The odds are stacked against pupils of LEA Primary School, Wuna, located in a rustic community in the Gwagwalada Area Council of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, as their education hangs in the balance.
While schools reopened in Abuja, after the coronavirus pandemic lockdown in October 2020, seven-year-old Amina Ibrahim and her mates also resumed at the Wuna school; only to be faced with challenges that have now become an obstacle to their smooth learning.
A windstorm, which struck while they were away during the lockdown, destroyed parts of the school buildings.
The storm, which blew off the roofs of two of the four blocks of classrooms, is a costly one for a school that had been suffering from acute shortage of basic facilities.
With five classrooms in the two affected blocks gone, pupils of different grades are now put in the same classrooms in an era when social distancing and other COVID-19 preventive measures are still strongly recommended.
Our reporter spoke with several teachers, who asked not to be named for fear of victimisation, over the state of affairs of the school which has a total enrolment population of 348 pupils – 166 boys and 182 girls.
According to the teachers, the shortage of facilities occasioned by the windstorm made the school authorities resort to merging the pupils of Early Child Education (E.C.E) with those of Primary 1.
“We have just resumed for the 3rd Term (April 19, 2021), and the rains are here. Now, Primaries 1 and 2 as well as the Early Child Education pupils have no classroom of their own due to the havoc caused by the windstorm that affected their classrooms. Pupils’ toilet was destroyed too,” a teacher said.
Our reporter also found out from the teachers that “pupils of Primary 2 and 3 are being taught together because the former’s classroom was vandalised by the windstorm.”
“As an interim measure, we had to merge the two classes, despite the attendant challenges of managing the pupils,” one teacher said.
Only primaries four, five and six now have their separate classes.
Aside from the effect of merging pupils of different classes together, the overcrowding resulting from it also poses huge challenges to learning.
For instance, PREMIUM TIMES’ findings show that the E.C.E pupils numbering 34 have been merged with 36 primary 1 pupils, resulting in a situation where 70 pupils learn in a classroom meant for a maximum of 35 pupils.
The same applies to the merger of primaries 2 and 3, which has led to a total of 60 pupils learning in the same classroom “with carrying capacity of 35 to 40 pupils at most,” according to one of the teachers.
Implication of merger of classes
Charles Anikweze, a professor of education measurement and evaluation at Nasarawa State University, Keffi, said the merger of multi-grade pupils in a classroom is abnormal.
“Such a situation is not a normal situation; it is stop-gap measure to accommodate the unforeseen circumstances,” he said.
He, however, said such a teaching strategy is doable with competent teachers.
“Nonetheless, multi-grade learning is still possible depending on how competent the class teacher is. It is doable because what it means is that the teacher has to plan properly to ensure that different age grades of learners with different interest levels, different entry behaviours will still benefit from his or her instruction,” he said.
“What it means is that the teacher has to pick something from the syllabus for lower-grade pupils, handle that one in such a way that the higher-grade pupils will still show interest in what is happening,” he said.
Mr Anikweze, who is the Head of Educational Foundations Department, Faculty of Education at the Nasarawa university, said the teachers would also have to give different tasks to the pupils according to their ability.
Although he argued that teaching of merged classes could yield good results if expertly handled, “It should not be regarded as an ideal way of teaching.”
More troubles for Wuna school
Wuna, an agrarian community, is filled with rice farms and large herds of cattle grazing around waterholes. The community, like the school, lacks potable water, which is crucial in the combat against the raging pandemic.
And if not for its bad roads that get vehicles either stuck in the heaps of sand or mud during the rainy season, Wuna would present a first-time visitor a scintillating picture of a serene and thriving community that is immune from the traffic gridlocks and other daily hazards of living in the satellite towns of the FCT
However, the community’s agony runs deep as the future of its children is “bleak”. The loss of classrooms to windstorm is only one of the woes the pupils and teachers are contending with.
The pupils and teachers are vulnerable to the problem of insecurity as suspected kidnappers were recently arrested from the school building by officials of the Nigerian Army.
“Due to the lack of perimeter fence over the school, kidnappers use the school’s classrooms as hideout at night. Just last February, some kidnap suspects were arrested by soldiers from the nearby army barracks.
“We appeal to the relevant government authorities to help fence the school,” a teacher said, adding that no kidnap case of a pupil has so far been recorded.
In general, the poor state of the school’s facilities and lack of water for handwashing as a preventive measure against COVID 19, has been given as an excuse by some parents who kept their children away from school so they could assist them on their farms.
COVID-19 protocols, a luxury
Attached to one of the abandoned block of classrooms in the school is a banner bearing seven precautionary guidelines against the pandemic with a bold red inscription, “COVID-19 is real.”
The conspicuous banner urged teachers and pupils to “wear face masks” and “wash hands with soap under running.”
However, this reporter observed that while teachers wore their facemasks, pupils were seated in crowded classrooms without facemasks. Water remains a luxury in the entire Wuna community, let alone a running tap for handwashing.
When this reporter sought to know why the school lacked the necessary safety measures, sources within the school who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak to the press, said efforts to get hand-washing materials like running water, soap and hand-sanitisers failed because education authorities failed to supply them.
“We were only asked to resume school without any of the safety measures in place. We were only instructed to observe social-distance while in class,” one of the sources said.
Parents’ COVID-19 scare
Following a directive by the Federal Ministry of Education that all schools should reopen on January 18, 2021, the Wuna primary school, in compliance, resumed classes.
However, parents and guardians expressed unwillingness to release their children for classes due to the state of facilities at the school at a time of global health crisis.
Although very few cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in the past few months in Abuja, a cross-section of parents interviewed by our reporter said they were scared about the lack of preventive measures against the dreaded virus in the school.
A 42-year-old farmer, Sani Hakuri, whose three children attend the school, said his decision to keep his kids at home was informed by the lack of COVID-19 safety measures in the school.
“We learnt that handwashing and personal hygiene are key in staying safe from the deadly coronavirus disease. Yet pupils are crowded in classrooms due to the destruction of the school’s classrooms; safety measures are lacking in the school as well as Wuna community as a whole.
“It is difficult to keep these children at home, due to the way COVID-19 has impacted negatively our source of livelihoods, we appeal to the government to quickly help rebuild the school’s facilities to make learning conducive for our children,” Mr Hakuri added.
A housewife and mother of four, Mohammad Sadika, said, “We cannot afford to get our children infected with COVID-19, since we learnt it could be contracted from crowded places like schools and markets. So, we decided to keep the children at home pending when the school is provided with water for hand-washing and other items like facemasks.”
Mrs Sadika also pleaded with the government to help rebuild the school, “and support parents with source of livelihood so as to help our children learn properly.”
The children of Mr Hakuri and Mrs Sadika are among the several pupils that have stopped attending school since the Wuna school resumed in January, after the lockdown. Officials at the school say about half of the students in the school have stopped attending classes.
Pupils battle against parents’ COVID-19 fear
Shehu Lawal, an eight-year-old pupil at the school, lamented the trouble of having to stay at home due to the lockdown occasioned by COVID-19 and the destruction of his classroom by the windstorm.
“It was hard to stay at home a little longer after the coronavirus pandemic forced everyone out of school, but it is more difficult to learn in crowded classrooms due to the destruction of our classrooms; some of our classrooms have been blown away by windstorm. Sadly, no one knows when the roofs will be repaired,” Lawal said in Hausa.
For 12-year-old Ayuba Amir, he was able to convince his parents to resume school in January 2021, because he is a graduating Primary six pupil.
“The negative effect of the lockdown as a result of the pandemic were too much on me. So, I was excited when our school reopened in January. But my parents did not want me to return to school due to the coronavirus disease. I had to convince them that I needed to finish my elementary education, and must resume to take my final examinations. As pupils, we try to keep to basic hygiene, but it is difficult because of the absence of water and hand-washing soap in our school.”
10.3 million out-of-school children in Nigeria
The Nigerian government in April 2021 said there were 10.3 million out-of-school children in the country. It said various interventions by stakeholders in the education sector had led to a drop from 12 million to 10.3 million.
The Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, Sonny Echono, noted that Nigeria still had problems of access to education.
“As a result of COVID-19, some other children have attained school age, they have added to the number,” he said.
With its many problems unaddressed, Wuna and its only school, with shrinking facilities, may be adding a significant number to Nigeria’s out of school children.
Wuna school mirror of Wuna community
According to the traditional ruler of Wuna (Etsu Wuna), Isah Yusuf, his ancestors migrated from various communities within the North-central region of Nigeria to Wuna community, which literally means “hunting-ground” in Gbari, the predominant dialect of the people. He said the community was famous for its wild animals such as lions, kangaroos and impalas, which drew a lot of great hunters across the region to settle in what is known as Wuna today.
The Etsu Wuna said that the issues of access to clean water and a modern school system as well as primary healthcare, rank top on the list of developmental challenges confronting the sprawling community.
“In Wuna, our wives and daughters literally spend a whole day sourcing for water from the drying pond. They take turns to scoop water from the pond. As a result, children miss school.
“You can see that the primary school does not have water which is desperately needed in preventing the spread of the coronavirus disease. The only borehole we have here has broken down since last year. We have written countless times to the local council authority to help us fix the water problem, there hasn’t been any response to our cry,” the traditional ruler lamented.
Narrating how the school was destroyed, Mr Yusuf said, “In April 2020, while our children were home as a result of the coronavirus disease, there was a windstorm that blew up the school roofs. You can see that a whole block was removed completely by the windstorm, while the rest of the blocks of classroom are affected.”
Asked if the community had drawn the attention of the Gwagwalada Area Council and the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) authority to the state of the school, the traditional ruler said, “The education department of the Gwagwalada council and all concerned are aware of the fact that the school roofs and other critical learning resources like chairs are inadequate.
“My headache as the leader of Wuna is that our children are being denied the opportunity of acquiring the basic education which is the foundation for attaining other life aspirations. Without education, the future of our children looks bleak. The most troubling of this issue is that no one knows when the school will be fixed for the children to resume classes,” Mr Yusuf said.
Closely related to the inadequacy of elementary education in Wuna is the absence of secondary education and its attendant consequences.
“We are faced with a number of challenges in this community. You have walked round the community, but you can’t find a secondary school for our children who have completed their primary education up to junior secondary school level.
“Those who have graduated from here (LEA Primary School, Wuna) either trek long distances to a neighbouring community called Dukpah to attend the schools there or stay at home with their parents and work on the farms. Some of these children end up with the illegal mining activities around the community, which is not good enough for them,” the traditional ruler noted.
Located some miles from the 176 Guards Battalion in Gwagwalada, where an access road to the military facility is tarred up to the Nigeria Correctional Service custodial centre, Wuna is bedeviled by the problem of a dilapidated primary healthcare centre, a typical feature of many rural communities across Nigeria. A portion of the only primary healthcare centre, which is adjacent the primary school in the community, was destroyed by windstorm.
The royal father said, “You can see, too, that the toilet section of the primary healthcare Ccntre has been blown away by windstorm. That gives you an insight into the healthcare problems we are faced with in Wuna.
“Due to the lack of basic social amenities like electricity and potable water that would make life worthwhile, the nurses refused to live in the community. So, when there is an emergency like the situation I talked about earlier, it’s either the person is evacuated to a hospital at Gwagwalada or the person dies.”
Assessment in vain
When our reporter visited the school in April, a teacher revealed that the level of damage to facilities at the school had been assessed by a team of supervisors from the works department of the local council in Gwagwalada.
They recommended the reconstruction of the facilities, but no one knows when that will happen, the teacher said.
“You can see that the rains are here and by September, we will have new pupils in the school,” the teacher lamented.
Abuja education authorities promise survey
The FCT Universal Basic Education Board (UBEB) established on November 15, 2005, and reconstituted on October 12, 2010, has the mandate to provide quality basic education, including early child care, primary, junior secondary and nomadic education, to Abuja residents.
Responding to our reporter’s query about the deplorable state of Wuna school and the concerns of parents over the safety of their wards, Hassan Sule, the acting Executive Chairman, FCT UBEB, told our reporter that he had just taken over the headship of the agency and had directed that a survey of the facilities of the public schools in the capital city.
“Well, you (the reporter) have brought it to my attention. Among our mandates here, is ensuring that every child in the FCT gets quality education, and to achieve this there are things that we want to put in place which include improving infrastructure.
“I have already sent for a condition survey of all public primary schools in Abuja, so that we capture them in our annual school development plan. So, my staff are already carrying out the survey of all school facilities in the territory. This is to ensure that we improve the infrastructures to meet global standards. It is of a right that every Nigerian child has the right to quality education,” Mr Sule said.
A recent visit by our reporter to Wuna revealed that the conditions of the school in the community had not changed over a month after Mr Sule spoke about his plans for the Wuna school and other schools in Abuja.
(This report was supported by the National Geographic Society (NGS)).
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