Halifield Schools is a household name in the educational terrain on the Lagos Mainland. It has carved a niche for itself as one of the top leading private schools in terms of quality education in the country. Administered by a seasoned educationist in the person of Mrs. Halima Oke and her team, it is not surprising that the school has attained lofty heights since its humble beginnings in 1996 in Mende, Maryland. In this interview with Inside Mainland Newspaper, Mrs. Oke gives more insight into the Halifield success story. Ezekiel Akinbo Reports:
You resigned from the Nigerian University Commission (NUC) to establish Halifield Elementary School in 1996. What influenced this?
My office moved to Abuja. That was the period when most government institutions were required to settle in Abuja. My children were still young; I couldn’t leave my children and husband. So, I eased myself out. I had always believed that the type of education they were getting was too academic-centred. From the example of my children, they went to a very strict secondary school. It was books all the way. I believe children should have a balance. I felt so whenever I went to my children’s school and saw their work. I had my own ideas about education. I had also related with people who were so smart but did not go far because they lacked social skills and confidence in their innate abilities. When I left NUC, I was still young and I decided I would want to put those ideas into practice and the best way to do that was to use a place in Mende (Maryland) where we took off with 16 kids. Right from the onset, we ensured we made extracurricular activities very important and compulsory and it turned out that this even motivated children to do well in their academics. Human beings excel when they enjoy what they do. So, when you make a child sing or dance while learning, he/she understands better. Halifield was set up on the premise that education is multifaceted; education has other aspects like morals which the missionary schools brought, skills acquisition, communication skills and life skills that will enable a child become a balanced personality and help build that confidence. So, I wanted the kind of education that would give a child a balance and we started and introduced a lot of social activities. We brought in dance, public speaking, crafts and more and the children started coming out of their shells. They were becoming confident. And like our motto which is ‘I can’, we tell our children they can do anything as long as they believe they can. I have tried my ideas, they have succeeded and I am very proud of that success.
What ways are private schools contributing to improve the sorry state of education in the country?
The Government is not doing enough for education and it reflects in the quality of graduates our education system is churning out. Our curriculum is watery and straight-jacketed. We are not teaching our children to reason. If we want children to reason, what is learned must be applied. In Nigeria’s case, what is learned is regurgitated. When you learn, the next step should be application. How do you apply what you have learned? That is what private schools are trying to do. In Halifield, we have enriched our curriculum even though we follow the Nigerian curriculum but we will not get anywhere with the Nigerian curriculum alone. The British curriculum is wider as well as the American curriculum. When you see such curricula, they are embedded with vast applied knowledge so that the children are well-grounded. Meanwhile, the Nigerian curriculum will teach you depth but it won’t go wide. So, what most private schools do is to enrich and enhance the Nigerian curriculum. We are not strictly British or American. I don’t believe in that. We are Nigerians and we should practise our Nigerian curriculum but enrich it so that our children will have the best of all the worlds and when they do get outside, they excel and can compete with any foreigner because our education is of similar quality.
How has Halifield contributed to educational development on the Lagos Mainland since its establishment?
We have entrenched a very high quality education on the Mainland. A lot of our parents move to the Island and put their children in schools there but they have come back to say they haven’t found a school like ours. We give close attention to our children. We treat them as individuals. Each child is celebrated. We have made education not to be second-rated on the Mainland. You cannot go to any school on the Island and rate it of a higher quality than Halifield. You can however, go to the Island, sometimes on the Mainland, and see strictly British or American schools. There’s that difference. On the Mainland, I believe private schools have also done their best to be reasonable in their charges. We charge a fraction of what schools on the Island charge but we run the schools the same way. There are other things that Halifield has done to contribute towards the development of education on the mainland like giving scholarships to children, working with NGOs to raise children of disadvantaged parents. We have also built into our system charity work, where we feed and clothe needy people on St. Valentine’s Day.
Some Nigerians complain about the tuition fees charged by private schools and argue that the quality of education their wards get in return is not at par with the amount paid. As a stakeholder, what do you think?
That complaint has always been there and it will continue to be there because education really should be free, if provided by government. If education was well-managed in Nigeria, fewer people would go to private schools but because the government is not doing a good job of it, you have more people coming to private schools; people that cannot really afford it but want the best for their children. So, this set of people will complain. I do agree tuition in private school is high but you see education is a social service. It is not a money-making venture. I can testify to that. Education in private schools should be subsidised in one way or the other by the government but we are levied and taxed from all sides. Even putting up a sign post of the school name attracts a levy and all these are expensive. Apart from that, if you want to run a good school, you have to have world-class facilities like we do in Halifield and they must be well maintained which is also expensive. Then you need good, motivated and experienced teachers which cost money to have. If you want poorly-paid teachers, you get garbage. So, you need experienced teachers who are professionals, who are dedicated to giving a very good education. So put together, all these things are pricey; money spent on electricity, diesel, all the levies by government, facilities for children to learn in class, etc. That is why it seems that it is very expensive. But I must say Halifield is reasonable because I know what similar schools, even on the Mainland, charge. We are conscious of the economic challenges and we try hard not to charge exorbitant fees.
Recently, the Lagos State government warned owners of private schools against rushing children into secondary school without completion of primary school education. What significance does that make?
The Government is very correct and I wish they would back their directive with actions and penalties. The year 6 class, which most parents try to make their children avoid, is key. This is when a child matures. In our school, you see the difference between year 5 students and year 6 students. They are miles apart. That one year matters so much but parents are trying to save money. Maturation is key to excellence. A child must be matured and ready. If he is not, no matter how intelligent he is, he will start dropping or have difficulty acclimatizing/socializing in higher institutions and that is what happens when you rush children. We are in support of children completing their tenure of elementary school before going to secondary school; it will make for maturity and excellence in education. So, we like what the government says and we want it to be effected.
Aiding and abetting students to cheat during examinations are becoming synonymous to private schools. What are stakeholders in private schools doing about this trend?
In Halifield, it is a taboo! We don’t even discuss it and teachers who are coming into the school are asked in one form or the other what they think about it. If we find out from an interview that they are people who have been exposed to it, we don’t bring them in. We wouldn’t want to jeopardise the future of our young children. Children should be moulded to work hard for results, to have integrity, to be proud of their achievements and not to help them pass exams. The problem of exam malpractice is now being aided and abetted by parents. Some parents take their children to schools where they know they will cheat so they can pass. But they are not looking at the consequence of it.
Halifield has carved a niche for itself as one of the leading private schools in terms of quality education not just in Lagos but in the country. How have you been able to achieve this feat?
The factors are motivation, confidence and dedication on the part of the staff. We task our students. There is healthy competition among students in the school and we also send them for external competitions. We use and reference a lot of foreign text books and we are technology-driven. In our elementary school, children are taught with smart boards and use the computer applications themselves. They have research-based programmes. There is a program we call ‘Tell Me Why’, which are science topics that pupils research with the aid of their teachers and make presentations at Assembly, per class and we invite parents to watch. And in the College, we have what we call ‘Contest of The Stars’ where we give a quiz on all subjects, per class at Assembly. So, students actively study because they are quizzed in front of their school mates and as such, they want to excel. We also have a good system of reward where students who excel are acknowledged and rewarded by presenting them with trophies and celebrating them. So, we do a lot to make our children strive and we always tell them, ‘believe in yourself’. ‘You can do it’.
What does the future hold for Halifield?
We want to build a school whose products become the change agents of Nigeria. I look ahead and I see my students positively changing the aviation sector, the military, the Presidency and much more. I see them leading our country. We have a lot of problems in Nigeria and we bring this to the attention of our students, particularly at the secondary level. We have a programme at the secondary level where we take an agricultural product yearly and task our students to go and research into what they can create that does not yet exist. Before cassava bread went to Aso Rock, we had done cassava bread here. There are no jobs now and that was why we thought we should make our children entrepreneurs so that when they graduate from the university, they won’t be searching for jobs that just aren’t there. So, there is no way a Halifield child will fail and I say that with all confidence.
Achievements so far?
We have had many since our inception in 1996. Today we are in our own premises which is very conducive for learning and equipped with sports and boarding facilities. This I attribute to God. Aside that, we have won laurels in academics; our children came third nationally in a Spelling Bee competition and third in Microsoft Office Contest. We have won debates. Our secondary school students continue to win prizes in arts and music. We went to MUSON Centre last year and placed first in music. We had 7 prizes in all. We have won a dance competition at the primary level. We went to Germany to perform and we came 3rd worldwide. Lagos State Ministry of Education rated us as one of the six top schools in Lagos, which is no mean feat. We give continuous local and international training for our teachers in the United States, United Kingdom and South Africa. Our teachers are all over the place acquiring training and this makes them phenomenal teachers. Every year, we give a merit and need-based scholarship to an indigenous Mende child. We also work with NGOs to give scholarships to children that they bring here. We are also collaborating with KICC Church to help educate students that are needy. We collaborate with foreign schools and one of them has taken four of our students, on full-scholarships, to complete their senior secondary school in education Canada. We also give a scholarship to the best Common Entrance students. These are some of our achievements as we try to reach out to make quality education more inclusive.
As an educationist, what will be your advice to parents and students?
Parents should put their children in good schools and should not fret. They should also give their children attention. If a child knows that you are going to be present at his performance in school, he will do well because your child wants to impress you. And for students and children; just believe you can and you will get there. Some might get there faster, some might get there later but you will all get there and it is not the time you get there that determines your success in life, rather it’s your thoroughness, your integrity, it’s your expression of the gift God has given you, that education has enhanced in you that determines success. So, let us discourage rushing because when we rush, we do things in a shoddy manner.