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Joan Osa Oviawe: Putting education first

Three years after the launch of EdoBEST, the new commissioner of Education in Edo State continues to push the frontier of education sector reform writes Churchhill Okoro.

When Joan Osa Oviawe was confirmed as commissioner for Education in Edo State on 6, October 2021 no one was surprised. That is because of her track record.

In 2018 before she became chairman of Edo State Basic Education Board (Edo SUBEB) there were several worrying trends in public primary schools. Many teachers arrived at school and spent most of the day doing anything but teaching. Some who taught gave instructions in local dialects while others didn’t show up at all.

The result was pupils who could neither read fluently nor solve basic mathematics problems. Indeed, the problem went beyond reading and numeracy proficiency.

“A lot of these kids could not find jobs because they were not employable, and the reason was that the educational system had collapsed,” Governor Godwin Obaseki pointed out in an article in the Financial Times.

To resolve the problem, he observed that beyond erecting school buildings, a fundamental shift in pedagogy was required to cater to the needs of teachers and pupils.

A passionate and experienced education and gender issues specialist, Oviawe was charged with the responsibility of addressing the issues back then.

Implementing reform

The first step she took was to develop a comprehensive plan to right the wrongs in the system. EdoBEST (Edo Basic Education Sector Transformation), a reform programme was launched as a flagship programme to address the situation in schools.

Read also: Saavedra, World Bank Education director calls EdoBEST a success story

Drawing from deep research findings and the result of a comprehensive evaluation of the basic education system in Edo’s 18 local government areas, five key areas of need were identified.

In response, five pillars were agreed upon as sin qua non to total reform: Systems straightening and organisation (SUBEB) development; Teacher professional development and quality assurance; Curriculum development and learning outcome; Community engagement and partnerships; and School infrastructure and facilities upgrade.

These pillars address all the core elements of a functional education system, catering to the needs of teachers and pupils; strengthening Edo SUBEB, the organisation set up by the government to administer basic education; as well as bridging the gap between the schools and communities that house them.

EdoBEST commenced with research and training of several batches of teachers. A new pedagogy was introduced to the basic education system while tablets were given to teachers to aid the teaching and learning process.

Oviawe’s strategy involved the deployment of technology and partnership. Technology that was available locally was easily deployed, what was lacking was sourced from abroad. This pattern was also adopted with sourcing relevant partnerships.

Additionally, institutions like the School-Based Management Committee (SBMC) were set up to bridge the gap between communities and schools, learning materials and other relevant equipment which were hitherto scarce in public schools were provided, while infrastructure enhancement remained a fulcrum of reforms as instituted by Oviawe.

Currently, Edo State teachers receive continuous support in terms of training and career development activities. Exceptional teachers are rewarded while parents play a greater role in the learning process of their children.

Outcomes of reform

As of today, if a teacher in Akoko Edo local government is absent from school, it can be detected miles away in Benin City. The technology is also so exact that pupils’ performance can be tracked, making it possible to know where they need help.

The first impact of EdoBEST was a drastic change in the behaviour of teachers. Data available from Edo SUBEB show that between April 2018 and mid-2021, teacher attendance snowballed by 489%. Similarly, the lesson completion rate rose from 47% in 2018 to 81% in 2021, a 73% rise.

Through the development of a highly skilled, supported, and motivated teacher workforce, infrastructure and integrated school management systems, Dr Oviawe and her team deliver world-class education solutions to Edo State Indigenes.

Currently, 848 public primary schools run on the EdoBEST program. Over 11,356 teachers have been trained while over 274,000 pupils continue to benefit.

Consequently, EdoBEST has received a commendation from states within Nigeria and countries in Africa.

Representatives from Lagos, Kwara and Ondo have visited Edo State to study the model. In like manner, the Governments of Rwanda, Libera and Finland as well as global institutions including the World Bank have either come to understudy the programme or commended it. But the biggest winners are the pupils whose learning outcomes have improved tremendously.

The classroom revolution

Apart from technology and partnerships, a core component of EdoBEST is pedagogy. This method of classroom management focuses on technology and science as the basis of delivering results. Corporal punishment is discouraged while pupils are motivated to achieve results through encouragement and a specially designed reward system.

Through fun, games, encouragement and a warm environment, pupils are encouraged to learn. Those that are not at par with their peers undergo a remedial programme to learn at the right level thereby enabling them to catch up.

When Covid-19 broke out, EdoBEST from home was conceptualized to ensure that the Edo child was not left behind. Pupils received lessons in their homes through multiple platforms and assessments were carried out by hundreds of teachers remotely.

Describing the impact of EdoBEST in April 2021, Jaime Saavedra Chanduvi, Senior Director, Education Global Practice at the World Bank noted that “EdoBEST can be a model for countries.”

Unending reform

The appointment of Oviawe is a testament to the fact that Governor Obaseki is truly committed to education sector reform. Many in the state anticipate widespread reform on the back of her appointment, similar to what has occurred at SUBEB.

A PhD holder in Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education, Dr Oviawe hold an MSc degree in International and Intercultural Education as well as a Bachelors degree in Public Policy and Administration.

She is a visiting fellow at the Institute for African Development at Cornell University and a faculty fellow at Telluride House, Cornell University both in the United States of America.
In line with her life-long passion for gender and education-related issues, Oviawe has participated in several global discussions and e-forums on women that were sponsored by multilateral institutions including the World Bank, UNESCO, UN Women and UNIFEM.

“This is all about the children,” she is noted to say continuously as she exudes passion for the education of young people across Edo State. “When she came in, everybody had to sit up,” a director at Edo SUBEB said while describing Oviawe.

In the course of her career, Oviawe has founded a number of NGOs to further entrench her vision for women and education. She is the founder of Africa Special Interest Group (ASIG) of the Comparative and International Education Society, an active and vibrant scholarly community that encourages and supports critical inquiries into African educational issues.

A day before her appointment as commissioner, 1,000 fellows were inducted into a 2-year fellowship programme for teachers who will redefine Edo State’s teacher corp in the near future. Many believe that this is just one of several steps that will follow.

On the afternoon of 6, October, Governor Obaseki noted that “we are here to witness the swearing of men and women, who you will agree with me, have distinguished themselves in their chose careers, who we and you have found worthy to serve as Commissioner and Special advisers in our dear state, Edo State” as Oviawe and others were sworn in. Many Edolites share the same view.

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