Every so often, when educated Nigerians in their golden age look back, it is to acknowledge that time was once good to them. Time for them evokes memories of grandeur, often from nothingness to achievement. Men and women blazed a trail that took them through a life path, often through reformative schools or self-application, but mostly through schools, such that when they came out of them, they were solidly formed in character, in judgement, in reasoning, in academics, and in decorum. One of those special transforming schools was the Government College, Ibadan.
I remember my primary school teacher, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, admonishing that if we wanted to go to Government College or any of the other great schools, we had to work hard. Admission was going to be keenly contested.
The government played a deliberate part in this exercise in what turned out to make the GCI’s academic foundation by challenging all students across the dominion to a competitive entry such that the best three students at the entrance exam were to be awarded scholarships. Earlier in the 1930s and 1940s, the same government in recruiting students had ordered that the provinces in its domain should send their best students to compete to gain entrance to Government College.
This was not going to be an ordinary school, the government stated. It was going to be a model school. As a school, it was going to be, according to Mr E.R.J Hussey, the Director of Education in 1929, an insurance to produce quality students in case the “mission schools do not produce them”. Its products were “to feed Yaba Higher College”, otherwise the “university” of the time and meet the Phelps-Jones Commission Report on Education in 1922 “to prepare professionals who must pass the conventional requirements of British universities”.
As young as 10 years old, can you imagine, we had a goal before us in primary school to work towards and so we doubled our efforts while our teachers, parents, and guardians guided us. There were schools to hope for and a connect and encouragement that if we worked hard, there were institutions ahead of primary school. The primary schools were functioning to provide us with the right education and to ensure seamless entry into the best secondary schools available. It was as if they were being accredited on the basis of which secondary schools they would feed their students into. That was their measure of success, the reason for their existence, so that everywhere you turned, schools were at work. Such was the quality of primary schools that the nearest one to the house was as good as the farthest one away from home. Significantly, as a result of this, students were not bussed or ferried around. You simply walked to the nearest school around but made a choice if there were options to choose from.
Drawing from the above, we were all gathered on merit to all the available secondary schools across the country for a new associational life.
I am nostalgic about this associational life and shall argue that it gave an education that endured while I make a case for the Government College Ibadan, for therein I was bred.
The hidden treasure of the GCI can be found in its foundation and heritage. First, it was decided in its formative thought in 1928 that it would, when it opened as a Teacher Training School in 1929 and converted into a Secondary School in 1930, be a boarding school. A training link was made between class and living and both were interwoven to be emphasised. Students were to be nurtured in the classroom as much as they would be nurtured in the dormitories. It was the first boarding school government had on this side of the Niger with the other being Government College Umuahia. Government had decided to build the two model schools on each side of the Niger, one in the West and the other in the East.
The rigour in the selection of students into the 1930 foundation school class bore a mark that prevailed until 1979. That original mark, as stated by Akin Deko, one of its first students, who indicated that “late in 1929, Government circulars went out to some of the principal schools in South West Nigeria announcing the existence of the college and inviting applications from candidates who would like to take the entrance examination to the college”. Students applied from far and wide, and gained admission through examinations for the best to be chosen. This process, examination and selection by merit, was advanced by the government. And so, Ogundepo like his other colleagues could write that he “took the entrance examination to the Government College Ibadan in 1929 and I passed”, an exaltation and achievement for a young lad, and indeed for the child’s parents or guardians and the primary school concerned. Similarly, Saburi Biobaku would write that “notices of an entrance examination to the Government College, Ibadan were sent to our schools and ‘Toye (a cousin) and I decided to enter for the examination and I persuaded my brother, Sikiru, to join the candidates from the Abeokuta Grammar School’. This was 1931 and every year from there on the examination to Government College was held.
When the GCI opened, the first principal was Captain C. E. Squire (1929-1932), a distinguished soldier who had served in the First World War. The second principal (1932-1944), Captain H.T.C. Field, was also a distinguished officer. As a result of their military background, the first students of the schools were to find daily and morning physical training, patterned after military exercises, as part of their routine. This is akin to what youth corps members now do in the mornings when they are in their orientation camp. These National Youth Service Corps exercises are organised by soldiers. Once instituted in 1930, the students in the years that followed found that the morning drills were as part of the GCI as the rising of the sun. We imbibed a morning physical drill from birth and that element of youth service training was introduced to us in 1929 until it stopped in 1985. It is interesting that we acknowledge today that exercising underlies healthy living.
Squire was not just a teacher, he had a Masters’ degree and we must place it in context and remember the fact that this period was 1929. For a secondary school to be led by an officer who in 1929 had a postgraduate degree would be like having a post-doctoral degree holder heading a kindergarten school in today’s Nigeria.
Beyond the leadership of its first principal, the GCI opened in 1929 with remarkable distinction in the quality of its teaching staff. They were 13 in all of which two were Nigerians and 11 were expatriates, all for 29 students in 1929. All the expatriates were university graduates and five of them were either graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. They were breaking new ground and there was a pleasurable purposefulness to their teaching as they brought with them and planted for us a long, enduring, and venerable tradition.
For the first two houses, the principal, Captain C.E. Squire, a graduate of Cambridge, chose the house masters carefully and deliberately. He chose Mr Benton Evans, a graduate of Oxford, as the House Master of Swanston House and Mr V.B.V. Powell, a graduate of Cambridge, as the House Master of Grier. They were to model and plant the seeds of their boarding schools and universities in the two houses, and create an eternal healthy rivalry between them. If Swanston House’s colour is blue, it is because Oxford University’s colour is blue. If Grier House’s colour is maroon, that choice of colour was influenced by Clifton College, which is the High School that V.B.V. Powell went to. Blue and maroon merged to make the initial GCI colours.
The first two houses may have been Swanston and Grier but in reality, it was a fierce competition between Oxford and Cambridge. We imbibed their ethos such that when Swanston House asked its sons to “get up and work, now that you’ve work to do, and when you win, be not be proud nor conceited, but rest content with work well done”, boys were being made gentlemen, particularly being cultured in good manners and in discipline.
To be concluded
Dr. Mosuro is a Trustee of the Government College Old Boys Association.