Not all of Ghana’s children attend school – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t learning

When asked to document their own literacy practices, children in Ghana revealed a rich life of learning outside formal school structures.

Researchers know very little about the daily lives and education of children who are excluded from formal schooling. According to UNESCO’s definition of “out of school” these children are never expected to enrol, have dropped out or are expected to enrol later in formal schooling.

But a case study in Ghana suggests that there may be a different way of considering notions of literacy and schooling.

This is important because goals set for universal primary education under the Millennium Development Goals have not been achieved. What to do about this was discussed at the recent 2015 World Education Forum in Incheon, South Korea where delegates mapped out the world’s educational agenda for the next 15 years.

A Ghanaian story

In Ghana, 80% of school-aged children are enrolled in primary school. This leaves up to one million children between the ages of six and 14 recorded as “out of school”.

Savelugu is a big country town about 650km north of Ghana’s capital city. The major - and only - highway to Burkina Faso splits the town in half. More than 97% of the area’s residents are small-scale farmers. Savelugu is considered a deprived district because it performs poorly against a number of key development indicators. The 2014 UNICEF Ghana District League Table ranked Savelugu 138th out of the West African country’s 216 districts.

A few kilometres from Savelugu’s town centre are the small communities of Botingli and Bunglung. Every morning the villages’ children work on farms and do household chores. They also learn the Qur'an. They do not attend formal public school. Most never have and the rest dropped out during their early years.

But on four or five afternoons a week, 25 children in each community make their way into a classroom in twos and threes. During these lessons, which last for about three hours, children are taught numeracy and literacy in their mother tongue, Dagbanli.

The afternoon classes are part of a nationwide program called Complementary Basic Education. International donors, the government of Ghana and non-government organisations are working together to oversee and implement CBE for 200 000 children who don’t attend formal school. The programme aims to provide flexible and accelerated literacy and numeracy schooling to out-of-school children over the course of nine months.

Once they have completed the programme, children are encouraged to enter or re-enter public schooling at either Grade 4, 5 or 6 level. Children can achieve similar learning outcomes in nine months that their peers achieved in three to four years of formal schooling. This is a huge saving in opportunity costs to parents and families living in poverty.

Literary practices in the frame

For two weeks in February and March of 2015, 10 children from Botingli and Bunglung were invited at random to participate in a PhD research project. They were asked to document their literacy practices using digital cameras. More than 4000 images were captured by the ten children. These offer some fascinating insights and challenge long-standing notions of what it means to be literate or illiterate and out of school.

The community facilitator in Bunglung helping a student read aloud. Soma, from Bunglung

The children participate in emergent and complex literacy practices across three languages. From Qur'anic Arabic to Dagbanli, they are formally learning two languages through informal programmes. Children in Bunglung are also exposed to English language learning texts and material because there is a public school in their village.

The participating children experimented with taking photos of their own writing from a variety of angles and depths. Barachisu, from Botingli

It is also fascinating to see that their informal learning looks and feels very formal. They complete homework, study with their peers outside the time allotted for Complimentary Basic Education lessons and teach their brothers and sisters. They write on walls in their own homes as a form of note-taking.

This form of learning is shaped by social and cultural forces within the community. The curriculum and textbooks use Dagbanli names for characters. At the same time, it is a patchwork of global influences: this programme wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the millennium development goals which channelled much-needed funding and placed universal primary education at the top of the global education agenda.

A CBE student writes on the walls of her home. Amina, from Bunglung

The children are far from uneducated. In two weeks they produced a rich and thoughtful set of photographs. The data set is full of behind the scenes images of children reading and writing at home, daily life and classroom scenes. The children are creative, bright and motivated. They can read, write and complete arithmetic.

The children of Botingli and Bunglung may have much to teach us about rethinking ideas of literacy and schooling. Perhaps it’s time to stop seeing these as static, uniform concepts and start exploring them as fluid, mobile and flexible.

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