the national plan to be deployed by the federal government, through the humanitarian affairs ministry, would ensure holistic and comprehensive inclusiveness of appropriate basic education for vulnerable children.

‘‘To commence this special education initiative, emphasis should be given to first provide a limited scope of subjects in Mathematics, English language, Basic Science and Social studies.

“Gradually, the initiative will be scaled up to ensure the acquisition of relevant technical skills in the process that can enable the beneficiaries to participate in gainful economic activities,’’ he said.

The President noted that in view of ‘‘United Nations agencies that report a disturbing level of out-of-school children estimated at 13 million the humanitarian affairs ministry had identified the critical need to further address literacy inclusiveness, especially among these vulnerable children.

‘‘While we continue to sustain our efforts on providing formal and conventional education through the activities of the Universal Basic Education Commission under the Ministry of Education, it is still a common sight to notice children abandoning formal school to become apprentices in shops, workshops and markets, whilst many others choose to loiter at markets, become cart pushers and hawkers. These are not acceptable,’’ he said.

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