His Grace Most Rev. Valerian Maduka Okeke, is the Catholic Archbishop of Onitsha Archdiocese and Metropolitan of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province. In this interview with MARCEL MBAMALU and DOM EKPU, he throws more light on the return of missionary schools to their original owners by the Anambra State Government and other hot button issues. Excerpts:
OPINIONS are divided on the suitability of returning missionary schools in Anambra State to their original owners. Where do you stand here?
The Public Education (Transfer of Schools) (Special Provisions) Law, 2009 in returning the secondary schools to their original owners used the term “handover.” However, the Public Education (Transfer of Schools) (Special Provisions) (Amendment) Law, 2011, which was used to return the primary schools, changed it to “return.” It is correct to use “Return” because the schools in question were the ones seized from their missionary owners in 1970. One can handover what is his own to another person but in sending back what belongs to that person, it is only reasonable and more proper to say that you are returning it. The government did not give its schools to the churches. It merely gave the schools back to the churches to which they originally belonged.
When was the returning of these schools effectively implemented?
The Law of 2009 returned the secondary schools effectively in 2010 while the Law of 2011 did same for the primary schools effectively in 2012.
Can you let us into what really led to that?
Actually, there have been efforts, over time, to convince the government to return the schools to their original owners. It has foundation on justice in that it is unfair and illegal to confiscate property belonging to someone or institution who has committed no crime. More so, these schools did not really fare well under the management of government; the negative impact of the takeover of schools on the morals and good character in the society was all too obvious. So the need for that return has been a necessity long overdue. The Peter Obi-led government was not the first to be presented with the facts. But to his credit, he had the courage to get it done for which posterity will remember him.
What about cost or financial implication of running these schools by the missions?
As I said, almost everybody agreed that since the takeover of schools by the government in 1970, good character and morals nosedived to a level unimaginable by so many. In the formation of our future generation, it is not about money, it is not about how much that is available but how well what is there is managed to the benefit of our society.
Again, we see many new private and Mission schools springing up, especially from the late ’80s and they have outperformed the public schools generally. That is why it is better for government to return the schools and provide some funding to ensure that no child would be turned away from school because of money. It is to provide equal and easy access to basic education for our children. You do know too that our governments, not just in education, but also in other areas have never received the garlands as the best managers of public institutions not to mention a sensitive area like education.
Do you share in the view that standard of education has fallen across board – both in missionary and secular schools?
I disagree with that. Quality not standard has fallen. Standards are benchmarks which if attained, signify probably that one has achieved some expected goals. They are indicators of a presence but not markers of effectiveness. Having credit in five subjects, including English and Mathematics, to qualify for tertiary institutions is an all-time high standard in Nigeria.
However, the quality of education is what has fallen flat. That is the validity of the educational process, which shows that what is supposed to be learned by students are actually learned and ready to be used in solving problems in life. High standards with low quality translate to certificates without value and skills. And that is part of what we now strive to change.
What’s your suggestion on how “quality” could be improved?
Our major challenge is not the standards but the quality. And to the possibility of improving that quality I say, yes. When we create good strategies and put the right people who understand the destination of our journey in place, surely we can get it done. It involves seeing the rot in our educational institutions as an emergency situation and acting accordingly.
It is more important to have the right and qualified people in the right places, equip the institutions and empower them to do more with effective supervision and monitoring apparatus. When a process is not closely supervised and students know that they have alternative ways to succeed, it is difficult for them to follow due process. When merit is revered, celebrated and it is very difficult to cut corners, surely people will sit up and the quality will improve significantly.
Do you also believe that mission schools in Anambra State charge exorbitant fees that indigent pupils cannot afford it?
I would beg to disagree that mission schools charge high fees. It is important to ask first: what are the fees for? In appraising the fees to be paid, one first should determine the minimum standards of the programme below which our schools should not operate. It is when we agree on that then we will cost the programme to see what the fees should be.
Sometimes, people compare schools without comparing the services offered in the schools. When the schools were returned to the churches, for example, they were like abandoned zoos. The environment was terrible, equipment lacking, teachers and students were at best ill-motivated and at worst unmotivated.
The environment determines a lot in training of children. You cannot train a fine mind that values orderliness in a dungeon. Besides, given that we are interested in targeted interventions for maximum effectiveness, we identified areas where we needed to focus on, to make positive and delightful impact. Among those were reducing the class size. In doing that, we needed to recruit some teachers to complement the government staff in our schools. We also had to raise a little money to add to the government subvention and Church self-generated funds in rehabilitating and reconstructing the dilapidated buildings.
You will agree with me that the improvements in infrastructure made in so short a time far exceed anybody’s expectations. Besides, you need to imagine what it takes to feed the students, as many are boarding students. Imagine for example that their meals cost N600 per day at N200 per plate; it means that for one term, they would be paying N54, 000 just for the food alone. Do we charge such high fees? Never.
People should then ask how we manage to feed them and also pay our supplementary teachers while purchasing diesel for about four hours daily in each school. If there is anything I dare expect, it is an appreciation of how frugal and readiness to sacrifice personal needs of the church to improve on these schools.
Indeed, it is important to compare private schools rendering similar services that the Church offers and see how much those cost in those schools. What is unacceptable to us is that our children will be empty and uneducated because we want everything to be free.
But we noticed that despite the return of the schools, the Government of Anambra State still gives money to churches for these schools…
Well, if you took someone’s property and destroyed it for 40 years, it is only right that you put it in order before returning it. Our schools were houses of excellence and beauty when they were taken over. At the time of return, you wouldn’t even recognize your own alma mater. It is fair and just that the government gives some subvention to put back the schools in order.
Note though that the Church began spending her own money even before the government subventions came. The church has continued to spend her money until today to see that the schools are returned to excellence. Government-paid teachers work in our schools as grant-in-aid. The government has been giving grant-in-aid to the Voluntary Agencies/Mission before the civil war and subsequent takeover of schools. It is therefore not a new thing though as we have noted, we still employ many other teachers to make up for the needs of the school population. All these efforts and collaboration between government and the Church help to reduce fees in some of our schools.
But in actual fact, should churches really bother themselves with managing schools; wouldn’t that amount to giving to God what belongs to Caesar?
I guess that Caesar belongs to God too. However, the Constitution of Nigeria, just like in so many other countries in the world, allows bodies or individuals other than government to own schools.
The Anambra State government did not give us her schools but ours, which they confiscated years ago. What the government did was actually to return to the church what was “stolen from the sanctuary.”
That noted, going back to history, schools were an exclusive reserve for the nobles and their families. It was the Catholic Church who started what was then known as Cathedral schools as you had in Paris, France, Bologna, Italy, and Salamanca Spain. These formed later, in about the 12th century, the first universities in the world.
The idea of public education was the handiwork of the Church, therefore, she can lay claim to having gathered the most experience in that art than any other institution in the world. This is because the Church takes her mandate from Christ her founder, to “go and teach all nations” Cf, Matthew 28:20.
One has to note that education is about the whole individual, not just the intellectual. It is safe to say that no government in the world has ever boasted that she is the best in training of character and morals in addition to forming of the intellect.
Can you score or evaluate the impact of the church on their schools since they were returned to them?
It is my opinion that the people are in the best position to say those. However, from the testimonies received and facts, the impacts are obvious. It was from then that Anambra State took a pride of place in educational ratings in this country. For instance, Anambra state took the 1st position in SSCE (WAEC and NECO) for 3 years.
Since then, the state has moved from students who obtained 5 credits including in English and Mathematics ranging from the 50-76 percent in 2017. We have schools and teachers receiving National awards. Our students have represented the country in debates and other activities outside Nigeria.
To enter Unity Colleges in Nigeria, students from Anambra State are given the cut off mark of 139, which is the highest for any state as against some who were given 4. The school buildings and facilities wear new looks and enabling environment is being facilitated.
In fact, we receive over 1,600 applications in some of our schools just for JSS1 class. Supervision of teachers and capacity building sessions are commonplace now. The laboratories are reequipped and students are once again relishing the culture of civilisation where you learn how to be a human being. The list can be almost endless.
In that case, is it correct to say that Mission schools have more qualified and more committed teachers than government schools?
Jim Collins in his “Good to Great” argued that one has to get the right people on board first before other things. But the defining quality is tricky. Is it about those with certificates they cannot defend or those with requisite skills that are effective? Is it about the number of years already spent in a career or the ability to update and stay on top of new research as they emerge? At the end, what is indispensable in defining quality teachers is effectiveness. Coming from that perspective and judging from the successes recorded by students in various schools, the effectiveness of teachers in mission schools is undeniable.
Management people say that nobody sustains success with yesterday’s men of power. To drive and sustain the successes already recorded, we need teachers with requisite knowledge but above that we try to recruit people with the right disposition, commitment, and passion. You need to remember that for teachers in our schools, it is not just a job but also a ministry, an apostolate. Their faith moves them to do more and beyond the requirements of the law. They bring the faith element to boost their efforts. Do parents and school children actually prefer Catholic owned schools? To see over 1,600 applying for about 200 spots answers that. We have many of our schools always oversubscribed.
Talking about numbers, recently we heard that most Catholic schools in your Archdiocese adopted a new policy aimed at reducing the number of students in each school, what is the reason behind that? In line with forming the whole person, one can only be effective to the extent the available resources can permit. Given that the society has changed a lot, the formation has become more challenging. To achieve significant success in that task, there should be personal contact, trust, and confidence established between the formandi and the formator. That means that one cannot truly form too many people at the same time, especially when the facilities cannot admit of that.
You do not want a situation where some students are invisible and hide under the crowd without receiving the needed formation. Our aim is to unleash the potentials of each student to be the best they can be and to do that we have to see, interact and walk alongside them in order to facilitate such journey.
But what becomes the fate of those children who could not secure admissions in Catholic schools due to this policy on reduction of numbers?
Well, to make sure that no one who desires to get quality Catholic education is denied that, we have not only developed more schools in our parishes but are also going the extra mile to upgrade the facilities in other of our schools in the villages that are not patronized as much as the ones in the urban centres. With that, the majority of those who could not secure a place in the most popular schools are absolved.
Catholic education aims at forming the whole person. It is involved in the training of the head, the heart and the hands of any individual. It does not concentrate on the intellect alone but also aims at building up other aspects of the human individual. To be fully human and genuinely responsible citizen founded on solid faith sums up the goals of Catholic education.
A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to visit St. Charles College Onitsha, which I believe to be one of the returned mission schools, what is the secret behind the tremendous progress obviously visible in that school?
Thank you for that sincere observation and kind words. But then I would like you to note that we have not even finished with St. Charles and our other schools. We do not want to restore them to what they were 40 years ago but to put them where they should have been in 2017.
Our destination is 21st-century schools and we will not rest until we achieve that. We firmly believe the saying that success without successors is failure in disguise. The best gift we can give to the next generation is education and enlightenment. With that, they can exceed every expectation one may have of them. They are all works in progress.
Are other Catholic schools like that?
Not just like it but many are even better. Anyway since no one is a judge in his own case, I would like you to make the assessment yourself. So, you need to make out time to take a tour around some others of our schools to confirm for yourself.
Are there some prominent Nigerians you can remember that passed through the Catholic mission schools?
It is for the school records to show but I can tell you that our schools have produced justices, ministers, bishops and priests, commissioners, renowned medical personnel and lawyers. In fact, Christ the King College, Onitsha alone, has produced three governors in this political dispensation.
How best do you think that schools in Nigeria will be managed for better results?
I believe that we have sufficient regulations but strengthening or the enforcement of those may be the key. In my opinion, if the National Policy on Education can do with fewer politics and focus more on policies there will definitely be a lot of difference. When the right people are in the right places, the process can move more appropriately.
Is it proper for schools to compel students to adapt particular mode of service that may not conform to their way of worship before they come to the school?
Everybody is guaranteed freedom of religion in our schools and so it remains so. However, the values of a particular churches would expectedly influence the culture of the schools they own and run. While nobody should ever impose his religion or values on another person, those students of different religion know the values that could be obtainable in those schools before opting to go there. At the end, mutual respect to the individual’s right to freedom of worship is the key.
Should churches venture into ownership of universities when some of them find ownership and management of primary and post-primary schools in their care so difficult?
I would think that every church community should answer for themselves. I do not know what anybody has in their pockets and so not in a position to speak on that. But then, the fact remains that we have grossly inadequate number of universities to absorb our teeming youths coming out of the secondary schools who wish to further their education. Against this background, anybody or any church permitted by law to establish a university and desires to do so is doing our society a great favour.
It is then left for the appropriate regulatory agencies to be effective in carrying out their functions to guarantee quality. Nonetheless, it is also a fact that many renowned universities in the world are run by churches.
You have been in the saddle in Onitsha Archdiocese for quite some time now; how would you describe the challenge of sitting at its helms?
I just feel that it’s only a privilege for which all glory belongs to God who made it so. The power of his grace has really kept me on leading me through the challenges involved.
Can you tell us what actually inspired your choice of working in the mission ahead of other fields of endeavour?
I can’t really pinpoint what exactly was my main motivation because they were multi-faceted. But then, I admired the comportment of the Irish priests that I met in my childhood days; Fr. Patrick Dunne and Fr. Patrick Duncan. Their disciplined life, their life of charity, celibate state and even the way they celebrated the Liturgy were fascinating to me.
In fact, I can’t say which one of these was uppermost, but I admired their lifestyle. All these notwithstanding, the fact remains that the priesthood is a divine call, a divine vocation given only by God.
While some hold the church partly responsible for the rising wave of moral decadence in Nigeria, do you think it’s doing enough in changing the society?
The issue of moral decadence is a global issue, it’s not peculiar only to Nigeria and I believe that its cause is complex. So the church is doing her bid and cannot be blamed for that.
Do you think that the Church should have an active role in running the government in Nigeria?
The church has her role in government which is more of the role of a father. As a father, she guides, advises and most importantly prays for the government.