Free but unattainable: children’s rights, access to basic education and discourses of risk from young people in Lagos City, Nigeria

Yonah Matemba, Oladejo Samson Oyerinde

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and in particular article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) affirm the entitlements children and young people have to free, compulsory and equitable education upon which the ‘Education for All’ schemes are based (see Smith, 2007). Despite being a signatory to these conventions, in sub-Sahara African countries a large number (32.3%) of its children and young people are out of school, the highest in the world (UNESCO, 2018; Lewin, 2009; Ekaju, 2011; Lewin and Sabates, 2012). For its part, two decades ago (1999-2019) Nigeria promulgated the Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme targeting six to fifteen year olds in primary and junior secondary education, and set up an implementation commission for this purpose (Ikoya and Onoyase, 2008), and yet access to education continues to allude many children and young people. The evidence is staggering: >10 million (34.8%) primary school age children in Nigeria are not in school, net enrolment in primary school has hardly changed (60.1% in 2003 to 64.92% present), transition from primary to junior secondary is at 68.59%, only 41.13% students complete junior secondary, and a mere 30.98% complete senior secondary education (Nigeria Federal Ministry of Education, 2016).Access to education in Nigeria—and indeed in most countries in the sub-Saharan region—is beset by a myriad of persistent problems: poverty, poor learning facilities, unequal gender structures, lack of classroom space, uneven teacher supply, poorly trained teachers, child labour practices, location/environment and so on (see Busingye and Najjuma, 2015; Johansson, 2013; Aluede, 2006; Edho, 2009). Issues such as these inevitably endanger access to education. In sub-Saharan Africa, discourses of risk that attempt to explain the paradox of ‘free’ but inaccessible education are dominated by the ‘authoritative’ voices of powerful stakeholders such as parents, school administrators, government officials, civic leaders and non-governmental agencies. While such perspectives are important for their purposes, children particularly those living in rural and poor areas of Africa’s cities are by their circumstances outside the circles of power, and as such lack the voice to articulate what, from their lived experience, prevents them from accessing education (Anyidoho et al., 2012). As Smith points out, it is important to recognise children “as social actors” [and] co-constructors of meaning” in childhood (Smith, 2007: 147), and as such pivotal in informing policy and practice. Drawing on Beck’s Risk Society Theory (RST) this paper explicates discourses of risk hampering access to ‘free’ basic education for young people living in poor areas of Lagos, Nigeria’s megacity, where interrelated socio-economic factors engender multiple levels of deprivation, especially for 8.5% of the population who live in abject poverty (Bialostock, 2015; Dixon, Humble and Tooley, 2017). Beck’s theory is particularly relevant because, as he postulates, young people in today’s society are vulnerable and exposed to series of unimaginable life experiences that has never existed before, and yet they have little or no control over the modernised, ever changing demand in the society (see Beck, 1992). RST conceptualises the well-known but nevertheless troubling reality that people in disadvantaged urban environments are more at risk than those in affluent settings (see Elliot, 2002), a conundrum that has serious implications for children and young people living in those environments, include educational outcomes. Data for this paper is based on the findings of a large qualitative study exploring the experiences of young people and access to ‘free’ basic education in Lagos state. Lagos was selected, inter alia, because it is Africa’s biggest city (21 million people – and growing) with four sprawling slums, and given its socio-economic influence makes it a site of research interest. Secondly, concerning education, the number of out-of-school children in Lagos (40.3%) and primary school enrolment (52.42%) are higher than the national average in Nigeria (Nigeria Federal Ministry of Education, 2016). To explore the discourses of risk and how these impacts on access to education for young people living in poor areas of Lagos, the following questions provide a useful guide. First, to what extent do the experiences of young people exacerbate the problem of access and equity to the ‘free’ basic education? Secondly, what are the inherent risks young people face, and how do this impact on their access to education? Third, what structural, social, personal and environmental factors facilitate or impede access to education for these young people? Finally, what do the young people say should be done to ameliorate the problem of access to education? In order to give the young people in our study the means to express their lived experiences, we employed photovoice (N=18) and community walk discussions (N=16) as data collection tools (Minthorn and Marsh, 2016; Stoecker, 2009). As they reflected on the self-captured pictures (photovoice) and engaged in the impromptu community walk discussions, the young people (10-19 years old) in the study, both boys (19) and girls (15), developed the voice through which they articulated the multiple (and repeated) risks they face, and why although “free” education is premised, in their lived experience this is merely rhetoric. The participation of these young people in this research bring insights not adequately captured in extant narratives of officials, scholars and practitioners (see Ekaju, 2011). The paper contributes to the discourse on risk to educational access, and why for many young people particularly in the poor areas of Lagos city, free basic education is unattainable, and by implication denied the right to education (see Smith, 2007; Johansson, 2013; Lewin and Sabates, 2012; Busingye and Najjuma, 2015; Lewin and Akyeampong, 2009). Importantly, the young people articulated a number of suggestions, which from their perspectives can go a long way to address the problems they face accessing ‘free’ education.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2 Sep 2019
EventEuropean Conference on Educational Research 2019 - University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
Duration: 2 Sep 20196 Sep 2019


ConferenceEuropean Conference on Educational Research 2019
Abbreviated titleECER 2019
Internet address


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