History of Education in Nigeria

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Education in Nigeria has a long history — one that dates back to the pre-colonial era. Our forefathers engaged their children and those of close acquaintance in an informal and indigenous kind of education. However, starting from the 1800s, Education in Nigeria took a different directional leap.

Today, education in Nigeria is majorly Western. And with statistics saying 62% of Nigerians aged above 15 years can read and write, it will be a great thing to look back on and retrospect. How did education evolve in Nigeria? How has Nigeria improved in the sector in the last decades?

In this article, we will attempt to disambiguate this history by creating a timeline of the much-stimulating events that developed education in Nigeria.

History of Education in Nigeria: Quick Highlights

Before the long read, here are some quick highlights to help you get a picture…

  • Before the 1840s – Indigenous and Islamic education were popular
  • 1843 – The First Primary School was established by the missionaries
  • 1854 – The First Secondary School in Nigeria was established
  • 1913 – Islamic schools exploded in numbers in northern Nigeria
  • 1914 – The Northern and Southern Protectorates were amalgamated
  • 1943 – Elliot Commission gave recommendations to the British parliament
  • 1948 – The First University in Nigeria was established
  • 1959 – Ashby Commission gave recommendations to the Government
  • 1960 – Nigeria gained Independence
  • 1962 – The National Universities Commission (NUC) was established
  • 1970s – The government took control of Islamic school
  • 1976 – The Universal Primary Education (UPE) program was launched
  • 1990 – Government granted Islamic schools autonomy
  • 1999 – The Universal Basic Education (UBE) replaced UPE
  • 2008 – The 9-year basic education plan was introduced

History of Education in Nigeria

The history of Nigerian education can broadly be looked into during the pre– and post–colonial periods.


Pre-Colonial Era 

Education in Nigeria did not begin with the arrival of European colonialists. This was this time when an indigenous education system was in place, with different societies having a unifying way of transmitting knowledge.

In the Southern regions (mainly Yoruba and Igbo), Pedagogy was strictly informal, and education was imparted by the parents and the local community, while in the Northern regions (mainly Hausas and Fulanis), children acquired education dominantly in Islamic schools.

On this basis, pre-colonial education in Nigeria can be grouped into two kinds:

1] Indigenous Education

In this traditional system, young children were educated in practical skills that were essential for their local community and the broader society within their region. Children, as young as three were usually organized into age groups, each of which had specific responsibilities within their village, like clearing the bush along the road or sweeping.

As these children matured, their tasks were based on their gender. Boys were instructed in farming or taught specialized skills like drumming and woodwork, while girls received education in domestic skills.

In the Yoruba and Igbo regions, informal education was also imparted through storytelling, proverbs, and traditional rituals, which were aimed at preserving cultural heritage, values, and history.

Educational technology during this time was basic and rudimentary. Common were the use of regurgitation techniques to aid learning, and pebbles, stones and sticks for counting and solving simple mathematical problems.

Furthermore, parents would send their children apprentice to skilled craftsmen, a method of education that is still prevalent in Nigeria today.

2] Islamic Education

This was another form of education prominent in Northern Nigeria before the 1840 British occupation of Nigeria. In each Muslim community across Nigeria, a knowledgeable individual known as a “mallam” was responsible for imparting Quranic teachings and the Arabic alphabet to children as young as five.

In larger areas, communities established schools that not only focused on Islamic education but also included subjects like science and mathematics.

By the year 1913, the vast majority of Islamic schools were concentrated in the northern region. The total number of these schools reached approximately 19,000, with an enrollment of over 140,000 students.

In the 1970s, the government assumed control of all Islamic schools. However, in 1990, these schools were granted autonomy once again, allowing them to operate independently without government interference.


Post-Colonial & Pre-Independence Era

In 1843, Methodist missionaries laid the foundation for the first primary school in Nigeria, marking the advent of formal learning in the country. Years later, in 1854, some Christian missionaries established the CMS Grammar School in Lagos, the first secondary school in Nigeria.

Following the amalgamation of Nigeria’s northern and southern regions by Lord Lugard in 1914, there arose a heightened demand for educational institutions across the nation. This surge in educational development later led to the establishment of the University of Ibadan (UNIBADAN) in 1948. UNIBADAN was Nigeria’s first-ever University.

The Elliot Commission of 1943 was significant in the establishment of the University of Ibadan. The commission recommended to the British parliament the upgrading of three higher institutions in West Africa. This paved the way for the construction of the University College at Ibadan, which was affiliated then to the University of London.

In response to the growing need for education, private individuals and organizations also undertook the initiative to create educational institutions. Consequently, the educational landscape in Nigeria encompasses both government-funded (public) and privately-run schools at all educational levels.


Post-independence Era

After Nigeria gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960, the subsequent years saw a significant expansion in the educational sector. Noting its importance, the government put more effort into making education accessible and available to a larger population.

The Ashby Commission’s 1959 recommendations assisted the Nigerian government in addressing critical educational needs at the time. They had already highlighted plans for producing 2,000 graduates annually by 1970, the proposal for a National Universities Commission (NUC) which was later established in 1962 efforts to combat shortages of quality teachers through crash programs, and a focus on substantial long-term growth in higher education.

Crash programs in Nigeria were aimed at producing competent teachers in a relatively short period.

Several universities and polytechnics were established across the country. Also, the First generation Universities established between 1948 and 1965 witnessed infrastructural developments during this Era. These universities played a pivotal role in producing a skilled workforce and fostering intellectual and academic growth. They include, but are not limited to:

  • University of Ibadan (Established in 1948)
  • University of Nigeria, Nsukka (Established in 1960)
  • Obafemi Awolowo University (Established in 1961)
  • Ahmadu Bello University (Established in 1962)
  • University of Lagos (Established in 1962)

They were setbacks, however. Nigeria after gaining independence operated an educational policy inherited from Britain’s independence. There was a need to create a unique policy and curriculum.

In September 1976, the Universal Primary Education (UPE) program was launched, but it was considered unsuccessful. Hence, following revisions in 1981 and 1990, the Universal Basic Education (UBE) was formed in 1999 to replace the Universal Primary Education (UPE), to provide free and compulsory primary education for all Nigerian children.

The next few decades witnessed a wide range of structural reforms in the Nigerian educational sector.


Structure of Education in Nigeria

Originally, Nigeria’s education system followed a 6-3-3-4 structure, encompassing 6 years of primary education, 3 years of junior secondary education, 3 years of senior secondary education, and 4 years of tertiary education.

However, in 2008, the system was adjusted to align with the 9-year basic education plan, designed to meet the requirements of the universal education program. Consequently, the educational structure transitioned to the 9-3-4 model, comprising 9 years of basic education, followed by 3 years of ‘senior’ secondary education, and 4 years of tertiary education.

The 9 years of basic education is divided into:

  • Lower Basic Education Curriculum – Junior Primary School, Primary 1-3
  • Middle Basic Education Curriculum – Senior Primary School, Primary 4-6
  • Upper Basic Education Curriculum – Junior Secondary School, Secondary 1-3

Now, What Lies in the Future of Education in Nigeria?

The past of Nigeria’s educational sector is a source of lessons and insights for the future. The present is promising too. Here’s why —

Home and internationally, the Nigerian government are funding notable education initiatives, partnering with goodwill agencies, and implementing policies to help improve the course of education in Nigeria.

For instance, beginning in 2015 with a budget of $100 million, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) has helped train and improve the quality of teachers in five Nigerian states through the Nigeria Partnership for Education Project (NIPEP).

However, it would be insensitive to close one’s eyes to the 10.5 million children who are, according to UNICEF, out of school. Or the thousands of damaged, dilapidated classrooms in northeast Nigeria.

But, do not judge the future by the past, says a Persian proverb.

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