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Which Is Nigeria’s Oldest School?

Modern education in Nigeria dates back to 1842 when Christian missionary activity birthed in Nigeria. Among the students and alumni of the Lagos Baptist Academy and CMS Grammar School, there is healthy rivalry to determine which is the older school, and among the Methodists and Anglicans, which pioneered education. Whereas the Baptist Academy was established in 1855, CMS came into being four years later in 1859. But that is only a part of the answer. Whereas Baptist Academy started first as a primary school, graduating into a secondary school in 1885, CMS Grammar School has always been a secondary school. On this score the grammarians say their school is 26 years older than Baptacads.

Since primary schooling preceded secondary schooling, it is more productive to examine where education began and what legacy it has bequeathed to Nigeria? At the heart of that question is a healthy rivalry that speaks to the heart of the pattern of growth and development of Western education in Nigeria and the place of legacy schools relative to others. The occasion of the 160th anniversary of Baptist Academy this week affords a welcome opportunity to reflect on this subject. Professor of mass communication, Idowu Sobowale, a 1964 alumnus of the school, will be examining the issue at the Baptist Academy 160th Anniversary lecture, entitled “Challenges of Nigeria’s Secondary School Education Today: The role of legacy Schools” on Thursday, October 29.

So where did education begin? On this score, the Anglican Diocese of Egba points to St. Peter’s Anglican School, Abeokuta as the first, having been established in 1846. In truth, there was an earlier effort at implanting education in Nigeria in Badagry, where the Methodist established the Nursery of the Infant Church, Badagry, in 1843 and the CMS founded a school later called St. Thomas Anglican Primary School in 1845. In 1853, the CMS-affiliated Hinderer family began a school in Ibadan as did the Baptist in Ijaye. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland set up another school in Creek town in 1854, whilst the Baptist in 1855 established the Lagos No Comment Baptist Academy. Christian missionaries established these schools as twin accompaniment to implanting Christianity in Nigeria.

Over time, these early schools have fallen on different fortunes with the result that today; the most renowned of them is the Lagos Baptist Academy. Why it has endured for 160 years where others failed will require a more definitive research in future, but it is useful to examine its raison d’etre and the path it has trodden over the years. Established by the Southern Baptist Convention, Houston, Texas, USA, the overriding consideration was to operate a school that would provide a balanced education with Baptist Christian ethics for little children; an academy “that guides her students in paths of coordinate studies, that influences right thought for acceptable and honourable conduct, teaches her students their own rights and the rights of others and makes her students have respect for law and order both of government and of God”.

Located at 24, Broad Street on Lagos Island, it had the Rev. Joseph M. Harden, a black American, as its directing mind. A missionary of the SBC in Liberia, he transferred his services to Lagos in 1851 as an agent of the American Baptist Mission to provide logistic support for missionaries in their mission to penetrate the hinterland.

Rev. Harden had first supervised the building of the First Baptist Church before embarking on the school as a worthy outpost to provide instruction to parishioners’ children. Support for the school and church dwindled in the American Civil War years, 1861-1865 when other missionaries returned to America, leaving Rev. Harden behind. To support mission work, Harden, assisted by his Sierra Leonean wife, Sarah, resorted to brick making at Iddo on the shores of Lagos Island and Mainland. The pressure proved too much for him and he died in May 1864, leaving his wife, Sarah, with the responsibility of keeping the dream alive. She received some help from young Moses Ladejo Stone who later became the first ordained Nigerian Baptist minister in 1880. As assistant pastor of First Baptist Church and a teacher at Baptist Academy, Stone was to wield a lot of influence which later led him into collision with the American pastor, Rev W. J. David. That feud was also to dramatically alter the pattern of church growth among the Baptists and signpost the pattern of Nigerianization of the clergy in Nigeria in latter years.

Thirty years after Baptist Academy started as an elementary school, the secondary wing was opened in 1885 on Mission Compound, Broad Street, Lagos by Rev. William J. David – the missionary pastor of First Baptist Church, Lagos. Samuel Harden, the son of Rev. Joseph Harden, was named as the first principal. Like the elementary school, the secondary arm was also co-educational.

Besides liberal arts, humanities, and sciences, the curriculum placed emphasis on English, Latin, Greek, phonetics, and the classical and charming American cursive writing. For almost all Baptist fathers of the early 20th century in Lagos, it was LBA or no school for their sons or, for the wealthy, one of the boarding schools in the United Kingdom.

For almost a century, the LBA remained co-educational until Reagan Memorial Baptist Girls’ School was established in 1941. The school was named after Baptist Missionary Lucille Reagan whose nascent idea was a separate Baptist High School for girls. Unfortunately, before her dream materialized, Miss Reagan died of yellow fever in July 1937. As a memorial, the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board in the USA provided funds to build the school; and the Baptist Women of Texas donated its first building, the Chapel. The Reagan Memorial Primary School itself was followed by its high school version in 1952. In line with honouring the rich past, historic names in Baptist missionary activities such as Harden, David, Stone, Vaughan and later Adegbite rank among House names at Baptacads, today.

For a century from its Lagos Island base, LBA produced many students who made great marks in academics, sports, administration and various spheres of life. As a result of increasing demands for the quality education received there, which emphasized scholarship and character; the school was moved from the island to the mainland in February 1957. Its new home, Mile 7, Ikorodu Road, Obanikoro was christened Shepherdhill in the quaint Baptist tradition of giving its schools’ campuses spiritually uplifting names.

Records show the late Dr. Joseph Adejumobi Adegbite, the first African principal, as being the longest serving principal (1954-1975). He had been a member of staff for a decade before his appointment as principal. He was a father to students and staff; who drummed it into all, the lesson that scholarship without character is dangerous. In his days, Christian devotionals were imbibed early in school when the first period of every Friday was devoted to Baptist Training Union where students, supervised by prefects, examined such concepts as ‘courage’, ‘resilience’, ‘service’ and ‘truth’ in light of scriptural teachings and were encouraged to relate them to life’s examples. It was an early drilling in public speaking and analytical thinking. Under him, prominent Baptist ministers such as Dr. Ayorinde and Bernard T. Griffin who served on the Board of Governors and old students visited the school regularly to share life’s experiences with students.

In 1979, the Lagos Baptist Academy was taken over by the Lateef Jakande administration as part of its policy to own schools in Lagos State. Part of the consequence was that its well tended facilities became overstretched as four more schools were planted in the compound. The strong Christian foundation was weakened, the rich school traditions compromised, and critical stakeholders, estranged from the schools. It was not until 2001 that the Bola Tinubu administration, realizing the error, courageously returned mission schools to their original owners.

The process of rehabilitation is ongoing and in my view, the public can only be better for it as once again there is room for government-owned schools to coexist and compete with private ones in all positive spheres of endeavour under rich curriculum, clear and enforceable guidelines whether they are owned by individuals, government, voluntary agencies or religious missions. The resulting harvest should make the most important question about the place of our schools to be: What’s the defining quality of your school?


– Lanre Idowu

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