“A different management approach changes the course of an iconic school”
Photo Caption: Immediate past Principal of King’s College, Lagos, Otunba Dele Olapeju
(in sunglasses) and his predecessor, Mr. Ladan with students of the college after a recent event.
By Rotimi Lawrence Oyekanmi
Since that auspicious ninth hour of the ninth day of September, 1909 when King’s College, Lagos was established by the now familiar Act of the British Parliament, through September 20th, a Monday, of the same year, when the maiden class of 10 pioneers was formally inaugurated, Nigeria’s number one public secondary school has not looked back.
Its rich, unique history, retold time after time with nostalgia by many of the proud old boys, draws admiration and a bit of envy from those “not privileged” to have attended the school. Imagine, for a second, what Lagos looked like in 1909, the same year Chief Obafemi Awolowo, former Premier of the defunct Western region was born.
The school project, said to have been erected and furnished at the cost of 10, 001 pounds, began with the construction of the red brick building which houses the administration block in 1907. The edifice is, ironically, still standing. But it is now bearing, understandably, all the visible scars associated with ageing. The wooden structures, now old and light, are a constant reminder of King’s College’s legacy. The concept consisted of a hall to accommodate 300 students, eight lecture rooms, a chemical laboratory and an office.
According to the official website of the King’s College Old Boys Association, the 10 pioneers included I.C Vanghan, I.L Oluwole, Frank Macaulay, Hebert Mills (from Gold Coast – now Ghana), O.A Omololu and Moses King. Oluwole was the first Senior Prefect. Although, the popular belief was that Mr. Hyde-Johnson was the school’s first principal, a book, The Development of the Education Department 1882-1925 written in 1926, revealed that a certain “Mr. Lomax was seconded from the Survey Department” to head the school, assisted by “two European Masters.”
The colonial British government’s aims for establishing the school were “to provide for the youths of the colony, a higher general education than that supplied by the existing schools; to prepare them for matriculation examination of the University of London and to give a useful course of study to those who intend to qualify for professional life or to enter government or mercantile service.”
The first set of staff members “consisted of three Europeans, amongst them a Principal, who gave instructions in English Language, Literature and Latin; a Mathematical and Science Master, together with two (African) Assistant teachers.”
So much has changed since then. From only 10 students at the end of 1910, to 16 in 1914, the population increased dramatically to 5,000 in 1999. However, when the Federal Government decided that Unity Colleges should not be involved in the nine-year Universal Basic Education (UBE) scheme in 2009, the population decreased to 1127. The figure climbed to 1,834 in 2010, when the junior classes were restored, expanding further to 3, 358 in the 2014/2015 academic session.
The staff strength has increased too. At the moment, the school has 138 permanent and 52 temporary teachers. Another 25 members of the National Youth Service Corps also help out with teaching. From its permanent site located behind the Tafawa Balewa square on Lagos Island, the college, in 1990, through former Education Minister, the late Prof Aliu Babatunde Fafunwa, acquired the former Federal School of Arts and Science at Victoria Island, which now serves as its annex.
Many prominent Nigerians passed through the college, both prior to and after the country’s independence in 1960. The list includes Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, the first Chief Justice of Nigeria; Dr Francis Ibiam, the first indigenous governor of the eastern region, Chief Anthony Enahoro, who moved the motion for Nigeria’s independence and Mr. Sylnavus Olympio, Togo’s first president.
The current Emir of Kano and former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Alhaji Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Senate President, Bukola Saraki and two current Ministers – Mr. Audu Ogbe and Senator Udoma Udo Udoma were also former students.
The early days were good for King’s College. Its principal was quite influential, living only a few metres away from the Governor General at that time. The school’s initial success influenced the establishment of Queen’s College for girls in 1927. And after 1960, three more federal schools were established in Okposi, Sokoto and Warri. The number has since increased to 104. This also led to a paradigm shift, with the colonial policy giving way to a Nigerian affair. The goals of the college were then expanded to include, among others: bringing Nigerians together so that they can develop a sense of unity as they appreciate each other’s culture; to inculcate the spirit of leadership and self-discipline in students, through their participation in the management of classroom, boarding house, year groups, cultural and social organisations.”
The school has recorded many firsts. It was the first secondary institution to present candidates for the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate examination in 1912, and also pioneered the Higher School Certificate (HSC) programme in the country in 1950. It was also the first secondary school in Nigeria to be recognised officially by UNESCO, with the Director General at that time, Mr. Koichiro Matsuura visiting the college in January 2009 as part of its centenary celebrations.
But King’s College has also experienced bad times. Poor funding of all the federal colleges, over several years has had a negative effect on the school’s infrastructure. While the number of students increased at a geometric rate, there was no corresponding allocation of resources to reflect it. Until recently, most of the structures built since 1909 for just 300 students were still the same in use when the population increased to about 5,000.
To sell or not to sell
Several controversies have since erupted over what the federal government should or should not do with the unity schools. Due to the deterioration noticed in them, a school of thought reasoned that they should be sold off to willing buyers or ceded to the respective state governments. The proponents of this position argued that the federal government “has no business running secondary schools” This battle, however, has a long history.
During General Ibrahim Babangida’s administration (1985-1993), Fafunwa tried to sell the idea of the federal government relinquishing the unity schools. He could not understand the pressure that was continually mounted on his office, because of just about 100 secondary schools. Of course, the conservatives rose up and opposed the move.
More recently, upon assumption of office, former Education Minister, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili discovered that many of the schools were no longer performing well in the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). She also realised that some of the funds meant for the colleges were being siphoned away by “corrupt individuals.” She then proposed that the federal government should have a rethink on whether it was still desirable to keep the schools.
The uproar that followed resulted in several allegations that the former Minister proposed that the schools be sold to their respective old boys and girls, a charge Ezekwesili denied at that time. The teachers in all the colleges strongly opposed any move to sell them off, for the fear of losing their jobs.
In an article published recently in The Intellectual, Mr. Dennis Okoro, a retired director of the Federal Ministry of Education wrote: “Today, the Federal Unity Colleges have become victims of rot and neglect; the Federal Government appears to have abandoned its responsibility; parent-teachers associations hire and fire teachers for Federal Government Colleges!!; the nation is so often treated with unpalatable stories involving the headships of Federal Government Colleges and Chairpersons of Parent-teachers Associations of their schools.
“However, although, the reasons for establishing the Federal Unity Schools are still valid today, but should the Federal Government lose sight of the current social, economic, and political realties at this time just to retain them? For example, insecurity that pervades the nation coupled with terrorism, displacement of people as well as human trafficking and kidnapping would not encourage any parent to send a child of 11 – 12 year old far from home to attend a unity school outside his environment. Furthermore, the proliferation of private secondary schools, some of which are better equipped than the federal unity schools, have provided parents alternatives choices.
“In the light of the above, should the Federal Ministry of Education/ Federal Government not consider exit strategies for the discontinuation of the unity schools as they stand today? They not only consume a lot of national resources in their upkeep vis-à-vis other areas of education, they have not been true to the goals of the founding fathers if judged by their current performances in the national public examinations. The current reality is that unity schools, although still desirable, are no longer sustainable on the long-run.”
But in a direct reference to those advocating that the unity schools be sold off, former Education Minister, Prof Chinwe Nora Obaji described such suggestions as “misguided.” Speaking at the World Teachers’ Day anniversary, held at King’s College on November 12, Obaji declared: “the misguided theory that attending a public school confers on one the opportunity to buy the school is not only tantamount to a distortion of History, it is simply unfair to all concerned.”
Describing King’s College as “the bastion of Nigeria’s struggle for self- discovery and integrated nationhood,” Obaji advised that while merit as the basis for admission was not a bad idea, “the regional spread, which was an integral part of the original concept of the unity colleges should be adhered to.” She also suggested the reintroduction of History as a compulsory subject at secondary and tertiary levels, to among others, educate students on the purposes for establishing unity schools.
Obaji however frowned at the frequent change of principals at Queen’s College. She said: “That Federal Unity Colleges are a success story is incontrovertible. The prevailing challenge is the high attrition of the Chief Executives of these colleges. A case in point is Queen’s College, Yaba, which has had five principals within a period of six years. Such frequent change of leadership does not allow for consistent policy implementation.”
The immediate past principal of King’s College, Otunba Dele Olapeju also disagreed with those advocating the selling off of the unity schools. In an exclusive interview with the magazine, he said: “I find it laughable for people to say, because the government does not provide enough funds, then the unity schools should be scrapped. Then, since Nigerian cannot provide enough funds and resources for its citizens, let’s scrap Nigeria!
“Decapitation has never been a solution to a headache. We all have to come to the reality that government alone cannot fund education at all levels. Tell me of any developed country in this world that developed from free education. Most of the developed countries of the world have partnerships – government, parents and so on. The only thing the government can do is to create an enabling environment, attractive infrastructure and so on, to allow parents to partner.
“In this part of the world, I am sure that an average Nigerian loves education and Nigerians are ready to put in everything if government creates the enabling environment. As far back as 2003, when we had the conference on tertiary education, parents and stakeholders had actually agreed that government should charge tuition, but government did not have the political will because of the fear of losing election. That’s why we are where we are. Parents, corporate bodies must invest more in public education.”
Olapeju also explained how he worked around the poor allocation of resources to rescue the college during his tenure. He said: “I wrote letters to corporate bodies like Total Plc, Mobil Producing, Central Bank of Nigeria, Julius Berger and so on and I did a follow-up. Luckily, one of them, Total Plc, showed interest. I wrote them a letter in 2010 and in 2011 they started showing interest. They renovated our twin lecture theatre among others. They not only renovated it, they also upgraded it to a world class lecture theatre, comparable to any of its kind in higher institutions of learning worldwide. State-of-the-art facilities were provided at a cost of up to about N200 million.
“I got some partnership deal with Guaranty Trust Bank, Churchgate, AIICO Insurance and some other bodies, who assisted us by making use of some of our facilities on ground and in exchange, developed those facilities and made some payments. From all these resources, we were able to raise about N100 million.
Nevertheless challenges still remain. Olapeju did express some regrets as he leaves office. He told the magazine: “I am leaving at a time when so many of my colleagues I’m leaving behind have challenges about promotion, their future, about whether the schools will still be with the federal government or whether they will be sold out to the ravaging locusts, who want to eat up the unity colleges for their selfish interests.”