The last two decades have seen important progress in school enrollment, with more children attending and finishing their secondary education more than before. State governments in parts of Nigeria, for instance, have made secondary education free and compulsory in an attempt to make education more accessible to children who can hardly afford fees. However, this has posed a significant strain on school infrastructure – particularly classroom furniture – and this has implications for students learning outcomes. Educators, architects and designers involved in school design and advancement practice all agree that providing and improving classroom furniture is at the core of enabling exceptional learning outcomes for students. This analysis explains how classroom furniture shape student’s attention, retention, motivation as well as learning and academic achievement. Nevertheless, while there is growing appreciation of this gap within government circles, private sector and philanthropy, there is still much ground to be covered.

Interestingly, students are very much aware of this deficit and the implications it has on their learning outcomes; because of this, they are taking the lead in solving the problem by themselves. This is an important learning emerging from LEAP Africa’s Leadership and Life Skills programme in Lagos and Akwa Ibom states called iLEAD. The iLEAD programme provides students with important skills and mindset imperative for personal and community transformation. The programme also embeds the opportunity for experiential learning – where students can work in teams to solve social problems. In the last three years, the program has seen students taking the lead in providing classroom furniture and resuscitating library infrastructure in their schools and neighbouring schools.

For example, of all the 14 community projects completed on the ILEAD program in Akwa-Ibom State in 2018, 8 of them were related to renovating chalkboards, renovating and reinforcing science laboratories and providing furniture in classrooms and libraries in their schools. It was enthralling to learn that the students went the extra mile in providing desks and chairs for other schools around them. During our visit to some of these primary schools, the Head Teachers were in full praise of the students and mentioned they were impressed by their gestures. This essentially demonstrates a mindset shift on the part of the iLEAD students who have moved away from an orientation of being in need towards a contribution mentality.

As we walked around these schools to inspect the desks and chairs that were provided, we were stunned to see many other students sitting on the floor in their classrooms. Our findings further revealed that the increasing number of students has put a heavy strain on classroom infrastructure. In addition, there were complains that given the porous security of schools, community members would come in at will to pick up student’s desks and chairs to make firewood. Responding to this, we found that in some of these schools, tables and chairs are locked up in a makeshift storage requiring both students and teachers to set this up on a daily basis. This does not only put an extra burden on students and teachers alike but also reduces the lifespan of these desks and chairs.

This trend brings to the fore the issue of safety in public Secondary Schools, many of which are porous and without fences. The key priority for many of these schools, as we learn, will be to build a perimeter fence around the school to secure its assets, but this is hardly affordable given the other priorities related to daily running costs. Importantly, there is a lot that can still be done whether as individuals, private sector, development sector or government to support learning outcomes in public secondary schools. In this regard, an integrated approach that includes community leaders and groups, as well as the education ministry and security agencies will go a long way to ensure that education infrastructure is provided while also ensuring that they are safe and secure. The students are sending an important message that classroom furniture is important for their learning outcomes.

Students from the Lagos site of the iLEAD program are also sending a similar message. For instance, the 2018 cohort of iLEAD students in Opebi High School, as part of their give back project, decided to equip their school library with needed furniture. Again, this suggests that these students understand the importance of having a well-equipped facility that would aid their academic and personal development. Although, the school library already had books provided by the government and other well-meaning citizens, it did not have shelves to house the books as well as reading tables and chairs.

Knowing that the seed funding for the implemention of their project could only do so much, they were able to effectively mobilise their principals, teachers and parents to support the process. At the time of our visit we found a library which started with very limited furniture fully equipped with shelves, desk and chairs as well as an air-condition unit installed – almost having the semblance of an e-library. This is an indication that these students understand that leadership is about solving problems creatively in spite of limited resources.

This exercise has several implications for students’ esteem, learning outcomes and eventual academic performance. When asked what the best part of the iLEAD experience was, the majority of the students were more excited and fulfilled about the implementation process of their change project ideas. Other interactions with the teachers and school principals suggest that the renovation of the school library has become an incentive for students to be frequent at the library. Similarly, providing tables and chairs is a factor that keeps students happy and comfortable in their classrooms. All of these will go a long way in improving students learning abilities as well as their learning outcomes in the long term.

The emerging evidence from these stories reinforce established positions that adequate infrastructure and furniture in school has implications for students academic and non-academic outcomes. What is more interesting is that the iLEAD students are showing us what it means to lead by example and are also sending an important message of what they really need by taking the first step.  These students have led by example and the rest is left to us! what steps are we going to take?

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