Low-fee schools have received sustained attention in recent times for both the right and wrong reasons. One of the biggest challenges they face is access finance to improve quality and expand operations. STEPHEN ONYEKWELU shines light on an indigenous drive to provide funds for these schools.
Realities of low-fee schools
At 7:30am, Muyibi Street in Olodi Apapa is already bubbly with activity; bus drivers hurl abusive words at each other to gain right of way, passengers complain about running late to work and sometimes traffic grinds to a halt as Lagos yellow bus drivers and concerned passengers step out to control traffic flow.
One remarkable feature on the 1.25 kilometres long street with over 200 residential buildings is the early morning school runs. Some of the houses on this street have been around for the past 100 years, judging from the rusty, coffee-brown corrugated roofing sheets and the architectural design commonly called face-me-I-face-you.
Mothers and housemaids walk the streets and shout intermittent notes of safety to children, who tend to run off on their own, all dressed up in a variety of school uniforms. Most of these children will end up in one of the over 10 private schools, which charge less than N10, 000 per term, on Muyibi street. These schools have been classified as low-fee private schools and have become common landmarks on almost every street on Mainland Lagos. This is however, not synonymous with Lagos as some other states in the country are witnessing similar scenario.
Low-fee schools specialised in the delivery of basic education have drawn attention for both helpful and unhelpful reasons.
“I like to take my child to school because education is very important. I have a daughter at the Bridge International Academies. I wake up by 4:00am to get things ready because the school resumes by 6:30 – 7:00am. My daughter is excited and she is good at phonics. I struggle to make ends meet but will see to it that my children become graduates,” Bukola Samson, a mother whose daughter is five years old, said during a visit to one of the low-fee schools run by the Bridge International Academies, a chain of private schools that delivers basic education with the low-fee school model in Lagos.
Field visits to 10 of such schools across Lagos: Ajegunle, Ikorodu and Alimosho local governments, five schools in Benin City, coupled with long hours of interview at the Association for Formidable Educational Development (AFED) secretariats in Lagos and Benin City show that many low cost schools are struggling to keep their doors open to the growing number of parents who come to them seeking basic education for their wards.
Many low cost schools in Lagos and Benin City can best be described as makeshift structures, located either in uncompleted church buildings, church multi-purpose halls, residential buildings (with tenants living alongside the schools) and crowded noisy environments (which makes learning a serious challenge).
During a visit to one of such schools, Brighter Future Nursery and Primary, School in Isolo area, the school was located in the type of building called face-me-I-face-you of 12 rooms. The school renovated and occupies six of the rooms.
When the reporter arrived at the school’s premises, 11:13am some of the tenants were busy preparing lunch and the aroma filled the air while pupils in each of the six classrooms chorused one repetitive rhyme or item of a lesson as instructed by the teacher.
“We used to stay in a smaller building across the street but as the number of our pupils grew, we had to expand into this building. We hope to eventually acquire a piece of land and build our permanent site,” the proprietor, who wishes to stay anonymous said.
The children drank water from a 50-litre covered bucket placed in front of one of the classrooms. All the pupils used one cup placed on the covered water container to drink. The classrooms were small, about 3 metres by 3 metres and contained over 10 pupils.
Three pupils were randomly selected from primary four (a girl and two boys) to read a comprehension passage from an English Language text meant for the class. The girl, eight years old, read fluently but could not identify some of the words when asked to pronounce or tell their meaning independently of the text. Between the two boys, one struggled to read with little comprehension but the other could not read at all. The proprietor in response said the latter had only joined his school in September 2018.
“I do this out of passion. The school operation has not been profitable but I am consistent because if I do not do this, there are many children who will not have access to education, simply because their parents cannot afford to send them to primary schools that charge higher fees. I am a teacher myself,” the proprietor said.
Kings and Queens Primary Nursery and Primary School situated in Ajegunle, is located within the same premises as a palm wine pub. Although the pub resumes around 4:00pm, the children are exposed to an unhygienic and noisy environment. Some of the teachers are indeed senior secondary school certificate holders and see teaching as pastime.
“I have teachers who are senior secondary certificate (SSCE) holders. But they tend to teach with passions. Currently, I have only two, I encourage my teachers to further their studies and obtain at least the National Certificate in Education (NCE),” Ahmed Usain, proprietor of Tawakalitu Schools, in Ajeromi Ifelodun, said.
In Benin City, low-cost schools operate some at healthy locations and some others operate from uncompleted, dingy church buildings.
Low-cost schools service low-income neighbourhoods where waste management is inefficient and sometimes, these schools are located beside heads of dirt and clogged water channels, which produce unpleasant odours with negative health implications.
Four challenges and AFED
Some of the findings of the investigation show that low-cost schools face four challenges, which include government regulation, tax and revenue, managerial knowledge gap among the operators, and lack of funding opportunities.
Some proprietors who were interviewed during the investigation said they are not able to access loans and expand their operations. This, they said, was because they do not have ministry of education approval and risk closure of such school. Lack of access to finance means these schools are not able to improve and expand.
This explains the financial circle these schools are in. With government’s approval; banks are willing to give loans. But when there is no government approval, banks do not want to deal.
However, the Association for Formidable Educational Development (AFED) has emerged on the scene to help low-fee schools’ operators interface with government, particularly in Lagos State, where there has been appreciable milestones. The Association has also established a secretariat in Benin City.
Some low-cost school operators say in the midst of their struggles unscrupulous government officials take advantage of them. They come to harass the school owners and because school owners are afraid of their school being shut down, they are willing to comply. “So, waste management comes, local government agents come, personal income tax will come and even corporate income tax will come too.
“Government schools have failed in the sense that they are overcrowded and there is no transfer of knowledge. Parents want alternatives. One thing parents consider as strong measure of knowledge transfer is in the ability of their children to speak fluent English Language,” Ehi said.
Segmentico’s mission to change the narrative
Segmentico Ltd, an innovative financial company is breaking new ground in its push to increase access to funding for low-fee private schools at a time when the numbers of Nigeria’s out-of-school children are growing but the government’s ability to intervene is waning.
Low-fee private schools are filling the gap and providing formal education to children and wards of low income earning Nigerians, in a country where over 70 million people live below the poverty threshold of $1.90 a day (N685.43).
All the proprietors of low-fees who have been interviewed have said they are not able to access loans and expand their operations. This they said was because they do not have the ministry of education approval and risk closure of such school. Lack of access to finance means these schools are not able to improve and expand.
Since most of the low-fee schools are run by private individuals, most banks will not lend to this sector. There are between 18,000 – 25, 000 private schools in Lagos alone, all of which have created assets – land and buildings. As they expand, these schools need money to put up additional classrooms or a laboratory or some other facilities. Most of them borrow from private money lenders, paying up to 60 percent interest a year. This slows down improvement and expansion at these schools.
Segmentico has developed replicable sector-specific systems and processes, which allow for efficient and effective operations. The company currently serves more than 40 schools in Lagos and additional capital will allow the company to extend its successful model to more than 5,000 schools throughout the country over the next five years.
“We have disbursed over N10 million worth of loans and the repayment rate has been impressive 100 percent.” Wale Odeja, founder, Segmentico Ltd said. “But we have limited funds to provide loans to all applicants and the maximum loan amount is too small for some applicants.”
Segmentico has embarked on a journey of transforming into a leading, customer-centric, diversified lending company; it plans to continue building on its leadership position in the education finance space with an objective of positively transforming the education lending space in Nigeria. The core loan offering enables low-fee private schools to improve the quality of education and increase the capacity to educate more children from low-income households
The company has mapped out plans to expand across the country through strategic partnerships. It will continue to emphasise on building capabilities in risk and control, analytics, underwriting, information technology, people and brand to ensure that Segmentico delivers growth which is sustainable with robust asset quality.
“Our school’s partnership with Segmentico has enabled us to reach out to more children with all the opportunities that a good education can provide” “Abioye Funmilola, head, Rosemanuel Educational Services said.
Segmentico’s model is working because people have little faith in government schools and are willing to pay more for quality education, while schools with no access to bank credit are proving to be bankable as borrowers. The company was founded in March 2019 and is determined to focus on continuous innovation in products and services to remain relevant to changing customer needs, leveraging technology to deliver better customer experience.
Low-fees schools have also come together under the Association for Formidable Educational Development (AFED). This Association’s emergence on the scene is helping low fees schools’ operators interface with government, particularly in Lagos State, where there have been appreciable milestones. The Association has also established a secretariat in Benin City.
AFED schools got 40 out of the 60 available slots meant for the Code Lagos training programme. “There is a need for AFED schools to begin repositioning students to harness, create and leverage on local and global opportunities” said Ronke Soyombo, director general, Office of Education Quality Assurance, Lagos State Ministry of Education at AFED’s 2018 National Congress.
But a lack of access to funds leads to skills gap because the schools are not able to train and re-train their teachers. Some of the schools employ Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (SSCE) holders for two reasons. The communities in which some of the low fees schools are located are the type in which graduates flee from as soon as they are able to do so. Consequently, those left to be employed are SSCE holders, who sometimes present pleasant surprises.
“I understand that people expect us to employ either the National Certificate of Education (NCE) holders or first-degree holders. The truth is that given what we charge as school fees and our target population, we may not be able to sustainably pay some of them. However, SSCE holders come in handy and some of them outperform some NCE holders” Dele Ehi, a teacher and low fees school owner in Benin City, Edo State said.
Finance and school administration
Some of the low-cost schools pay as low as N50 per day to go to school but the parents struggle to keep up and may not be able to pay N200 for continues assessment booklet. A low-fee school is one that charges N10, 000 (ten thousand naira) and below per term as school fees.
Some of the cheapest nursery and primary schools in Lagos charge above N7,000 as school fees, while those above average charge from N30,000 to as much as N500,000 school fees per term.
There are schools that charge N7000 as school fees per term. Schools registered under AFED in Lagos number between 3, 000 and 5, 000, and in these schools there are at least two pupils per school whose parents cannot afford to pay.
What some school owners do to keep brilliant children is to have their parents render one form of service or the other free of charge to the school. In one case, the father of the children was a carpenter and he would come in to render service to school.
But many of these school owners do not know how to keep records. They keep robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is because the school may not be necessarily profitable but the regular flow of revenue makes it look profitable.
However, at the end of the day when time is taken to calculate income and expenditure, the result is disappointing. A school owner boasted of how much progress she had been making and how profitable her school was. Upon going through her financials she had excluded rent. This was because the school was on her husband’s property.
The school owner was guided to value the space she occupied. A flat in the area she said was N200, 000 and her school sat on four flats. This means she would have been required to pay rent of N800, 000 annually but was not paying rent and did not factor it into her operating costs.
Many of the low-cost schools are run like charity organisation without much thought to either bookkeeping or profit making. What drives them is passion. If school owner continues to run the school for 15 or 20 years, she would have produced a graduate by the end of this period. This is part of what drives them not the profit. They are actually making no profit.
“Parents are struggling to make ends meet in this community. There are pupils who come to school without shoes, food and the parents struggle to provide notebooks. One thing I like about the parents is that they are always willing to bring the children to school,” Ngozi Umeh, a principal at Bridge International Academies in Lagos, said. The Bridge International Academies is a chain of low-cost fees schools with a strong footprint in East Africa.
“The kids are always happy to be in school and looking at the character board; some pupils come to school as early as possible so that their names will appear on the board. They want to be the first child in class,” Umeh said.
Chidinma Joseph, a mother of three, said this of a Bridge International Academy school, “I have been searching for a school to send my two children to but it proved a big challenge. Whenever you come into my house, you will see more than 15 school uniforms, in my children’s wardrobe because I want the best for my kids but did not see the best in these schools. I continued searching until I found this school.”
Low-cost schools and the future of basic education delivery
In 1999, the Nigerian government introduced Universal Basic Education, a programme to provide free primary and secondary education for every Nigerian child aged 6 – 16 years. But the UBE programme got legal backing only five years later, with the Compulsory, Free Universal Basic Education Act, 2004.
In the Act “basic education” means early childhood care and education and nine years of formal schooling; “child or ward” means a person of primary or junior secondary school age who is between the age of 6 years and 16 years whether disabled or not.
The Act provides as follows in Part 1:
1. Without prejudice to the provisions of item 30 of Part II of the Second Schedule and item 2 (a) of the Fourth Schedule to the 1999 Constitution dealing with primary school education, the Federal Government’s intervention under this Act shall only be an assistance to the States and Local Governments in Nigeria for the purposes of uniform and qualitative basic education throughout Nigeria.
This first part of the Act lays the responsibility for the provision of compulsory, free universal basic education squarely on the shoulders of States and Local Government Areas. However, sub-section two shared the responsibility of providing education between the lower two tiers of government and parents. This implies the spirit of the Act acknowledges the role parents have to play to ensure the success of UBE programme.
2. (1) Every Government in Nigeria shall provide free, compulsory and universal basic education for every child of primary and junior secondary school age.
(2) Every parent shall ensure that his child or ward attends and completes his – (a) primary school education; and (b) junior secondary school education, by endeavouring to send the child to primary and junior secondary schools.
As of 2015, Nigeria ranked 103 out of 118 countries in UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) Development Index, which takes into account universal primary education, adult literacy, quality of education, and gender parity.
Low cost school operators may be filling a gap opened up by government’s inability to build new public schools as population grows and new human settlements develop. Existing public schools often have overcrowded classrooms and lack basic infrastructure to deliver functional basic education to Nigerian children who will have to compete in borderless, global labour markets.
But low-cost schools have some homework to do too, believes Julian Dabson, founder of Jumex Infant Jesus Schools, in Badagry, Lagos. Hers is the only approved AFED (low cost) school in the area.
“We lack the necessary tools needed to prepare our pupils for global, digital knowledge-based economy. We do not have computers. This comes down to lack of access to funds. Banks won’t deal with us,” Dabson said.
Experts say low-cost schools have met the need for basic education delivery only halfway. If other countries are investing heavily in basic education, Nigeria should also. Low-cost schools can access the many international grants available for educational development.
“More people will go to such cheap schools and we all know the dangers this pose for the quality of future human capital in Nigeria. There are grants everywhere and these schools should put their houses together, in order to be able to access them in groups,” Odumosu Omolara, chief executive officer at Class Climax Consulting; an educational advisory services company, said.
The Association for Formidable Educational Development is developing a template for low-fee schools registered under its umbrella. The Association has started centralising administration for low-fee schools and for the first time successfully organised terminal examinations for the over 3000 schools registered at its secretariat.
Currently, about 18,000 private schools operate in Lagos, a 50-percent increase since 2011. This expansion of private schools has been supported by aid money.
In 2014, the Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom paid £3.45 million to Bridge International Academies (BIA), a global chain of low-fee schools that aim to deliver education services for the poor. This sum facilitated the entry of the International low-fee schools chain into Lagos.
Experts have also said education has gone beyond what government alone can provide at any level. Private sector participation is necessary. At the basic education phase, the scale- either big or small- does not matter. What counts most is compliance with set standards, especially with reference to the quality of teachers.
“Claims that sometimes Senior Secondary Certificate holders teach better than teachers with the National Certificate in Education (NCE) cannot justify the use of unqualified, unregistered and unlicensed teachers. The minimum qualification to teach is the NCE,” Josiah Ajiboye, registrar and executive officer of the Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria, said when contacted for comments.
Ajiboye said that the National Council on Education at a recent meeting has set December 31, 2019 as deadline for everyone teaching in Nigeria to get registered. The TRCN has also introduced two qualifying examinations for teachers. For the exams next month, 26, 000 would-be-teachers have already registered.
“Whether a school is low- or high-fee, it needs to comply with basic standards. We do not regulate private schools but we regulate their teachers,” the Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria’s boss affirmed.
This report was supported by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) Regulators Monitoring Programme (REMOP) for basic education.