Universal Primary Education

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Universal Primary Education in Nigeria is an educational system that was started in the mid 1950s following the Macpherson constitution of 1951 which granted democratic rights to the citizens to elect members to the regional House of Assemblies of the three Nigerian regions. The assemblymen had powers to raise and appropriate money and also to pass legislations concerning health, education, agriculture and local government. The elected governments in Western region and later in the East selected an ambitious literacy and educational program to see through that most primary school age students attend primary schools.

Further in 1976, the federal government which had in 1972 assumed more responsibility for education took on the challenge of seeing all primary age students attending school. It also launched the U.P.E. scheme to correct regional, rural-urban and sex imbalances in the educational system and invest in human capital.

U.P.E. is considered a pre-cursor of the Universal Basic Education both based on the ideal of equal access to primary education for all. However, the U.P.E. plan has been criticized by many for the lack of proper planning leading to inadequate educational facilities in classrooms, insufficient trained teachers and erosion in the provision of quality education.

Western region

On coming to power in 1952, the Action Group led by the new premier, Obafemi Awolowo made education a top agenda of the government. In his first budget speech, Awolowo mentioned education and health as the government's top priorities. Later in July 1952, the regional minister of education, Stephen Awokoya presented a comprehensive educational plan for the introduction of compulsory and free primary education in the region starting in January 1955. Included in the proposal were expanding teacher education programs, building more secondary schools, and introducing secondary technical and modern schools to supplement the comprehensive education. The program was finally launched on January 17, 1955 and by 1958 a total number of 1 million pupils were enrolled in the plan up from about 457,000 pupils attending fee paying primary schools prior to the launch in 1955. During the period, the government spent close to 90% of its 5 million pounds plus education budget on primary schools.

Eastern region

The Eastern region also embarked on a universal primary education programme. In 1953, the regional education minister, R.I. Uzoma made a proposal for free primary education to be partly financed by the local government. However, a change in government led to he exit of the premier, Eyo Ita from government and in his place was Nnamdi Azikiwe. Also, a new education minister, Ibanga Akpabio was appointed. Azikiwe now embarked on a more ambitious primary education scheme jettisoning the idea of local financing as such joint financing ventures in the past had yielded little result. His plan envisioned a projected launch date of January 1957 which was closely met with the formal launching taking place in February 1957. However, the scheme was hampered by various problems mostly inadequate financing but not excluding insufficient trained teachers, buildings and equipment and opposition from the Catholic Church which controlled more than half of the primary and secondary schools in the country.

In 1958, a committee was set up to review the educational system in the East. The committee headed by Kenneth Dike recommended a focus on quality education provision instead of quantity. Another committee, the Ikoku Committee on the review of the educational system in the Eastern region recommended the consolidation of primary schools and the discontinuation of non viable schools. Also the committee proposed, government control of all primary schools, the involvement of local government council in primary education and reducing the length of time spent in primary schools from 7 years to 6 years.

Federal plan

In September 1976, the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo introduced the free universal primary education. It was designed to make primary education free and available throughout the country with admission given to pupils aged six. The launch followed careful analysis of the plan starting in 1969 when a committee headed by Mr Somade was charged to enquiry into the educational system of the country and the feasibility of launching a free primary education programme. A proposal from the education ministry followed in 1972 as the federal government assumed more role in the educational system of the country. However, some stakeholders raised caution about the proposed level of investment in education, the sharing of financial responsibilities, and a lack of preparatory time. But in 1974, U.P.E. was decided to be introduced on a voluntary basis. Unlike in the past where the primary goal was to educate citizens and increase the enrollment of primary school age students, the new policy of 1976 was partly created to address educational imbalances between the Nigerian regions. At launch, primary school students in class 1 were about 3 million but a shortage of properly trained teachers hampered the objectives of the scheme. The government which had spent about 1 billion dollars on primary schools and teacher education enjoined success with school enrollment but enrollment was far out pacing the availability of trained teachers. The plan later suffered in the 1980s constrained by inadequate financing from the chief sponsor, the federal government when oil prices fell. Inadequate enthusiasm from the major beneficiaries and the Nigerian government's policy instability also contributed to the lack of full realization of the project's objectives.


  • Babs Fafunwa. History of Education in Nigeria. p 67-70