INVESTIGATION: How forgery, bribery, exam malpractice booms at Lagos primary schools

The sun was intense. It was a Saturday, a day when many people were either relaxing at home or attending functions. However, parents clustered under a shade beside the gate of Government College Victoria Island (GoCoVi) in Lagos — their faces, a mix of excitement and exhaustion as they received their children who had just concluded the National Common Entrance Examination.

As the kids filed out — into the warm embrace of mommies and daddies — one could tell from the dissimilar expressions on their tired faces that even though they might have all written the same examination, answered the same questions, their experiences were, definitely, not the same.

“They paid money so that they will teach that girl…” were the words that caught my ears from the conversation among Air Force Primary School pupils, who had formed a small circle away from the other pupils.

The pupils, four girls and three boys, could not hide their irritation.

“Uncle was telling them answers, especially Latifa. Uncle said A, C, D, D… and later they will be saying don’t cheat during exams,” one of the angry pupils said.

I stood seemingly aloof, but close enough to capture their conversation. As I listened to the children recall how their teachers and parents — their first role models — colluded to compromise the examination they had just concluded, it became a surreal realisation that the act is, indeed, a common experience for many primary school pupils, and not just a wild journalistic conjecture.

The Common Entrance Examination is a capacity test written by final year pupils of primary schools for admission into Junior Secondary Schools. On one hand, there is the National Common Entrance Examination also known as ‘Federal Common Entrance’ organised by the National Examination Council (NECO) to screen pupils seeking admission into Federal Government Unity Colleges.

On the other hand is the ‘State Common Entrance’ organised by the education board of the states, for entrance into state-owned junior secondary schools. In Lagos State, where this investigation was carried out, the examination is called ‘placement test’.

Lagos: Where Anything Is Possible

I had walked into Honeyville Schools as an aunt seeking to enroll her nephew into the school. Honeyville Schools is hidden amidst a line of closely-built houses on Tokunbo Street, Lagos Island. The school itself is a stretch of parallel rooms; what is commonly described as ‘face-me-I-face-you’ in local parlance.

The pupils screamed out different recitals from the opposite rooms used as classrooms. The sound from the classrooms created a cacophony capable of inhibiting learning. I peeped into the rooms, trying to find an adult standing in front of the screaming children.

“Good morning. I am here to make enquiries about enrollment,” I said to a stocky man, with low afro hair seated behind a table in the cubic-like room that served as the administration office.

Uncle Dayo — I later discovered was the man’s appellation — offered me a chair.

“What class is the child?” he asked.

“Primary four,” I said and quickly added that my main concern was to have the boy enroll for the common entrance examination.

Uncle Dayo did not ask further questions. He called in the proprietor, Segun Olatunji, a tall, fair man who carried himself with the poise of one fully aware of his position. Mr Olatunji is the typical ‘Lagos sharp guy’; his mannerism and seeming impatience easily gave him away.

Lagos Island is that notorious city where almost anything — legal or illegal — can be done if one knows the ‘right’ people and has the right amount of money. It is not by happenstance that the city houses the ‘world-famous’ Oluwole Market where any kind of document — including currencies — can be forged, duplicated and curated.

Mr Olatunji appeared to be that type of ‘right person’ that gets things done within his field — education. He would later say that he has been in the business of education for over 30 years; growing from being a classroom teacher to becoming a principal and now the proprietor of a school.

He entered the small office that could barely accommodate the three of us, took a chair at a corner as Dayo retold what I had said to him.

“But why do you want him in Primary 6? Is he too old for primary school already?” Mr Olatunji asked, staring hard at me, as if trying to probe my body for answers to whatever was on his mind.

I knew that was the right opening to pitch in my full cover story.

“The case is complicated,” I started, wearing a subtle frown on my face to depict worry.

I explained to Mr Olatunji that the child in question is my nephew. His mother — my own sister — was dead and his father was a no-good-fellow who had abandoned him. The boy stayed with his grandmother and it so happened that my other elder sister who lived outside the country wanted our mother to come join her abroad. Our mother — the boy’s grandmother — insisted she was not leaving the country without the boy.

Hence, I had been instructed to get the boy’s travel documents; and one of the things he would need was his record of schooling at least at primary level. Unfortunately, his current school was not government approved, hence the reason to enroll him in another school.

“Where does the boy live?” he asked, abruptly putting an end to my narration.

“He lives with his grandmother in Ijora,” I replied, not sure why he had asked.

“Okay. I can’t say anything now until I see the boy. Bring the boy tomorrow, because I am not sure a boy in Primary 4 now can write common entrance. When you bring the boy tomorrow, I will test him by myself to see if he would be able to pass the exams on his own,” he responded.

As I made to leave, I asked if his school was government approved, and he answered in the affirmative. I knew there was no way the school — with its chaotic environment — could have been approved by the Lagos State government but that lie was a clue that I had found my first subject. I knew there and then, that if Mr Olatunji was offered the right amount of money, he would compromise any process.

Six Years Education In One Week For Just N120,000

A week later, I took a boy — my supposed nephew — to Mr Olatunji. He asked him random questions about his age, class and school and then concluded the boy would not pass the examination. Although, I had carefully selected a boy who was not very bright academically, but it was baffling how Mr Olatunji easily concluded — without any written test — that the boy would perform woefully in the exam.

“I thought so too,” I said in agreement with his verdict on the boy’s performance. “So, what can I do? How can you help me out?” I asked feigning dejection and frustration all in one stare.

Mr Olatunji gave a succinct breakdown on how the 10-year-old boy would be “assisted” to pass the common entrance examination. Not once did he mention any tangible academic assistance for the boy, even when I suggested special tutorial classes. Mr Olatunji was rather dismissive.

“No amount of lessons can help him within the short time,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.

This school proprietor unabashedly offered to prepare his school’s report for a boy, who in his own assessment is academically poor. He would later suggest to me during a phone conversation that he would get another child to write the examination for my ‘nephew’.

“Let me tell you something,” Mr Olatunji said, a dint of arrogance in his voice, “anything you want can be done. The only thing is, once we agree what would be paid, there is no problem.

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