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Reforming Nigeria’s educational System- 6-3-3-4 or 6-5-4?

IReuben Abati

T appears most inappropriate that at a time when the Nigerian education community is still mourning one of its foremost icons, Professor Babs Fafunwa, the Nigerian authorities have chosen to continue their attack on the 6-3-3-4 system of education which was introduced under the late Professor’s watch as Federal Minister of Education.

It is common knowledge that the 6-3-3-4, the first major reform in Nigeria’s education system for decades is generally regarded as Fafunwa’s baby, although in one notable presentation, Senator Jubril Aminu, also a former Minister of Education,  argues that the policy was conceived under the Gowon administration by the Somade Commission on Education. No one however has been more vocal and more determined in raising the quality of Nigeria’s education system than Fafunwa.

This was his life-long battle, including among other things, the defence of the 6-3-3-4 system with uncommon passion and faith.

On October 4, however, , while speaking at an Education Summit in Abuja, trying to provide an excuse for the high rate of failure in the Senior School Certificate Examination (SSCE) blamed the 6-3-3-4 system, and asked those who introduced it to apologize to the nation.

Fafunwa not one to shy away from a debate immediately issued a rebuttal, stating that he had no reason to apologize to Nigerians: “It is true”, he said “that I proposed the 6-3-3-4 system of education in 1989.

I don’t have any apology about it. Our problem is not the system but failure to implement what was recommended before the cancellation.

I believe in that system of education and I have written a book on it. Currently, it is being run in the US, Japan and other countries in the world. So what is wrong with our own?”

On October 11, Fafunwa died in Abuja while preparing to deliver a lecture at the National Open University. In the same week of his burial, the Minister of State for Education, Kenneth Gbagi,  spoke at a meeting with the 36 state chairmen of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) about the Federal Government’s plans to scrap the 6-3-3-4 system and revert to the old 6-5-4 system with effect from the next academic session.

There was also a snide remark about how the 6-3-3-4 was imported from the United States, and that in the view of a Federal Government panel on education, this is the source of Nigeria’s educational crisis.

Government cannot be asked to stop functioning because a major citizen is dead but in more decent societies, when a man as prominent as Fafunwa dies, he is celebrated, and definitely it is not when he is still being mourned that the same state that he served would try to undermine his legacy.

Hitting hard at Fafunwa’s legacy in the education sector in the week of his burial is incorrect.

Nigerians have very short memories especially in relation to public performances. Too many significant contributions have been damaged through such selective amnesia; the reduction of a man’s entire life work to just one controversial item is one of the cynical ways in which Nigerians promote the crab paradigm/pull-him-down syndrome.

Before long, with the 6-3-3-4 under assault and so much innuendo about its roots, Fafunwa could end up being remembered wrongly as the man who introduced that system of education that failed! It should not be so with him.

The Minister of Education, Ruquyyatu Rufai has been quoted, in another breath, saying Fafunwa “contributed immensely to the development of education and we shall forever remember him.”  The best way to remember him is to pay proper tribute to his contributions, for he is a man most deserving of respect.

He shared with his wife, Doris, a life-long commitment to social and educational advancement and faith in the Nigerian possibility.

Fafunwa posed a question which should provide the starting point for the missing rigour in the Federal Government’s response when he asked: “so, what is wrong with our own?”  One thing that is wrong is that a purported White Paper has been issued on the plans to reform the education sector and the 6-3-3-4 with effect from the next academic session, without it being openly debated among all stakeholders.

It would be wrong for the Federal Government to present the Nigerian people with a fait accompli,  if a formal study and report exist, they should be made public. It is also presumptuous for the Federal Ministry of Education of a government that is in transition, in an election season, to speak so certainly about post-election policy interventions without giving the people an option and a say.

If President Jonathan is passionate about dumping the current system of education, he should make it a campaign issue and make a reasoned public case for it.

Secondly, the management of the education sector is too whimsical with every new Minister of Education trying to introduce something new, without any rigorous study of the situation.

The last attempt at any form of rigour and debate was under Oby Ezekwesili as Minister of Education, but even some of the policy measures at the time were controversial and she didn’t stay long enough in that Ministry to follow through on her proposals.

The Federal Government wants to change the 6-3-3-4 system, but what actually exists is something else called the 9-3-4, evidenced in the 2005 introduction of Basic 1-9 categorisation which merges the first six years of primary education with the first three years of secondary school education.  Jubril Aminu says it is still the 6-3-3-4? But how?

It is partly this confusion that has compelled many middle class families to patronize American, British and Turkish-style educational institutions which are all available in Nigeria.

Students in such schools do not all sit for the local SSCE, GCE and NECO examinations; they are being prepared for foreign education and being brought up to understand the difference between them and their less privileged peers.

This sharp class division is part of the problem, not the 6-3-3-4, because it is the same people who are supposed to think through Nigeria’s education system and build it up who are taking their own children away from the system to benefit from what other countries have built. Thus, the Nigerian public education system is in a sorry state: primary schools without desks and blackboards, universities without current libraries.

Thirdly, there has been no political will to centralize education as a national priority. The President reportedly griped about 6-3-3-4 for example: what has he done to intervene in the crisis in the South East where state-owned universities have been shut down for more than three months by aggrieved lecturers? How much effort has his government made to raise standards in the schools? The education sector is poorly funded.

Teachers are not paid their salaries on time. The teachers who are supposed to implement the curriculum and give it their best shot are all distracted looking for money to survive.

There is no effective system in the country for training good teachers at the  nursery/primary and secondary school levels; teachers who are attuned to the demands of human resource capacity in the age of globalization.

A weak primary education system automatically produces weak students for the secondary schools, which are no better either, and so the chain of mediocrity continues up to the higher education level and the cycle completes itself with the same garbage fed back into society with serious implications for national competitiveness.

Still there is so much desperation to fit into this cycle and acquire the paper qualification that has become an end in itself in Nigeria, and hence, a high rate of examination malpractice and failure.

The country is a victim also of the collapse of values, bottom-up, and top-to-bottom, blame the politicians who steal public resources and live ostentatiously; the administrators who steal the funds meant for the education sector; the religious leaders who preach the message of miracles and prosperity, and parents who are willing to help their children cheat.

Fourthly, there has been no proper understanding of and implementation of the 6-3-3-4. Its key target is to develop every Nigerian child according to his or her ability and to ensure that those who have technical and vocational skills receive the basic education that empowers them accordingly while children with higher scholastic abilities proceed to the tertiary education level.

It is a sorting system and a constructive manpower development strategy for national development. Under this system, a child spends six years in the primary school,  takes a national common entrance examination and proceeds to the secondary school where he spends the first three years called Junior Secondary

School (JSS 1 -3; now called Basic 7-9). After three years, he or she sits for the Junior Secondary School Examination. Those who pass this examination proceed to the Senior Secondary (SSS 1 -3) and thereafter higher institutions. Those who fail are expected to drop out and proceed to a vocational trade centre or an apprenticeship guild.

Thus, the system accommodates both the bright and the average and gives every child an opportunity to be useful to society. But we got it wrong, because the enabling conditions were non-existent. There is an in-built assumption that every child will compulsorily go to school up to the junior secondary school level.

This never happened. Over 8.2 million Nigerian children are reportedly out of school.

They may end up as artisans but without the relevant skills. Today, Nigeria can no longer boast of a strong artisan class. In the age of the computer, and technology, we have artisans who insist on doing things the way of their fathers.

More skilful artisans from neighbouring countries are now preferred, our own artisans are dropping their implements and taking to motor-cycle riding and crime.
The 6-3-3-4 also did not produce the expected technician class because of the emergent culture of automatic promotion, and every family’s insistence on university education.

Even if this was not so, the technical colleges, government trade centres, and women’s training colleges of old which taught technical works and arts and crafts with qualifications leading to the City and Guilds or the Pitman’s Certificate in Secretarial Studies have all been abandoned through poor funding and sheer neglect.

The 6-3-3-4 formula would have bridged the present gap, by developing a two-stream manpower track. Instead, we are churning out certificate holders who have a lot of knowledge acquired through rote learning, but who lack understanding and basic skills, and so they are almost unemployable.

In Sierra Leone, there has been a review of the 6-3-3-4 system in the last year resulting from similar concerns about mass failure in secondary school examinations.

Perhaps, there is something we can learn from the Sierra Leoneans. They are planning to replace the 6-3-3-4, with a 6-3-4-4 system which translates into an additional year of secondary school education.

Nigeria wants to go back most conveniently to the 6-5-4, because it is always convenient to go backwards, moving forward requires energy and innovation. The issue at stake is not a play of slogans, it is about national destiny.

No one should seek to reduce educational management facilely to the logic of football pitch formations: it is so easy to mouth slogans: 6-3-3-4, 9-3-4, 6-5-4 but even in football, the litmus test is really in the effort made, the discipline of the players, the commitment of the handlers and the determination to succeed. Nigeria continues to miss the goal in its education sector because these basic values are missing.

It is not about Fafunwa then, the tragedy is ours and the future of our children.