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Education Projects (Nigeria)

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to initiate this debate.

Last month I had the honour of participating in a visit to Nigeria on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group on global education for all. I was accompanied by my hon. Friends the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). I hope that I have pronounced his constituency correctly.

Our visit was aimed at understanding how Nigeria is addressing major educational challenges, specifically in the education of girls and community involvement in education. We also took the opportunity to meet Nigerian politicians as well to see the impact of British involvement on the ground.

Nigeria has a population of about 165 million people and has 10% of the world’s children of primary age who are not in school. Most of those are girls. There are considerable barriers to girls accessing education. This is cultural and physical and both those challenges are being addressed. We also wished to examine the use of Department for International Development funding and to ensure that taxpayers’ money is being used wisely and that value for money results.

Before we went to Nigeria we had the opportunity to meet the Nigerian high commissioner and all of his team. I found that the high commissioner and I had attendance at the university of Liverpool in common, although not at the same time. We uncovered a number of the challenges facing Nigeria, including the problem of corruption, which is well known. Virtually all politicians mention that as endemic in Nigeria.

In August last year, I was on a delegation that visited Tanzania with Oxfam. One of the things that was most encouraging was the work that DFID is doing to transfer its budget from supporting Government funding towards localised projects that are making a difference, minimising the opportunity for corruption, to which my hon. Friend referred. Did he find that that was the case during his visit to Nigeria, and, if so, does he welcome it?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I will allude to what is going on in Nigeria later in my speech. In particular, I will address the changes that have taken place since our coalition Government started running the Department.

The challenge in Nigeria is, of course, to make sure that proper action is being taken to address corruption. An inquiry, chaired by Farouk Muhammad Lawan, is being undertaken into the operation of Nigeria’s oil industry. He is also the chairman of education in the Nigerian House of Representatives. A clear-up of the operation of the petroleum industry should follow, which I trust will include the exposure of any alleged corruption. Transfers of funds from the Federal Government of Nigeria do not always seem to reach the proper destination. That may be a problem of bureaucracy, but it makes the monitoring of DFID funding all the more important.

One of the key barriers to participation in education is that of fees and levies. It is clear that there are mixed messages about whether young people are required to pay fees and what happens if they are unable to afford them. The adequacy of teacher training and the qualifications of teachers are a severe challenge. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion will doubtless refer to that issue later. Girls are particularly challenged, as traditionally they are not educated. They are often forced to marry when very young—even as young as 12. They are seen to be needed in the home or as part of the farming community, so families do not recognise the value of their education. The role of traditional rulers is key in promoting education, particularly that of girls. Where that happens, the results are dramatically improved.

Does my hon. Friend agree that girls’ clubs, similar to the DFID-funded project we saw at the Yangoji school near Abuja, are key in empowering young women and helping them to deal with many of difficulties that keep them away from school, many of which he has mentioned? The clubs give young women support and encouragement from their peers.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Clearly, not only enabling young girls to go into education but supporting them while they are there is crucial. That is one of the key elements of DFID funding that I strongly support and I trust it will continue well into the future.

Most schools do not have proper sanitation or even fresh water, and that is a considerable barrier preventing girls from being educated. DFID funding is being used to provide these basic facilities, and I warmly welcome that. No mention of Nigeria can be complete without referring to the security situation. The attacks orchestrated by Boko Haram have created problems, particularly in the north of Nigeria, and we should all express sincere condolences to the family of Chris McManus who, sadly, was murdered by his kidnappers recently.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue to the House tonight. He has talked about DFID and about all the other groups that are helping. Is he aware of the many churches that do tremendous work in Nigeria through their educational projects? In particular, I am thinking of the Elim missions in my constituency, which, through Kingsway International, run an educational project that provides teachers and teaching, food and meals for the day and the books for the schools. It is not Government-funded; it is done through the churches themselves. Such projects also do tremendously good work in Nigeria, alongside all the other people who do likewise.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Clearly the work of churches, charities, Comic Relief and other organisations is extremely valuable in promoting the educational opportunities that are required in these areas.

On our visit, we had the opportunity to visit schools in Abuja and Lagos. We saw at first hand that DFID funding can make a big difference on providing toilets and new classrooms. In Abuja, we saw a school where thieves had stolen the water pump that provided fresh water for the children. One can imagine spending all day in school without access to fresh water or even basic toilet facilities. In Lagos, we saw a school that had had a new toilet block installed with DFID funding. However, we expressed concern that the cost of that—£37,000—seemed excessive compared with the cost of building generally in Nigeria.

It is important to recognise that the overwhelming majority of the population earn less than a £1 a day. We inquired about that project, particularly the procurement costs and the process that had been followed. We believe that DFID should carefully consider how best to ensure value for money in such a country as Nigeria. The tendering process seems fraught with problems and might not be the best way of obtaining good value for money. Surely we should be negotiating down these prices to make our money go further.

On our school visits we met the school-based management committees, which are equivalent to our school governing bodies. The main problem they face is training members and developing their powers. We heard at first hand how one SBMC had used its power to embarrass local politicians to release much-needed funding for a project. It used Facebook to threaten the governor that it would refuse to support his re-election bid unless funding was released for new classrooms. The governor released the money in a matter of days. DFID money is channelled via the education sector support programme in Nigeria and the girls’ education project. DFID will assist more than 800,000 children to enter education, including 600,000 girls, over the next four years. There can be no doubt that the ministerial team at DFID has ensured that proper targets and value for money are at the heart of the Department’s work. They have truly been the wind of change required for the projects in Africa.

We also had the opportunity to meet many politicians and officials, which helped to promote the relationship between the UK and Nigeria. In my opinion, this type of bilateral relationship is crucial as we increase the UK’s influence in the world. Anyone visiting Nigeria will be shocked at the wide disparity in levels of wealth and income. They will also be surprised, if not frightened, when being driven by car. The normal behaviour of car drivers in Nigeria is to sound their horn and point the car where they want to go irrespective of who or what is in the way. I should also report that my name became the subject of much hilarity for many of the officials I met. I would be a very rich man indeed if I had £1 for every time someone said “Mr Blackman? But you are a white man.”

Nigerians have a great love of the UK. They love premier league football, they universally love the Queen, they are staunch allies of the UK and they are a key member of the Commonwealth. China and other countries have seen the opportunities for investment there and we need to ensure that we retain and improve our relationship with Nigeria. There can be little doubt that Nigeria will become the key economy in Africa very soon, so it is in our vital national interest to continue to invest in infrastructure projects in Nigeria and particularly to invest in education.

First, let me congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate. Harrow is a lot easier to pronounce than Ceredigion, but I thank him for his efforts and for allowing me to make a brief contribution to the debate.

My hon. Friend has covered much of the ground regarding our visit to Nigeria, but I just want to reflect briefly on the position of teachers in Nigeria and particularly on the opportunities for meaningful teacher training. The four schools we visited near Abuja and in Lagos were certainly characterised by enthusiastic young people but also by inadequate resources and old-style “chalk and talk” teaching delivered from the front of overcrowded classrooms rather than through engagement with young people. Despite that, the young people we met seemed captivated by the experience and willing to sit it out to progress and try to advance themselves. I shall not forget being taken to a library in one of the schools we visited and seeing a couple of shelves of books, most of which seemed to be redundant computer manuals relating to four redundant computers—redundant because the school had no electricity supply—in the corner of the room.

In addition to what my hon. Friend said in reporting back our experiences, my hope tonight is that DFID will ensure in its reflections on strategies to support teacher training that teachers have the skills they need to teach in a way that is participatory and responsive to individual young people. In other words, while we remain concerned about the scale of the challenge, with the 800,000 people whom DFID projects are going to help back into classrooms, including 600,000 young girls, I hope that quality will become a feature of the teaching debate, not just quantity.

Does my hon. Friend agree that notwithstanding the enthusiasm of both children and teachers, while we were there we certainly saw evidence of the very large classes, lots of children and sometimes the inadequacy of teacher training?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I shall come on to that. In a previous life I used to be a primary school teacher. The prospect of teaching 36 children in a school in the west country or in rural Powys fades into insignificance when compared with the size of the classes that we saw in Nigeria.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East will recall a conversation that he and I had in Abuja with Mrs Ozumba, the federal head of primary education, which revealed the problems that Nigeria clasically faces. She said that Nigeria does not have enough people willing to be teachers, especially in rural areas. The profession is not incentivised. There is minimal job security and there are instances of teachers not being paid at all. There is little focus on technical and vocational areas of the curriculum which could benefit the Nigerian economy. Only pre-service teacher training is available. There is little, if any, in-service teacher training, and there is a need to build and cascade down some semblance of a teacher training structure.

There is, as my hon. Friend mentioned, a severe shortage of female teachers, who are essential as role models for young girls in school, and to encourage girls to stay in school and to be allowed by their parents to remain in school. With reference to the conditions that teachers as well as children face, I also remember the Yangoji junior secondary school near Abuja, where there were 788 children with no water supply whatsoever, the borehole that did not yield any water, and the children sitting in classes of 70. That was an issue for the children, but it was an issue also for the teachers.

Despite all the problems, the scale of the problems, the estimated 8.5 million children out of school, the huge sensitivities in the northern territories, and the gender divide, there is vast potential. That is the word that stays in my mind from my first visit to Africa, to Nigeria—the huge potential for that country. It is being advanced through laudable DFID schemes, the awakening of civic society via the school-based management committees that we heard about this evening, and a healthy questioning of where money is being spent. The press in Nigeria is a free press, challenging politicians to account for the money that is being spent and challenging the federal Government to honour the spending commitments that they have made.

DFID’s work remains essential and is much appreciated. The infrastructure works, and sanitation and building projects are evidently succeeding, but I hope DFID will continue with the third sector and the Nigerian Government to look at the human investment required in education. I end with one harrowing piece of research, commissioned by DFID, which suggested that of 42,000 grade 3 teachers in Kwara state who were given a test that their young students should have passed, only 19 passed. In short, I hope we will continue to emphasise and build upon the quality of education, as well as the quantity.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for calling tonight’s debate. I am grateful to him and his colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for visiting Nigeria last month to see at first hand the challenges in education and the work that the UK is supporting to tackle those challenges.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and I are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and his colleagues from the all-party parliamentary group on global education for the insights that they shared with us after their visit to Nigeria. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is at this moment boarding a plane to Nigeria to follow up on these issues.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East learned during his visit, primary education in much of Nigeria is extremely poor. As he said, there are an estimated 8.5 million children out of school in Nigeria. It therefore has more primary-aged children not in school than any other country in the world, and the problem is particularly acute in the north of the country.

Nigeria’s education policies and their implementation are poor, having suffered many years of decline under military dictatorships and mismanaged oil revenues. Financial releases to schools are erratic and education officials and teachers struggle to improve schools. The quality of teaching and learning is also extremely poor. A recent DFID study of primary and junior secondary teachers in government schools, as we have just heard, revealed that only 75 of 19,000 teachers surveyed achieved the minimum standards for teaching core subjects.

As my hon. Friends heard during their visit, there are three major educational challenges. The first challenge is simply to get more children into school. A national education data survey, partly funded by DFID, showed that only 61% of Nigerian children attend school. The situation in the north of the country, the poorest part, is particularly bad. Therefore, DFID’s efforts are focused on 10 of Nigeria’s 36 states, mainly in the north. We are working with the Federal Ministry of Education and state Governments to help address these regional disparities.

The second challenge is to close the gap between girls and boys. In many parts of the country, particularly the north, there are many fewer girls than boys in school. In the northern states, only 35% of girls attend primary school, compared with over 80% in the south of the country. That is of great concern to DFID, and we are working with our partners in the country to help close those geographic and gender gaps.

As members of the International Development Committee have just seen during a visit to Malawi, one of the main problems for girls is the lack of adequate toilet facilities. Will the Minister outline what the Government, through DFID, are doing in that respect in Nigeria?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he is right that we are indeed spending money on sanitation, and I am perturbed to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East about the seemingly excessive cost of one particular structure. I can assure him and the House that we will investigate that as a matter of urgency to check that we have genuinely achieved value for money. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) rightly points out, girls are kept away from school if they do not have proper sanitation; they simply do not turn up. Therefore, sanitation is an essential part of making sure that girls have equal access to education.

International evidence from countries such as Malaysia and other Asian countries shows that educating girls is one of the best investments a country can make. Educating more girls improves family and child health and boosts economic growth by making young women more productive. DFID is therefore working with its Nigerian partners to help get more girls into school and improve their quality of education, their health and their economic contribution to society.

Does the Minister agree that early marriage and forced marriage are also serious factors keeping girls away from school in Nigeria?

My hon. Friend, who has so much experience in this area, is absolutely right. One of DFID’s core objectives is to achieve later marriage by educating girls, and one of the most potent influences in achieving effective development is focusing on opportunities for girls in all the countries where we have programmes.

The third challenge, which I think properly addresses the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, is to improve the quality of education. Getting children into school is just the first step; it is no good getting them into school if they do not receive any useful teaching once there. Too many Nigerian children leave school without the necessary knowledge and skills for a healthy and productive life. International research shows that the most effective way to improve the quality of education is to invest in teachers and the quality of teaching. Education systems need to attract good people to become teachers. They then need the right incentives, professional support and teaching materials for their classrooms.

Parents and communities also need support to hold teachers to account for their children’s learning. My hon. Friends heard directly from the DFID team in Nigeria about the projects that UK taxpayers’ money is supporting in order to respond to those education challenges. They heard also about the impressive results being achieved.

DFID has two major projects to increase access to education for Nigerian children, and to improve the quality of education they receive once they are in school. The first project, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East referred, is the education sector support programme in Nigeria, known as ESSPIN. It works with the federal Ministry of Education and six states of the federation to improve the planning, management, funding and provision of basic education. The overarching objective of the project is to ensure that Nigeria’s own public funds are used more effectively to improve education.

The ESSPIN project is managed by a contracted company to provide technical assistance to state education departments. It helps communities organise school-based management committees; it trains head teachers to plan and use their Government funds to improve their schools; and it provides small grants and small-scale infrastructure to upgrade facilities and teaching materials in schools where community-based management committees are working well.

A recent independent review of ESSPIN found that after almost three years the project was indeed making a real difference. The review concluded that the project

“has been effective in establishing a platform for basic education reform in six Nigerian States... Its pilot work in approximately 2000 schools and communities is sound. It is resulting in some early teaching and learning benefits.”

Building on those achievements, ESSPIN is now widening its coverage to approximately 10,500 schools in order to benefit an estimated 4.2 million children over the next three years.

The second project is the girls’ education project, known as GEP, which is funded by DFID and run by UNICEF. The project works with four state governments in the north of Nigeria to help get more girls into school, to encourage them to stay and to improve the quality of education that they receive in their school. The project identifies schools with low levels of enrolment by girls. It helps those schools to identify the local barriers to girls attending, and it supports teachers and communities in addressing those barriers. For example, the lack of women teachers discourages parents from sending their girls to school. The GEP therefore includes a scholarship scheme to help young women to become teachers in their own community. The UK has supported two phases of the girls’ education project since 2004, and we calculate that it has helped to get 423,000 girls into primary schools and helped the transition of 225,000 girls into junior secondary schools.

A new phase of the project is just starting, and as my hon. Friend said it will get an additional 800,000 children, 600,000 of them girls, into school by 2015. The project will expand to a total of six states in the next few years, and in response to the scale of Nigeria’s education challenges DFID is designing two new education projects. The first is looking at how DFID can help to improve the quality of teaching that children receive once they get into school. Teachers need training and support throughout their career, not just at the start. The project will therefore consider targeted support for teacher training colleges and for in-service training schemes.

The second project is looking at how to improve the quality of education in low-cost private schools. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development visited Nigeria in June last year, he noted that millions of Nigerian children are being educated outside the public sector and visited a community-based private school in the slums of Lagos, where more than 60% of primary children attend such schools. So DFID is looking at how to help those schools without undermining their independence or the strength of accountability between teachers and parents. The UK’s support for education is an important part of the UK’s overall support for Nigeria.

Nigeria matters to the UK and to the rest of the world. The country is an emerging power that is important to the coalition Government’s foreign and domestic policy interests and central to the UK’s prosperity, security and development agendas. Continued poverty, greater domestic conflict or religious radicalisation would damage the UK’s interests; and they could reduce growth and market opportunities, increase illegal migration and crime, and increase the potential for security threats to the UK. The rise of Islamist terrorism in the past year and the tragic hostage events earlier this month are harsh reminders of these threats.

Following the widely acknowledged, credible elections in April 2011, the coalition Government have been developing a more substantive and strategic relationship with Nigeria by stepping up our co-operation on prosperity, security and development. The coalition Government aim to build on the very warm relations established through the Prime Minister’s visit to Nigeria in July 2011 and the two visits by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development last year. Given the challenges that Nigeria faces in securing stability, prosperity and development—not least in providing a better education for its children—I hope that the House will welcome the priority placed on Nigeria’s development by the coalition Government and the significant expansion of the UK’s development programme as a result of the bilateral aid review. Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and his colleagues for raising awareness of the critical importance of supporting Nigeria and supporting that country’s education.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.