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If we fail in education, we will not succeed at any other thing – SA on education, Cross River

Cross River State has attained some milestones in education. The Southsouthern state of Nigeria has largely focused on teachers’ welfare and digitalisation in education. This interview highlights these and other achievements.
Castro Ezama, SSA on education, Cross River State
Castro Ezama, SSA on education, Cross River State; Source: Castro Ezama
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From building a state-of-the-art teacher training centre and a fabric academy to equip the youth with essential vocational skills to fighting cultism and giving teachers a voice, Cross River State has sought to make education count and improve the lives of its residents as it grows the local economy. In this interview with Edugist, Castro Ezama, special adviser on education to the Cross River State governor highlights the achievements in education under his watch. Excerpts:

How many years have you been the senior special assistant on education to the governor of Cross River state?

I have been the SA on education in Cross River State for four years.

What is your assessment of education in Cross River, how has it improved the well-being of the people?

People graduate from school in character and learning. So, Cross River State as we all know is one state that does not joke with education. Education is a process that begins at the cradle and ends in the grave. You would also agree that this is the only state in the federation with a professor as governor and deputy governor. Under their watch, the education sector has been receiving the required attention. It is a work in progress.

What do you do as the SA on education or your achievements in the last four years?

I want first to thank God for the strength that keeps me going. I am more of a field man. In a situation where you have secret cults creeping into our secondary schools, that alone is worrisome. So this is one of the ills I have fought.

During fieldwork too, I get to interact with teachers. I carry out on-the-spot training on classroom management. I look at lesson notes and lesson plans. And we get to remind ourselves of the need that teachers should understand as one of their roles in the classroom is that they stand loco parentis to the students.

Cultism is something I have fought and then getting feedback from our teachers, especially in the areas of implementation, promotion. Teachers also yearned in our state that the 5-year extension in retirement age be domesticated. I can tell with joy in my heart that His Excellency Senator Professor Ben Ayade, the executive governor of Cross River State has granted this request. It is now a gazette.

When I go around, the aspect of poor infrastructure is not only applicable to some schools in the state but applicable all over Nigeria. I get to bring some stakeholders to complement the role of government in these places. I go to where pipe-borne water or boreholes are affected. I reach out to the alumni members of these schools. Some of them are even in government. I persuade them to help in fixing these things.

I have created a cordial relationship with the National Parents Teachers Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN), whose chairman, Professor Boniface Ode has been a wonderful person to work with. So, the Parents Teachers Association (PTA)’s role in complementing the government’s role in our state cannot be overemphasised.

Working with them closely has ensured that they do their bit. There are instances where they have provided auxiliary teachers to fill in the gap. Some teachers have retired and the process of recruiting more teachers is on. So, you see that the PTA filling this gap is a wonderful thing.

There are many of these achievements. Cross River State University of Technology (CRUTECH) is another. We had some landlords encroaching into a vast portion of this land belonging to the institution. My office handled the negotiations and related matters.

Then, I swung into action to ensure the situation was made right for teachers whose money was deducted at source for laptops who did not receive them. Those who did not get their laptops have got them but so many others still have not received them. This is to ensure our teachers are e-learning compliant. We are pointing our teachers to e-learning.

You may also have heard that his excellency the governor of Cross River has put up a state-of-the-art facility – the teachers’ continuous training institute located in the southern part of Cross River state. Our teachers go there for training and retraining.

Then during the Covid-19 pandemic, we had children stay at home, so I engaged with radio stations and media houses for school on radio programmes and even social media. We tried to fill the gap occasioned by the pandemic. These and many more, the list is endless that my office oversaw in Cross River State.

Read also: Digital tools and how they are changing learning

Why do you think this focus on teachers was necessary?

This is necessary because there are innovations here and there and when we formulate and develop a curriculum we get feedback over the duration of the implementation of the curriculum and where we need to make amendments.

Today, we are talking about e-learning and digital transformation, this is where the world is. Teachers are the drivers that will take us there and they need to be prepared. These days you find many Nigerians taking classes via the Internet and so on. So, a teacher who is not information communication technology (ICT) savvy will have challenges. This is the main reason why the teachers have to be trained and retrained.

The State Universal Basic Education (SUBEB) headed by Senator Stephen Ode is doing well in this regard where the head teachers and teachers take turns to train. At the secondary school level, this is ongoing too. But as I said, this is a work in progress.

Castro Ezama, SSA on education, Cross River State 2
Castro Ezama, SSA on education, Cross River State; Source: Castro Ezama

What are some of the investments that Cross River State has made for the digital transformation of education?

Cross River State is one of the least in the 36 states of the federation, maybe, a little below Osun State when it comes to allocation. The debt burden is huge, N402 billion. This is what the state owes from previous administrations.

Yet the governor has been able to set up a state-of-the-art teachers’ training facility. It is well equipped with 21st Century technology. This is where we are starting and our teachers are required to own laptops as part of this digital transformation process.

The state college of education for the training of middle manpower is also undergoing transformations. I heard the governor-elect say he will upgrade it to a university and advance digitalisation. There are already facilities there to enhance e-learning. However, the challenge at the school has been power and we are not leaving any stone unturned to make sure we fix this so that would-be teachers would study in the most conducive atmosphere.

We ensure that those in the National Certificate of Education (NCE) programme and first year of education in universities go through this digitalisation process so that they do not have challenges when they come out. In the recruitment exercise of teachers, this is one aspect that we take seriously.

Despite the setbacks owing to the financing gap in the education sector, I must thank the governor for putting so much into education. Of course I have always been around him to remind him that if we failed in education, we will not succeed at any other thing. So, education is the prime focus of this administration.

A part of the setback has been minimal budgetary provision for education. This is not just peculiar to our state, it is from top down. We are yet to hit the UNESCO benchmark. We are still struggling between 13 and 17.50 per cent in budgetary allocation to education.

Theft of pieces of laboratory equipment has been frequent and costly. One of the things that has been done through my office in partnership with the PTA including the youth, community landlord, and they help to protect the facilities in our schools. I can say that these are some of our modest achievements in education.

How are ministries synergising to solve problems in the education sector?

The ministry of education is one that every other ministry should connect to. It is a sensitive ministry, if you ask me. And within Cross River state, to go from Calabar to Obudu you spend between five to seven hours. It means the roads have to be in good shape – a remit of the ministry of works.

From my village to Calabar is about four hours. This is why I give kudos to our telecommunications companies and network providers. They are doing well. At least I can call people from my village. I must say that there are some challenges. Funding is part of it.

The governor-elect is one man who is well-grounded in education. He is prepared. I have had cause to interact with him over and over and his blueprint for education to continue from where the incumbent will stop is beautiful. There will be a bigger and better reach out to those remote communities. The best way now is technology, digitalisation. That is where we are headed. We would have achieved this when the most remote villages are positively affected.

What is the state’s experience with public private partnerships as a way of bridging the education financing gap?

We are doing well in this regard. Let me tell you a little about private schools. They are doing and competing with counterparts across the country. Teachers in these private schools must have a minimum of NCE.

You also find individuals and corporate organisations donating to our public schools. There is a certain retired army general at a certain locale in Cross River, three hours’ drive from the town. He just completed a six classroom block and donated to the state. We have many people making contributions. Let me also use this opportunity to thank them for investing. There are also alumni of these schools that return to give back.

Do we have people or businesses funding government initiatives?

We have but it is minimal. I thank those making it happen.

Unemployment in Cross River state is about 54 per cent among the highest in Nigeria. Is this because the graduates are unemployable or there are not enough jobs to go round?

The unemployment figures you just cited are things I am looking at. At the moment there is recruitment going on for primary and secondary schools. You may use the expression ‘food on the table appointees’. Over 3,000 people are appointed by this governor and he pays them salaries every month with least being N95,000. I don’t know if that statistics is correct or not but I know there are efforts to alleviate this.

Most of the industries in the state have packaged up, especially the private guys. We used to have over 10 quarries where our people were gainfully employed. Over taxation and competing from neighbouring states affected the businesses negatively.
At the garment factory you see our people employed there, most widows. The ministry of social welfare in partnership with the ministry of education explores avenues to employment. But the ongoing teachers’ recruitment will absorb some that may have been unemployment.

Teachers’ recruitment caters to education but there are many other sectors of the economy. Do you have other plans such as innovation hubs where with or without certificates people can acquire skills and innovate?

Yes we do. In the heart of Cross River state is a fabrication academy built by the current governor where people are trained. Many people have graduated from the academy and the commissioner for youth and sports spearheads this. If you go to the visual arts department of Cross River State University, you will be amazed at the things our students are doing there – fabrics and artworks. We know how much artworks can command in the market.

Our engineering students in this same university are doing great too. You know there was a change of name from Cross River University of Technology (CRUTECH) to Cross River State University to accommodate other courses. I will talk a little about the University of Calabar because we also have our people schooling there even though it is a federal university.

It is somewhat impossible for every graduate to get a job upon graduation. This is why we encourage entrepreneurship and skills acquisition in our schools. Vocational and technical skills are important. At one of our socials, I told some students about KiZZ Daniel, a popular Nigerian artist who read engineering but a musical icon in the state. Tiwa Bello and those people we all know went to school.

Let’s zoom into teacher welfare. In addition to teacher training, what else are you doing to make teachers confident and comfortable?

When I came on board as the SSA on education to the governor, since 2015 and even before that our teachers had not enjoyed the implementation of promotions. This was a recurring complaint as I went round to visit our schools. The welfare of our teachers is paramount. I beat my chest and say this has been achieved.

Promotions have been implemented. In one or two schools I visited, our teachers did not have seats. What they call staffroom. This gave me concerns and I used all the arsenal at my disposal to ensure they got a place to sit. So, we did something for teachers’ welfare but more is needed. Teachers are not owed salaries in Cross River State.

Let me also tell you that some of our teachers were caught with fake certificates. The penalty is dismissal but guess what his excellency did. He demoted them to positions that their highest authentic certificate merits. They were then mandated to go school and obtain the requisite certificates.

They have done this and have been reinstated. This is part of teacher welfare. We ensure the security of teachers while they are at school. We make sure teachers have befitting staff rooms.

Still on security, you mentioned cultism in secondary schools earlier, what is being done to curb this?

When the governor appointed me the first thing was to identify this problem and accept it exists in some of our secondary schools. One of the things I have done using my office is to interact with parents during PTA meetings. We ensure there are regular PTA meetings in schools with parents in high attendance. At these meetings we raise the issue of cultism because these students did not become cultists in school but at home.

One of the students who confessed said he lied to the father that he was going to watch a football match so that he could go and get initiated into one of the cults. So, we tell parents to keep an eye on their children. We have also organised campaigns among students against cultism – highlighting the dangers.

There is also substance abuse. You find underage students consuming alcoholic beverages at home. But we tell parents this is unacceptable. Talking to parents, students and having teachers talk about these things during the course of their classes have helped. We want to nip these bad habits in the bud.

The current governor started paying the bursary of students in university after so many years, what is the sustainability plan?
Government is continuum and the governor-elect is a close ally of his excellency. They share a similar vision of moving the state forward. I believe he will sustain it. Although these scholarships are for indigenes the governor allows for a certain percentage of non-indigenes.

What would you want this administration to be remembered for in terms of education?

They will be remembered for having a governor who appointed a proactive special adviser on education, who went round to interact with teachers, students and parents. Many teachers have said throughout their career they have not had such interaction with a senior person in education from the office of the governor. They enjoyed the interactions, conversations and socials.

In fact, I had the privilege of leading teachers to the governor’s office and they had a great time. The governor and deputy governor were teachers. They will remember the governor lifted the embargo on their promotion and implementation. They will remember that the governor was media friendly.

This is why I want to take this time to thank you for this opportunity and wonderful session we have had.

What are some of your personal initiatives to improve access to quality and learning outcomes?

I studied educational technologies and I am a field man irrespective of the office I occupy. So I ensure these things are carried out vigorously. I go to our schools to visit teachers and train them. I interacted with the students, warned them against the ills of society and anti-social vices. These things I have done. School on the radio programme during the pandemic was from my office. The implementation of promotion for teachers and addition of five years to the service years of teachers were from my office.

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