How poverty is forcing Nigerian children out of school

Globally, Nigeria ranks third among countries with the highest number of out-of-school children, behind only India and Pakistan, with education deprivation being worsened by several factors. In this report, IJEOMA OPARA examines how poverty is pushing Nigerian children out of school and onto the streets.

IN the Lugbe area of the FCT, thirty-year-old Hadiza Shuaibu lives with her husband and two children in a one-room apartment with shared facilities. She makes “kunun aya,” a local drink extracted from tiger nuts, which she sells to children in the neighbourhood.

Her husband is a local carpenter within the area, but the income generated from both jobs is inadequate to meet the family’s daily needs, much less afford their children an education. Shuaibu told The ICIR that due to a lack of money, her children do not go to school.

“My children, Aisha and Abdullahi, are five and eight years old. They do not attend school because there is no money. On the days I can afford it, I send them for evening lessons. When I cannot, they stay at home. They are home most of the time,” she said.

Abuja resident, Hadiza Shuaibu. Photo: The ICIR/ IJeoma Opara

Aisha and Abdulahi’s fates mirror the life of many of the estimated 20 million Nigerian children who are currently out of school.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2020 Model Estimates on out-of-school children, published in 2022, states that almost 20 million Nigerian children are out of school.

According to the data, the secondary school out-of-school population has grown by 61 per cent, from 6.3 million to 10 million since 2010.

Also, the number of primary school-aged children who are not in school also increased by 50 per cent, from 6.4 million to 9.7 million since 2010.

Globally, this puts Nigeria as the country with the third highest number of children deprived of education, only behind India and Pakistan.

The UNICEF also identified several factors, including insecurity, poverty and gender inequality, as responsible for the rising figure.

Among these factors, poverty plays a significant role in keeping millions of Nigerian children out of school.

Although basic education is free under the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) Act, there are associated costs, including transportation and the purchase of uniforms, which are unaffordable for many families in Nigeria, where more than half the population live in extreme poverty.

Findings by The ICIR showed that enrolling a child into most government-owned primary schools costs between N10,000 and N20,000, while junior secondary schools cost higher due to certain hidden fees demanded by the authorities.

This is also different and higher than the cost of enrolling a child into a private-owned school where some parents believe their children can be well taught.

Some of the fees collected by government-owned schools include N500; Parents Teachers Association (PTA) fees, N1,950; Uniforms, N2,500; Pupil’s file N500; Online registration, N500; Sportswear, N2000 and some textbooks, among others.

When contacted by The ICIR, the FCT-UBEB said education was not entirely free but vowed to tackle these fees.

But beyond hidden fees demanded in some schools, many families are unable to meet up with the necessary financial requirements for educating their children.

Over half the population live in poverty

UNICEF and other organisations have identified poverty as a major driver of education deprivation in Nigeria.

According to the Federal Government, 133 million out of the over 200 million people in Nigeria live in different poverty categories, representing 63 per cent of the country’s total population.

This was contained in the National Multi-Dimensional Poverty Report released in 2022 in collaboration with the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the National Social Safety-Nets Coordinating Office (NASSCO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI).

In the report, the federal government said 65 per cent of the poor (86 million people) live in the North, while 35 per cent (nearly 47 million) live in the South.

The report also stated that two-thirds (67.5 per cent) of children (0–17 per cent) are multi-dimensionally poor, and half (51 per cent) of all poor people are children.

Child poverty, the report notes, is prevalent in rural areas, where almost 90 per cent of children experience poverty.

Out – of – school, pushed into labour

Many of the children who leave school due to the inability of their parents to pay fees end up engaging in menial activities to augment their family incomes.

Nine-year-old Ibrahim Useni*, who attends Local Education Authority (LEA) primary school in Kubwa, was spotted on a Monday morning in March 2023 hawking sachet water under a pedestrian bridge in the area.

He told The ICIR that he was sent out of school due to his parents’ inability to pay the Parents Teachers Association (PTA) levy demanded by his school.

Useni could not confirm how much was demanded by his school, but The ICIR had reported that PTA fees required in government-owned schools within the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) often fall between N1,500 and N5,000.

He also told The ICIR that he had missed classes many times in the past due to a lack of funds to pay certain fees and is unsure of returning to school.

“They said I should go home. I did not pay the PTA money in school, so they sent me home. My mother said I should stop school for now and hawk pure water, so we can get money. She said I would go back to school later,” he said.

Some children become victims of forced labour in a bid to acquire an education.

Mariam Suleiman lives with her husband and three of her four children in the Kuchingoro area of the FCT. She told The ICIR that her oldest child, who is twelve years old, had gone to work as a maid with a relative in Kubwa, a different part of the FCT.

“The oldest child is not here. She lives with one of my husband’s relatives. The woman needed someone to help with house chores, so I sent my daughter to her. She promised to also send her to school,” Suleiman said.

Nigeria, among other nations, is one of the countries that are signatories to the Social Development Goals (SDG) 2023. Goal 4 aims at ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education and ensure lifelong learning opportunities.”

However, this does not look attainable for Nigeria with its outrageous number of out-of-school children and the slow pace of its reduction.

Way out

While challenges bedevilling Nigeria’s education sector seem to be overwhelming, advocate for free basic education Joshua Arogunyo, in an interview with The ICIR, suggested ways these issues can be addressed, including using National Social Investment Programmes (NSIPs) as bait for parents to send their children to school.

“We have the National Social Investment Office that oversees the National Social Investment Programme, NSIP. We have various programmes under the NSIP, including the popular one we call Conditional Cash Transfer. The NSIP can be used as a way of baiting parents to ensure their children are in school, especially the poor.

“Recall that the Social Investment Programme is targeted at the poorest of the poor. It is a conditional cash transfer. You can, say one of the conditions that will make us keep giving you this money is if you promise us that all your children will go to school,” he said.

He noted that in some cases, poor parents might still be unable to afford basic requirements such as uniforms and suggested that in such situations, children be permitted to attend school in ordinary clothes.

However, he pointed out that this method might not be effective in certain areas where school children are susceptible to abduction and terror attacks due to insecurity, as uniforms were also a means of identifying students and separating them from strangers.

“It has an implication. This is an era where there is insecurity in schools. Uniforms are also a way of helping to identify who is a student and who is a visitor. So it will not be ideal in our current circumstance, but maybe in other circumstances, or in the South, but we may not want to go that route in Northern Nigeria.

Arogunyo also said local governments should assume responsibility for subsidising uniforms, as basic education also falls under its purview.

Stating that textbooks were the responsibility of government officials and are usually made available in many cases, Arogunyo suggested that notebooks, which parents are expected to provide, could be provided through partnerships with private organisations.

“While education may be free and compulsory, the government should also begin to think of strategic partnerships with the private sector for education in Nigeria, considering the backlog of children out of school, about 20 million, according to UNESCO. So it will require some partnerships. That way, when children come to school, they have access to writing materials,” he said.

He pointed out that several private organisations are willing to partner with the government if trust is built. Arogunyo also encouraged state governments to incentivise education through certain benefits, such as scholarships, which would boost the level of retaining children in school after enrolment.

He, however, admitted that the process would require a lot of commitment, sincerity and hard work on the part of the government and others involved.

* Name with asterisk was changed to protect the identity of minior

This report is a part of Youth Hub Africa’s Basic Education Media Fellowship 2022 with support from the Malala Fund and Rise Up.

Ijeoma Opara is a journalist with The ICIR. Reach her via [email protected] or @ije_le on Twitter.

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