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In Love We Serve One Another: Greenspring Schools

From quitting job as an accountant, travelling to England to be trained as a Montessori teacher in 1983/1984, to opening the Greensprings Montessori, School with only three students and two teachers, Mrs. Lai Koiki has come a long way in living her passion. However, with the passage of time, Greensprings Montessori School has metamorphosed into Greensprings Schools, comprising a crèche, primary and secondary school as well as a university, which is silhouetting. For the visionary, it has been a very eventful odyssey and this perhaps explains why the music is growing louder for her 30 years down the line. With a few thousand Nigerian youths and expatriate kids on the school’s alumni list already, Koiki, a consummate teacher and lover of kids says she is full of appreciations to God Almighty for making the journey worth the while and enabling the school to grow from strength to strength. She commented on some national issues in an interaction with a select group of reporters of which ENO-ABASI SUNDAY was part of, just as she divulged some of the school’s plans for the next decade, which include having satellite campuses all over Nigeria as well as the establishment of a university.

With three students, two of whom were donated by your sister and the other by your neighbour, Greensprings School opened for business in January of 1985. How has it panned out for you in the last three decades?

Over the years, we are happy to identify ourselves as trailblazers in the Montessori method of child education and also in the art of reading. The original plan I had was just to have a pre-school for children. However, by the time the kids graduated and were ready to go to elementary schools, their parents said no, especially because of the newfound knowledge. After everything, parents wanted us to move up to elementary school, which we did and thereafter we moved to secondary school.

In the course of doing this, we have recorded a number of firsts including being the first Nigerian school to start writing the IGCSE. In fact, at that time, the British Council tried to discourage us because the General Certificate in Education (GCE) was the prevalent examination. In the United Kingdom then, they were writing the GCSE because they have moved away from GCE, which unfortunately is what some Nigerian schools/students still write up to this day. The difference between the GCSE (which British schools write) and the IGSCE is the letter “I” in front of it, which means international. This therefore means that this particular examination, which our students write is international in nature and more global in outlook, and that is why many of the private schools in the United Kingdom prefer to write this particular examination (IGSCE). This is because the world has become a global village, and so when students are taught about their countries, they are also taught about other countries of the world. So in being passionate with what we do, we are also forward-looking by preparing the children to get on the international platform tomorrow and not necessarily the Nigerian platform. This is because we sincerely believe that if they can work on the international platform, they can also comfortably work on the Nigerian platform as well.

Having started with only five students in the secondary arm in the Anthony area of Lagos, the Lekki campus of the secondary school situated on 50 hectares of land started in 2007 after the sod turning in 2006. And the dream of that campus was to have a school that looks like all of those grand schools in the United States and the United Kingdom that have lots of grounds, and where you can have all the facilities in-house. I am happy to say that God granted our heart desires and the dream came true.

How lucrative is the business of running posh private school in Nigeria?

I would not see what we are doing as posh. In fact, we are trying to disabuse the minds of people and letting them know that we are not at that extreme. However, because of what we do and how we do it, people just imagine that this is the most expensive school and all that kind of stuff. But this is not true. In fact, I must not fail to mention that as far as education is involved, what drives us here is the passion we derive from what we are doing. Like any other venture, at different times it has been a bit difficult for us to move on, but the passion still drives us. Running an educational institution is not like buying and selling where monies invested can be recouped easily because the gestation period for investment in this sector is long.

Your students don’t write the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). Is that a subtle way of showing disapproval to the way education is run in Nigeria?

Yes. Indeed I have a story to tell about that. We had planned to write the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) organised by the West African Examination Council (WAEC) and the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), a globally recognised qualification. But when we got to the very first Junior Secondary Three examination we were to write (I was the headmistress then), the invigilators came and said that they wanted to help my children (students), and I told them not to because it was not necessary. However, they still went ahead and helped them and everybody came out with distinctions. It was at that point that I decided that my students were not going write this examination any more. They felt that since it was a private school, parents and myself were going to be happy when the results are good and the school would grow. But for me, in applying yourself to that, the children are not learning and so why should I be happy. It was at that point that I told myself that these children need to write an examination that we can fix only by teaching them well, that they only can also fix by being well prepared. An examination that their parents cannot fix inappropriately because parents also fix examinations too.

When we stood our grounds, at a point, parents were complaining that their children in our school were getting lower marks than children in other schools, but we kept on reassuring them that our students were very good and okay the way they were. However, at some point in time, the government introduced interviews and our kids that were getting 400 marks in entrance examinations were coming out tops and performing better than those that got over 600 marks. With this, you can see that there is something fundamentally wrong with our society and that was the reason that we decided that it was only the IGCSE that we would write because it is an international examination and marked externally. In addition to that, because when some Nigerian students go abroad with great results from WAEC, some people still look at them and say, ‘you mean you made all these grades without someone assisting you?’ Even when a child got those beautiful grades by his/herself, the credibility always appears to be questionable and that was why we settled for the IGCSE. It was not to create any imaginary distinction between the children of the rich and those of the poor.

You are of the opinion that something fundamental has to be done if education in Nigeria has to be what it should be. Could you be more specific?

Government needs to encourage the teaching profession and the education sector by increasing the budget to the sector because it is more important than building roads. Maybe the only other thing that is equally very important is building hospitals. If a government comes into power and takes education as a priority, I think many people will be very happy with such development. A state of emergency should be declared in the education sector and all those that fail to send their children to school should be effectively dealt with. All teachers that are busy selling rice in the classrooms should also be dealt with so that some sense of discipline can be injected into the system. Even if classes are held under trees, it doesn’t really matter, but let children learn.

The country’s educational system has to change in order for the Nigerian child to keep pace with his counterparts in other parts of the world. In other words, contemporary Nigerian children should not be taught the way we were if taught, even though what we were taught was good enough for our own time. However, for a start, we need to ensure that teachers are able to teach in a way that would bring out from the kids, what they have in them because in teaching them, we are really not pouring anything new into them because they already have a lot in them. Teachers should be able to teach and ask questions that would bring out what they have in them. If the teacher is incapable of doing this, then there is a problem.

The inability of our educational administrators to regulate and supervise schools effectively is another problem. Here in Greensprings, we try to do only what is right, and I know that some other private schools are also doing the same. But all the private schools combined are catering for just about 10 per cent of the school children in the country while the remaining 90 per cent that are in public schools are not getting an education that would prepare them for life, and these children in public schools are not necessarily dumb. I am stressing that they are not necessarily dumb because we have a few students here, whom we have given scholarship from public schools. When we brought them in, they required a bit re-orientation, which we gave and they are doing very well. I would strongly advise that it is very important for us to do something about the 90 per cent of Nigerian school children who are in public schools because if we don’t, these are the people that would scale our high fences to come in and disturb us in the years ahead.

As a board member of Accreditation International AISEN, a highly respected body of educators and accreditors from around the world, how do you see the proliferation of unapproved private schools in the country, whose intentions are suspect?

What I think is that in the first instance, the educational system needs to be re-jigged and revamped because to inspect and approve a school, it takes a team that is dedicated and up to date. When the Lekki campus of our school was to be approved, the team that came from the ministry saw all what we had on ground and gave us very high marks. On getting to the computer laboratory, they asked us, ‘where are your typewriters?’ With all the computer sets we had, including the individual computer sets used by the students and provided by the school, we could not get the approval until we provided the antiquated typewriters that they wanted. This is funny, but it what happened and to Greensprings. This, apart from showing how far behind we are, also shows that there is a problem because even our regulators do not know what to do. It is easy to bribe and get away with all these things, but that is not our style. How do you explain a situation where regulators come here and demand to know the number of toilets that we have when even in their schools they don’t have toilets and we are busy building toilets for public schools. On the strength of this, I would say these regulators have no moral rights to come into a school like this or one that is of a lower grade and demand for certain things. As a school, we are trying, but if everybody does a little of what is expected of them, and by God’s grace we have a good government in place, then soon something good will happen to our country.

Why have you chosen to employ some expatriates in your school even when we have qualified hands out there?

We have a lot of gifted people in Nigeria, but we also have a lot of talents that need nurturing. That is why we send most of our teachers for training and retraining both within and outside Nigeria. In doing this, we spend a lot of money. Now, even though the expatriates are expensive, we bring in some of them that are knowledgeable (because not all of them are knowledgeable.) In bringing in these ones, we are also cutting cost in the sense that they can do a lot of in-house training and grooming for our staff. Beyond helping to build capacity through these trainings, we also tap from the experiences they have garnered over the years having been brought up in a near perfect kind of environment. And so there is a lot we can learn and borrow from them. It is also interesting to know that we also have black expatriates from countries like Kenya and in times past, we had people from Ghana. The reason I am mentioning this is to say that something has just gone wrong with Nigeria because if our teacher training programmes were good, then we may not have had cause to keep going out there to bring in these people apart from maybe in doing some kind of exchange programme. Flowing from this, I would say that the teacher training colleges have to change and those that are training these teachers have to know what the children of the future need to know. As good as British and American education are, people are still complaining and wanting to see improvements including bringing in courses like law and psychology at A-Level. These are not standard courses for secondary schools, but they are coming in now because the world is changing. So, in the light of these developments, teacher training colleges and the people running them have to change.

About two years ago, I was in Singapore and it is just amazing what they do. Their public schools are just like universities, their teachers are the best-paid workers and their students are doing so well. With this kind of scenario, they really do not need private schools. We can also do it because we have the manpower and the resources having been so blessed by God. All we need to do is to stretch ourselves a bit in order to make this nation a great nation that it should be.

Are you canvassing the re-introduction of teacher training colleges or strengthening colleges of education?

I don’t know which is which because a tier might be training assistant teachers while another tier trains full-fledge teachers. For me, it does not matter which ever structures or institutions that are there. What matters to me is for these structures to be revamped. Authorities should do what is needful and beneficial to the 21st Century student so as to put a stop to a situation where students come out of the university and cannot perform or speak simple English.

Running a school for 30 years now, what are the experiences that have sustained your interest in education?

I am in favour of an entrepreneur having some knowledge of what he or she is getting into. That is why I got trained as a teacher even though that was not my fundamental calling. It was the passion that I got from my training abroad that got me very passionate about coming back to Nigeria to help change things. However, it is also important to have a focus and a drive. This is what kept me from buying stuffs when the sellers came calling in the early days and I told them I was not interested. I always told my teachers that it was not time for me to buy, and that a time would come that whatever anybody brings I would afford. An entrepreneur has to deny his/her self some things, some times. The money would surely come at some point, but you have to decide carefully, what to spend the money on. This may include buying another car; a new set of jewellery, staff training, re-painting the school or buying a new set of furniture for the school. The list goes on and on. For me, I think to move ahead and show love for what you are doing; you must always do things that would help the organisation to grow especially staff training.

Here, the more we train teachers, the more other schools take them away, but we still have to keep on training them. We always tell ourselves that Greensprings is not about Lagos, but about the Nigerian child. And so if we train teachers and the end up moving to another school, we believe we are also helping the Nigerian children in those schools.

Our Open House programme, a community service programme, which is targeted at teachers, owners of schools, gives these classes of people the opportunity to see what we do here so that they can take it back to their schools and try to improve their lot. What this means to us is that we are reaching many more children that cannot afford to come to Greensprings School. In terms of corporate social responsibility (CSR), we focus mainly on public schools. It could be refurbishing a section of the school; it could be building toilets for them; it could be building an entire block of classroom. But we focus only on public schools and don’t want to do any other thing because we consider that the children that come to our school are privileged and are likely ‘the ones that may get into positions of power tomorrow.’ So we want them to, at these stages of their lives, develop empathy for the less privileged ones in the society.

There was a time we took our students to a school in one poor neighbourhood in Lagos and they were utterly surprised that pupils could go to school without shoes and sit on the floor to receive lectures. Some of them never knew such was happening in this Nigeria.

This is part of the reasons we made it compulsory for our International Baccalaureate students to have community service as part of their course work. And in one of their outings to a motherless babies home, they saw a young person, older than them and was ready for university, but was not in school. Upon enquiry, they found out that unavailability of funds was the major reason. They decided to send the young lady to university as a project. They did and today the girl is a graduate. Children that give this type of helping hand at a tender will do more when they get into positions of authority in life.

Most school owners usually leave children with special needs out of the scheme of things. In your school, is there provision to take care of this class of children?

Greensprings School is perhaps the only school that has an integrated special needs department and we have had this since 1989 or thereabouts. This department came into being at a time when people would lock up their special needs children and never show them in public. We gave such parents an opening to educate these kids. Even though not all of them would end up writing major external examinations to head to the universities or other higher institutions, all we do for them is try to make a pathway for them, which could be in music or the arts. But we have highly qualified teachers to administer to their different needs.

Where will Greensprings School be in the next 10 years?

Our plans are big because we that we have something to offer Nigeria. So we see a situation where we have satellite campuses all over Nigeria. But beyond that, we see ourselves having a teacher training college. We have actually started in a small way. But with time it is going to grow and metamophorse into a university. This is part of our plans God willing.

Source: All Africa

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