Reflections on Policy Reforms in Nigeria’s Primary Education, 1882-2020

Cite this article: Dagana, Y. Y. and Jabbi, U. M. 2023. Reflections on Policy Reforms in Nigeria’s Primary Education, 1882-2020. Sokoto Journal of History Vol. 12. Pp. 79-86. www.doi.org/10.36349/sokotojh.2023.v12i01.007

Reflections on Policy Reforms in Nigeria’s Primary Education, 1882-2020

Mal.YaqoubY. Dagana
Department of History
Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto,


Dr. UmarMuhammad Jabbi
Department of History and International Studies
Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto
Phone No. 2348039273172
Email address umjabbi@gmail.com


Primary education, as the basic foundation for all subsequent levels of educational system, has been considered worldwide as the key towards development of any modern nation. Over sixty years after national political independence, Nigerian’s elementary education is still grappling with the problem of evolving a sustainable policy for national development. Successive governments in Nigeria have made several attempts to address the problems through policy reforms. The latest of such reform agenda is the Universal Basic Education (UBE) introduced in 1999. Thus this paper, undertakes a survey of policies instituted to guide the Nigeria’s primary education and the series of adjustments to the policies with the hope of providing sustainable policy framework for Nigerian children education in order to fulfill the national aspirations in the twenty-first century. The paper argues that a realistic policy for our basic education should be based on adequate and well informed data and an honest commitment on the part of the policy makers ,implementers’ and managers.

Keywords: Basic Education, Nigeria, Policy, Primary Education, Reform


Primary education within the context of Nigeria is the initial education formally designed and given in an institution of learning for children with age range from six years to eleven years and above.[i]It assumes strategic significance in Nigerian’s national education system because it provides the foundation for subsequent levels of schooling. This suggests that the entire success or failure of education of any modern nation like Nigeria, considerably hinges on quality of its primary education. This is particularly more so for Nigeria, being a developing nation; and with burning desire for advancement education remains the central key towards realising her dream. Ironically Nigeria’s primary education whose introduction predates the colonial regime has been beset with numerous problems including policy reforms. Efforts by the successive administrations in Nigeria and some international agencies in addressing the problems usually end in fiasco and often either compounding the existing problem or creating additional anomalies. The cumulative effects of this scenario have left Nigeria in dilemma over her primary education.

Policy is a word lacking commonly acceptable single definition among scholars. Uchendu identifies four working definitions based on the ways scholars use it. According to him policy is employed in terms of philosophical concept centering on action domain or as an end-product (document) containing conclusions drawn by legally constituted authorities, who clearly articulate their views on social problems, demanding action and how they plan to deal with them within the available resources. In addition, it could either be conceptualized as fundamental process (i.e. strategy) through which an organization attains stability and orderly change as part of its ultimate goals or guidelines to action towards achieving defined goals.[ii]

Against this backdrop, this paper examines sources of the failure regarding some earlier major reform policies of Nigeria’s primary education system. It also brings into focus the implications of such failure in policy reforms to nation’s children’s education and national development in the 21st c. The paper concludes by stressing the need for the putting in place of realistic commitment by all the stakeholders so as to salvage the Nigerian children education.

Primary Education Policies before Independence

The introduction of modern formal schooling which began in Nigeria sixty years before the establishment of colonial administration was the work of the European Christian missionaries. According to Fafunwa, the period from 1842-1882 was an era of exclusive missionary activity in education[iii]. It was only in 1882 when the first Education Ordinance was passed that the colonial government sought to introduce some control into the educational efforts in British West African territories.[iv]. With the establishment of the colonial regime from 1900 other interest groups began to establish elementary schools in the country. Primary schools were then owned and run by three major groups namely, the Missionaries, private individuals and the colonial government. Therefore, there was no single uniform policy for the primary schools because each of these owners had its own aims and objectives.

The aim and objectives of the early missionary primary schools were to convert the local people, considered 'savage heathen' to Christianity. The education given was also intended to enable the local people read and understand Christian literature as well as perform religious duties.[v] The colonial government, on the other hand, wanted its schools to produce subordinate staff to serve the colonial administration as clerks, artisans etc. For both the missionaries and the colonial government they established schools basically to produce ideal citizens for a colonial state. To this end Lugard wanted Nigerians:-

'Not to be so poorly trained that they could not meet the educational standards set for employment in either the modern British or the traditional African bureaucracy, nor should they be so highly trained that they threatened to take over the responsibilities of British officials or native authorities,.[vi]

As a matter of colonial policy, primary school curriculum was divided into two categories. There was a rural based curriculum for village schools which is meant to provide the training on basic literacy of reading, writing and minor arithmetic (3RS) up to class III. In addition children would be taught Agriculture i.e. production and marketing of farm produce particularly the raw materials needed by the European industries. In addition to the 3RS, in the urban based school curriculum some level of literary education was offered in order to produce clerks so badly needed to serve the colonial administration.[vii] In pursuing the attainment of these objectives, there cannot be uniform policies regarding the management of schools, condition of service on the part of teaching, personnel, quality control and standard. Because of the overriding interest of the colonial regime, conflict often arose between the colonial government and the missionaries over primary school policies.

The 1926 Education Ordinance

Following the end of the First World War there was unprecedented expansion in primary schools owned by the voluntary agencies i.e. missions and other private individuals. For instance in Southern Nigeria provinces, the total number of primary schools owned by the government dropped from 59 in 1912 to 58 in 1926, while enrolments rose from 3,984 in 1912 to 9,374 in 1926. On the other hand, the total number of primary schools owned by the voluntary agencies rose from 91 in 1912 to 3,770 in 1926, and their enrolment correspondingly increased from 31,832 in 1912 to 128,875 in 1926. In the northern Nigerian provinces, the number of primary schools owned by the government was five (5) in 1912 as compared to 29 schools by voluntary agencies. In 1926 the government owned rose to 68 with an enrollment figure of 3,003.[viii]

The education Ordinance of 1926 was a landmark in colonial education policy on Nigerian primary education. The ordinance created a single education department for both the Northern and Southern provinces for the first time, to supervise schools and implement the provisions of the following code:

i.     Teachers should be registered as a condition for teaching in any school in the colony and southern provinces of Nigeria.

ii.    Forbidding the opening of a school unless approved by the Director of Education and the Board of Education.

iii.   Authorizing the closure of a school if it was found being conducted in a manner not in the interest of the community where it was located.

iv.   Defining the functions and duties of supervisor or mission inspectors.

v.    Expanding and strengthening the existing board of education by including the Director and the Deputy Director of Education, the Assistant Director, ten representatives of the mission and other educational agencies; and re-defining the board's functions to include advice to the government on education.

vi.   Gant –in-aid would continue to be provided to voluntary agency Schools based on the efficiency of the schools, but no longer on the number of individuals that passed in examination.

vii. Regulating minimum pay for teachers employed in an assisted school. [ix]

The primary objective of the 1926 education ordinance was theoretically to provide quality control in education service delivery by direct government control, supervision, improved subsidies to voluntary agency schools and improved condition of teacher’s service.[x] However, owing to increasing number of school population, the natural reluctance of colonial government to fund education in the colonies and the effects of economic depression of the 1930s, the objectives of this reform policy could not be realised.[xi]

The division of the country into regions introduced by the Richard Constitution of 1946 was further strengthened by the 1951 Mac Pherson constitution which empowered each regional government to pass laws on education, health, agriculture and local government.[xii] Henceforth, policies regarding primary education become a function of each regional government. Primary education policies varied across the then three regions regarding school curriculum focus, structure, duration, funding /financial, condition of service among others, due to the prevailing political climate, characterized by intense inter-regional rivalry and competition, primary education policies become political issues.[xiii]

In line with the declared intention of the Western regional government to pursue the implementation of a Universal Free Primary education (UPE) Chief S.O Awokoya, the then Minister of education in the region, presented a proposal for the introduction of universal Primary Education (UPE) by January, 1955. This policy proposal contained “a free and compulsory” feature. With the proposed U P E scheme, government anticipated to achieve:-

i.         A reduction in primary school course from 8 to 6 years

ii.       The attainment of 100℅ enrollment by 1959

iii.     An increase in grade III teacher supply of about 1,700 per year for 3 years, ending 1955 and an increase of grade II teacher from 360 in 1953 to 500 in 1955.

iv.     An annual enrollment increase of about 150,000 pupils over the existing pupil population of 390,000 in 1952.[xiv]

In 1953 the eastern regional Government also declared a Universal primary Education (UPE) policy proposal. The proposal sought to abolish the existing school fees, and the scheme to be funded by the regional government. In response to these developments, the Northern region, while realizing the significance of expanding primary education, remained silent on the UPE. The government focused its attention towards the development of education in the rural areas and the promotion of adult education.[xv]

In western and Eastern regions, the missionaries who had the overwhelming number of primary schools considered the scheme too ambitious and impracticable within the time scheduled. In the west they suggested postponement of the scheme till 1962.[xvi]

The pre-independence UPE scheme died because of unanticipated turnout of enrolment that far exceeded the available resources. For instance in the West the projected annual increase in enrolment was 150, 000 but as at 1955 when the scheme took off, the enrolment figure rose from

457,000 (in 1954) to 811,000 implying over 300,000 excess enrolment. By 1958 more than one Million Children were enrolled.[xvii]Consequently there were gross shortages of facilities, trained teachers and fund to manage the situation. The situation continued to deteriorate and consequently the government was forced to review the original plans. Similarly, no sooner was the UPE launched in the Eastern region in February 1957 than it was confronted with phenomenal rise in enrolment from 775,000 in 1956 to over One million by 1958. This took the government unprepared in terms of resources. By 1958 the government was forced to embark on downsizing measures, which involved closing down of many schools and lying off teachers.[xviii]

It was only after independence that Nigerian children’s education appears to come in focus as a result of the increased awareness of the crucial role of education in nation building. From 1960 the various regional governments embarked on measures to resuscitate its primary education through a new improved policy framework. For instance, the Western region set up the Banjo commission in December 1960 and in 1961 the northern regional administration set up the Oldman commission, while the Eastern region established the Ikoku commission in 1962. Each commission was charged with the responsibilities, among other things, to investigate the problems of primary education in their respective regions, and to submit recommendations to the government. Among the striking features of three reports, is the fact that they commonly agree on inadequacies that characterized the operations of primary education. The reports commonly and strongly recommended among others, that:

a.       Local education Authorities (LEA) be established

b.      Primary schools should be handed over to the LEA for better management.

c.       Provision for qualified teachers should be made.

d.      Inspectorate division be set up for quality control

e.       Improvement in the condition of teacher's service is considered.[xix]

Ironically, their reports failed to realize the need for a change of the curriculum to suit the aspirations of the newly independent government.

The 1969 National curriculum conference

Despite these efforts the curriculum of primary education lacked common focus. It is in realisation of this, that the then military administration convened a national curriculum conference, the first of its kind, in Lagos in September 1969.[xx] The conference drew participants from various interest groups. The conference was followed by a national seminar headed by Chief S.O Adebo organized by the federal government in 1973 to essentially review the proceedings of the 1969 curriculum conference.[xxi] It was the outcome of this national seminar that proposed a free, 6-3-3-4 system of education for Nigeria, which led to the 1977 national policy on education (NPE).[xxii]

On Monday 6th September, 1976 General Obasanjo haphazardly launched the Universal Free primary Education Scheme while the national policy on education was not yet published. This is the first major accident of the scheme. The cardinal focus of the 1976 UPE scheme is packaged in the 1977 educational policy.[xxiii]

Conversely, the 1977 national policy on education (NPE) is a landmark in the development of the nation’s primary educational policy. For the first time, Nigerian primary education has a common national vision and mission. According to the policy the objectives of primary education, like other segment of education was the attainment of the five national goals stated thus:-

a)                  A free and democratic society

b)                  A just and egalitarian society

c)                   A united, strong and self-reliant nation

d)                  A great and dynamic economy

e)                  A land full of bright opportunities for all citizens.[xxiv]

The national policy also specified the objectives of Nigerian children’s education which were meant to achieve:-

i.         Permanent literary and numeracy, and ability to communicate effectively.

ii.       Sound basis for scientific and reflective thinking

iii.     Citizenship education as a basis for effective participation in and contribution to the life of the society.

iv.     Character and moral training and development of sound attitude

v.       Ability (of a child) to adapt to his/her changing environment.

vi.     Developing manipulative skills that will enable him/her to function effectively in the society.

vii.   Basic tools for further educational advancement.

However, an in-depth study of the national educational policy revealed a number of short-comings. The national policy as a document was a product of a military regime, and it failed to envisage changing political scenarios for Democratic government. Thus, during the second republic the NPE failed to envision differences between the philosophical policy precept and practices in the manifestoes of a multi-party civilian administration in the second republic. Consequently during the Shagari led administration (1979-1984) various political parties (i.e. the NPN, UPN, PRP, GNPP, & NPP) which controlled their respective States disregarded the policy as they continued to implement their respective educational policies. This implies that throughout the period of the second republic the Nigerian primary education again lost common national policy focus as there was no coordinated approach.[xxv]

Similarly, the failure of the 1976 UPE scheme could be explained from different dimensions. At the planning stage of the scheme it was observed that there was gross oversight regarding the nation’s unstable economy, the competing demands of other sectors, lack of reliable data, among others. When the scheme was implemented in 1976 series of developments had already overtaken its original plans.[xxvi] Arising from the rising trends in inflation, poor policy management and corruption the initial planned unit cost of educating a Nigerian pupil rose from N32.00 to N72.50K per year.[xxvii] Consequently, the federal government which initially planned to take full costs of the scheme could only afford N40 as unit cost per child per year, leaving the balance of N32.5 for the state governments to pay.[xxviii] By 1978 the effects of the global oil glut speeded the demise of the UPE scheme, and crises set in once again in the nation’s primary education with prolonged devastating effects. From the foregoing, it is clear that the failures of the 1976 UPE in term of planning and implementation, shows that no useful lesson was learnt from the 1950s experience.

National Primary Education Commission

In response to the continuous state of anarchy that characterized the nation’s primary education, the Babangida administration in 1988 Promulgated Decree 31. The Decree led to the establishment of the national Primary Education Commission (NPEC), with a centralized structure along the three-tier system of administration. At the state level is the state Primary Education Board (SPEB) while each local government council had the local government Education authority (LGEA).

The approach was designed principally to bring about a uniform style of managing the nation's primary education. It defined the responsibilities and commitment of each level of government to the running of the primary education with regards to the running costs, management, effectiveness, and teacher's welfare. But just after about three years, the federal government proscribed the NPEC institution with Decree No 3 of 1991. And again, this situation was reversed by Decree No. 96 of 1992 which was promulgated in September 1, 1993 by the Shonekan interim national government but implemented in October, 1994 by the Abacha military administration which reinstated the NPEC institution. This Decree was unique for the fact that it represented an evidence of continuity of a government policy, despite the fact that it went through three different regimes. In summary under the newly established NPEC, the federal government assumed responsibility for the cost of capital projects of the primary schools, the state governments bear the recurrent expenditure of the schools as regards repairs, provision of furniture, instructional materials etc, while the local governments shoulder the bulk of recurrent expenditure of the school personnel.

The NPEC approach to some extent provided the nation's primary education with some improvement in terms of teacher's welfare, provision of infrastructural facilities, instructional materials among others. The operation of this strategy, though grossly inadequate, was able to keep and sustain continuous school pupil’s enrolment figures up till 1999.



Universal Basic Education (UBE) Programme

The increasing global demand for improved basic education particularly among the developing nations continued to raise challenges to the Nigerian government. This is what might have informed the decision of the Obasanjo civilian administration to come up with the concept of Universal Basic Education (UBE) scheme. The scheme was officially launched in the country on 30th September, 1999.[xxix]

The Basic Education is conceived as the foundation for sustainable lifelong learning driven by reading, writing and numeracy skills[xxx]. The scope of the scheme covers "a variety of formal and non-formal educational activities and Programme" designed to enable learners acquire functional literacy'.[xxxi] Within the Nigerian context, basic education comprises Primary, junior secondary, nomadic education and adult literacy. The philosophical vision of the scheme is to equip the individual (with such knowledge, skills, and attitude that will enable him to:

a.       Live meaningful and fulfilling lives

b.      Contribute to the development of the society

c.       Derive maximum social, economic, and cultural benefits from the society

d.      Discharge their obligations competently [xxxii]

In the same document the federal government has outlined the objectives to be achieved through the basic education programme, thus:-

a.      Developing in the entire citizenry a strong consciousness and commitment to the promotion of education.

b.      Providing free compulsory universal basic education for every Nigerian child of school-going age

c.       Reducing drastically drop-out rate from the formal school system through improved relevance and efficiency.

d.      Catering for drop outs and out-of-school children' Adolescent.

e.       Ensuring the acquisition of appropriate levels of literacy, numeracy, manipulative skills, life-skills as well as the ethical, moral and civic values.

The management of the scheme going by its policy is a collective responsibility shared by the Federal, state and local governments in addition to local communities, non-governmental organization, international communities’ donor agencies and individuals. (FME, 2000: 3-5)[xxxiii] The policy document also identified strategies through which the scheme could achieve its objectives.

The UBE scheme does not bring about drastic changes in the curriculum despite the developmental goals of the nation in the 21st century. Moreover, the UBE scheme did not factor in the unstable and unpredictable nature of the nation’s economy, the competing demands on the available recourses, the high level of corruption and poverty.


The reform policies through which the Nigerian primary education passed through have failed to produce a satisfactory outcome. The goals of the nation's elementary education are far from being achieved. Inadequacies in policy planning, implementation, and management constitutes the obstacles. A developing nation like Nigeria that learns on education for advancement cannot afford to continue in this direction any longer. Honest commitment by the leaders of the nation, provision of adequate funding and efficient management of the resources and policies are central to the realization of the desired goal.

 The 21st century is a period characterized by several multiple developments in the local and international arena. Among such developments is the rapid expansion in the frontiers of the existing knowledge. It calls for rapid capacity building skills to enable individual and the nation address the emerging challenges. It also requires new orientation and focus on the part of the nation so as to became an active player in the new world order' imbued with such development as Information Technology, Space Technology, Globalization, Security/Defense and Diplomacy.


[i]FRN, National Policy on Education, Abuja, NERDC,2004

[ii] Uchendu, V.C., Policy Analysis and Strategies in Nigeria’s National Development’ in Policy and Contending Issues in Nigerian National Development Strategy, Aja .A.A & Augustine E.C. (Eds), Enugu, J.J Classical Publishers Ltd, 2000.

[iii] Babs Fafunwa, History of Education in Nigeria, London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd.1974.

[iv] Osokoya I.O, History and Policy of Nigerian Education in World Perspective, Ibadan, Laurel Educational Publishers Ltd. 2010, P.86.

[v] H.D.Mohammad, ‘’Colonial Education Policies in Northern Nigeria C.1900-1919’’,in Journal of African Developmental Affairs,vol.1No.3, June 2010, p.66

[vi]Babs Fafunwa, History of Education…p.114

[vii] Ibid

[viii]Ogunsola, A.F., Legislation and education in Northern Nigeria, Ibadan,1974

9. Babs Fafunwa History of Education…pp126-127, and I.O.Osokoya, History and Policy of Nigerian Education in World Perspectve, Laurel Educational Publishers Ltd, Ibadan, 2010, p.94.

[x] I.O.Osokoya, Hisory and Policy…p.94

[xi] Babs Fafunwa, History of Education… pp.129-130.

[xii]I.O.Osokoya, History and Policy…p.104

[xiii] T.N.Tomuno, and J.A. Atanda, (Eds), Nigeria Since Independence; The First 25 years of Education.Vol.III.Heinemann,Ibadan,1989, p.139

[xiv] Ibid.,p.224

[xv] I.O.Osokoya, History and Policy…p.109

[xvi]T.N.Tomuno,, and J.A.Atanda, (Eds), Nigeria Since Independence…p.226

[xvii] I.O.Osokoya, History and Policy…p.106

[xviii] Ibid.,P.108

[xix] Ibid.,p.115-116

[xx] Babs Fafunwa, History of Education…p.215

[xxi]  I.O.Osokoya, History and Policy…Pp.132-133

[xxii]  Babs Fafunwa, History of Education…p p.216

[xxiii]T.N.Tomuno,, and J.A.Atanda (Eds), Nigeria Since Independence…p.149-150

[xxiv] FRN, National Policy on Education, Abuja, NERDC, 2004. P.1

[xxv]I.O.Osokoya, History and Policy…p.148

[xxvi]Yoloye, I.A, ‘Primary Education’’ in Nigeria and Education: The Challenges Ahead, Akinkugbe, O.O (Eds) Lagos Spectrum Books Ltd. 1994.

[xxvii]Dagana Y.Y.: "Costs, financing and management of Nigeria Primary Education: A study of Sokoto State (1990-1997)" NPEC/World Bank Project (CR-2191UN), 1998.

[xxviii] Yoloye, I.A, ‘Primary Education…’

[xxix]  I.O.Osokoya, History and Policy…p.151

[xxx]F.M.E Universal Basic Education for Nigeria, Abuja, ABU Press Ltd, 2000.


[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid.,pp.3-5

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