Despite alternative intervention, number of out-of-school children keeps rising in Nigeria

out-of-school children keeps rising in Nigeria

In this report, Monsuroh Abdulsemiu examines lessons from Sudan’s Alternative Learning Programme and how they can help Nigeria address its huge out-of-school children burden.


It was a Tuesday morning at a daily market in Iyana-Ipaja, Lagos. The hustling and bustling of clustered children in the space drew the attention of passersby. Many of them — aged  6 and above — were seen either hawking or glued to their mothers, begging for alms.

At the market, Nafisatu Abubakar, 8, begs for alms. This reporter asked Nafisatu, who had followed her mother to Lagos from Jigawa, “Why are you not in school?”

“My daughter doesn’t go to school,” the 56-year-old mother, Aishatu Abubakar, said in her local Hausa language. 

She continued, “I have no means of sending her to school; that’s why she has never been enrolled.”

Nafisatu is not alone. Many of the children with whom this reporter interacted in the market said they have never been to school. They grew up seeing their parents hawking, begging or doing menial jobs on the streets of Lagos.

“We left our home to look for what to eat in this state,” Mrs Abubakar continued while narrating why her children have never been to school. 

Salamatu, who is Nafisatu’s younger sister, also appeared not to have any hope of being enrolled in a school.

Young Nafisatu (middle) with her alms bowl at the daily Iyana Ipaja market, Lagos.

Universally, children are compulsorily entitled to free and quality basic education, yet the number of out-of-school children in the world is alarming and on the rise. The rise is particularly evident in Sub Saharan Africa with the epicenter in  Nigeria.

According to the World Bank, Nigeria in 2020 had more than 11 million out-of-school children between the ages of 6 and 15. This figure represents 1 in 12 of all out-of-school  children globally and 22 percent of all children in the age group in Nigeria. 

Out-of-school children in Nigeria, according to the Universal Basic Education Commision (UBEC), include girl-child in Northern Nigeria, boy-child drop-out in the South-South and South-East regions, internally displaced children and the Almajiri Qur’anic and itinerant children who are predominantly found in Northern part of Nigeria. 


The problem is persistent 

In 2020, the federal government of Nigeria said it committed N220 billion, a credit facility from the World Bank, to the Better Education Service Delivery for All (BEDSA) in 17 states of the federation. The cardinal objective of the BEDSA programme, according to officials, is to “increase equitable access for out-of-school children, improve literacy and strengthen accountability at the basic education level.”

The BEDSA programme has been around since 2018 and has reportedly facilitated the enrollment of 1 million out-of-school children. 

Also, UBEC introduced the Open School Programme (OSP) in 2020 to mop-up out-of-school children with the flagship in six states in Nigeria. The Executive Secretary of the commision, Dr Hameed Bobboyi, described OSP as a “flexible education system that allows learners to learn where they are and when they want, away from conventional schools and teachers.”

Despite these programmes and strategies deployed by the Federal Government to address the menace of out-of-school children, the number has continued to increase persistently as warned in 2020  by the former Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, at the launching of BEDSA programme in Dutse. The minister had said, “…unless and until our efforts at enrolling these children outweigh the birth rate, the challenge would continue to stare us in the face.”

As of June 2022, almost two years later, a total of 18.5 million children are out of school in Nigeria, a far-reaching increase from the 10.5 million recorded by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2020. In fact, the World Bank posits that Nigeria is experiencing learning poverty in which 70 percent of 10-year-olds cannot understand a simple sentence or perform basic numeracy tasks.


Alternate School Programme 

The latest attempt to address the menace of out-of-school children emanated in January 2021 when President Muhammadu Buhari inaugurated an 18-member Presidential Steering Committee on the Alternate School Programme (ASP) co-chaired by the Ministers of Education and Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Adamu Adamu and Sadiya Umar Farouq respectively. 

At its commencement in February, Buhari said the programme will target delivering a limited scope of subjects — Mathematics, English Language, Basic Sciences and Social Studies — to children with limited access. 

Also, in an interview, Mrs Farouq said the ASP is different from several other intervention initiatives because it combines education programmes with social protection programmes. The development, she said, targets the humanitarian and social challenges of out-of-school children and would provide them with education and social investment benefits in a flexible way.

She further said the target benefactors include those in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, those in vulnerable conditions, victims of insurgency and social and environmental dislocation, children on the streets and in markets, etc.  A Technical Working Group (TWG) with members drawn across government ministries, international organisations and civil society organisations will go into the field to document and organise these children for systematic intervention.

However, ASP, like earlier alternative education interventions, is rumoured to be another waste of public resources as no significant mobilisation effort has been recorded by the committee in charge.

An educational development practitioner and founder of AreaiAfrica, Mr Gideon Olarewaju, added: “It’s really important that we are able to put measurable lens around how the programme has been implemented, and I fear that owing the lackadaisical attitude to which they (the government) are going about the coordination of the programme right now, there’s every tendency that Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) is actually extremely poor.”

Also, there’s the question of whether the ASP is sustainable in the face of the series of institutional bottlenecks facing Nigeria as noted by the World Bank in the June 2022 Nigerian Development Update. The bottlenecks, aside from the supply and demand-side constraints, include weak capacity for planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, inadequate accountability due to overlapping roles and responsibilities, politicisation of teacher management and lack of commitment to addressing inadequate, inefficient and inequitable financing.



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There is also the numerous attacks on schools by jihadists and criminal gangs which forced the authorities to close more than 11,000 schools since December 2020. The attacks created a hostile learning environment which discouraged parents and guardians in the affected localities from sending their wards to school — formal or alternative. Also, children account for about 60 percent of the IDPs in Nigeria, majority of whom lack access to education and healthcare among other basic amenities. 

IDPs in Nigeria. Photo: PunchNG


However, a similar programme is working in Sudan

In Sudan, a broader programme, Alternate Learning Programme (ALP), is being implemented  alongside other initiatives to tackle out-of-school children menace and generally improve education in the post war economy, with support from UNICEF. The country is the epicenter of out-of-school children in the Middle East and North Africa Region.

ALP was best described by UNICEF as an alternative venue of learning for children and adolescents who missed the opportunity to join school or have left the official school system at some point, and this includes children affected by emergencies and conflict. This description fits the acclaimed purposes of ASP in Nigeria. 

ALP in Sudan mixes formal and alternative non-formal education approaches that address a combination of demand and supply factors affecting access to primary education. Localities have been selected, mainly in states with enrolment rates below the national enrolment rate level, based on pre-defined criteria such as the availability of school infrastructure, the support provided by other partners, and community involvement. 

Like in Nigeria, ALP in Sudan specifically targets vulnerable populations, including girls, nomadic populations, children with special needs, and children affected by emergency situations.

Neighbourhoods and camps in Sudan like Al Shaer, Kadulgi which is home to many displaced families from war-torn states, refugees and IDPs have ALP specifically tailored to support girls and boys who have never attended school, have dropped out or those who cannot be mainstreamed into the normal education system without catching-up on the lessons that they lost.

Nasra John with her children at Al-Shaer school, Kadulgi. Photo Credit: UNICEFSudan. 

At Al Shaer School, a six-month intensive course approach is applied, and most of the students are integrated into the official school system afterwards. 

According to Nasr Al-Deen Mohamed Tia, the head of the combating illiteracy and adult, children and youth out-of-school education at the Ministry of Education in South Kordofan state, Sudan, the six-month course bridges the gap between the children who have spent two or even four years out of school and the official school system they are transitioning into.

In Alshuahad, Kassala state, Eastern Sudan, out-of-school children are usually enrolled in alternative learning programmes though with limited possibility to be transferred to formal schools. Some children in ALPs in Kassala graduated and passed the primary exam in 2019. Several other neighbourhoods in Sudan have benefited from the ALP. 

Al Shuhada ALP centre computer lab in Kassala state, Eastern Sudan. Photo Credit: UNICEFSudan

Alshuahad and Al Shaer are just two of the many neighbourhoods in Sudan whose children are benefiting from ALP as there are 961 centres across the country. The enrolled children were supported with provision of learning supplies, textbooks, recreation kits, school uniforms and dignity kits for girls, improvement of learning environment and facilitators training.

UNICEF Sudan Education Report in 2021 shows that 59,046 out-of-school children have access to education in Sudan through the ALP. Also, an assessment of the ALP centres in Kadugli conducted by UNICEF in 2021 reveals that ALP can provide a second chance for learning for children and adolescents who missed the opportunity for an education.


ASP can work in Nigeria too, but… 

Analysing the programme, Olanrewaju noted that the ASP is indeed sustainable in Nigeria because it is not the first educational programme in Africa that has social protection component and is focused on disadvantaged population, particularly those that are not in education employment or those who by virtue of geographical location or socioeconomic status are missing out of educational opportunities. 

According to him, there’s a growing body of evidence that these interventions record success across Africa in countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Kenya, etc that seem to share the same socio-political clime and demographics with Nigeria. 

However, he raised concerns about the qualitative and not quantitative measurement of impact delivery of such programmes. He said, “Many times in Nigeria, the success of programmes have been measured by virtue of the volume; how much have we done, how many have we reached, and sometimes those numbers are always been inflated for the purpose of PR (public relations) and self aggrandisement, but it is also very important that attention is being placed on how well this programme transforms life and enables the children that are being engaged, to really live to their fullest potentials.”

Mr Olarewaju also noted that with the kind of input that goes into a programme like ASP, an outcome-based strategy should be developed around it. He added that continuity should be heavily dependent on the results that are obtainable through the channels of implementation whether at the federal level or the regional level both in the current and coming administration. 

He noted that the government would also have to ensure fiscal transparency and accountability in resources allocated to the programme as well as an adequate monitoring and evaluation system.

In line with Mr Olarewaju’s opinion, it is believed that the ASP, if properly  implemented, evaluated and sustained, has the potential to reach Nafisatu, Salamatu and other children like them with alternative learning empowerment opportunities that enable them to live to their fullest potential.

The report was sponsored by I-79 Media Consults’ Campus Solutions project which is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) as part of the 2022 LEDE Fellowship.