Nigerian education must break free from its colonial past

Since the 1980s, inadequate facilities, low achievement and poor attendance have plagued the Nigerian education system. Education policies have been volatile and bureaucratic. These issues have partly arisen from under-funding during periods of political instability, military rule and economic crisis. But many of the problems can be traced back to the Eurocentric curricula and teaching methods of the colonial era. Furthermore, in 2010, the primary completion rate was 76 percent and in 2014 junior-senior secondary transition rates were 16 percent. Post-independence reforms have not yielded long-lasting benefits and continue to align with the ideals of the colonial regime.

Although colonial education policy officially began with the 1882 Education Ordinance, the colonial administration started playing a more direct role in the system in 1925 with the publication of the Memorandum on Education Policy in British Tropical Africa. While this policy statement advocated an approach that was ‘adapted’ for ‘black Africa’, Nigerian education was primarily driven by the material incentives of the colonial regime. Throughout this period, the colonialists required “literate, but junior clerical and mid-level manpower…fit to work at government offices, trading companies and…educational institutions”. This “anxiety to produce clerks of the right calibre” explains the literary bias of colonial education, as well as the focus on examination-based certification.

Alongside the abolition of cultural heritage, colonial education contributed to a low demand for technical education, as literary professions provided more promising routes to material success. Even if the colonial curriculum was moderately adapted through industrial subjects and mother-tongue instruction, the individualistic and materialistic values underlying Western education were replicated in the Nigerian context. Schooling was viewed by Nigerian parents as a form of professional training that would help their children achieve Western living standards. These economic incentives directly opposed the goals of socialization and individual responsibility that guided traditional education in pre-colonial Nigeria.

With the advent of independence in 1960, the Nigerian government began to sponsor educational content that better aligned with national unity and economic self-reliance. This can be seen in the promotion of technical education, from implementing vocational subjects to developing polytechnics. They also implemented curriculum reforms, such as basic-level ‘religious and national values’ courses, aimed at contextualising learning and encouraging ethnic cohesion. Social Studies has also been promoted at secondary level to cultivate respect for diversity.

girl sitting at desk looking behind her and smiling

African girl in school classroom | Photograph Gagliardi Images/Shutterstock


However, although there has been increased employment and lower drop-out rates, ethnic and religious tensions have been heightened by a system of competitive grade progression that encourages cheating and discrimination against non-indigenes by school officials. Examination-based assessments give students little opportunity to interact with each other and their environment, leading to falling levels of knowledge attainment. Many Nigerian students and parents still have a literary bias.

Furthermore, the post-independence education system continues to equate education with economic gain. In 2014, the International Organization for Migration reported that academic education was still widely preferred to technical or vocational routes.  Nigeria’s economic transformation blueprint, Vision 20:2020 states that one of the primary goals of education is to provide adequate and competent manpower for economic transformation. So, the success of post-independence reforms has been hindered by a system that continues to align with the ideals of the colonial regime.

The creation of a culturally viable education system requires re-evaluating the educational purpose advanced by the colonial administration. Traditional African education could prove useful in this regard. Rather than a complete return to indigenous teaching, traditional culture and values could be revitalised to solve modern problems. This philosophy has proved successful in the culturally expressive, community-based learning of the Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools set up by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Program. This would allow the Nigerian education system to address developmental needs whilst surpassing its imposed Western structures, acting as a mechanism with which to reclaim Nigerian legitimacy and heritage from the colonial past.

Find out more:

Daily Trust – States spending 7.3 of budgets on education

Vanguard – The Problem’s with Quality, Not Standards

Global Campaign for Education

Thumbnail image: African School Girl Writing outside her classroom, Mali | Photograph Riccardo Mayer/Shutterstock


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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