Respecting culture could fix Ghana schools’ problems

Ghana’s education system has been slammed in a new global report. Could making schools more culturally savvy fix the problem? Nic Bothma/EPA

Ghanaians were dismayed in May 2015 when an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report declared the country’s school system bottom of the class. The report’s authors collected data from 76 countries to produce what has been called the biggest ever global school rankings.

Ghana’s Ministry of Education rushed to defend itself, but the report has simply proved what many education experts already know. It’s been three decades since Ghana introduced a vocational, practical school model.

The model was designed to tackle Ghana’s acute lack of technical manpower that would have the relevant skills to bolster the economy. But a look at the country’s educational results and the system as a whole shows that there are major problems with this model and how it has been implemented.

Critics of the education system say that its failure to incorporate Ghanaian cultural values is a large part of the problem. They suggest that making local cultural values a fundamental part of the education system will create a happier, more harmonious society.

Ths system as it stands

A note about terminology is necessary here: since the reforms of the 1980s, Ghanaian children complete basic school – primary for six years and junior high for three years. They then move on to senior high, or secondary school, for three or four years.

The country has a centralised application system to allocate 350,000 pupils each year to 700 secondary schools. This uses standardised exams and pupils can accept from anywhere in Ghana. Pupils must submit a list of preferred schools. Kehinde F. Ajayi, a respected professor of educational economics, points out that this system is used elsewhere in the world, in countries as diverse as Kenya, the UK and Romania.

Pupils write this entrance exam after nine years of basic education. There are only 175,000 places available at public schools across the country. Those children who pass the entrance exam face another hurdle: high attrition rates. For instance, 33% of those who enter primary school drop out before reaching junior high school.

Slipping through the cracks

Most of the 175,000 children who cannot be placed in the formal secondary school system go to work for their families or become apprentices in a variety of trades.

There are a number of mechanic and fitting apprentice shops in Ghana’s cities. They train those who fall out of the mainstream school system and those who did not attend formal school at all. Some of these technicians become very good at what they do, but there are several problems with the apprenticeship system.

Firstly, these technicians have a limited theoretical background because they didn’t complete formal schooling. Secondly, the apprenticeships are available to relatively few people who could afford to pay.

Finally, and crucially to my research, some youngsters who have dropped out of formal schooling actually have no interest in learning a trade. How do we keep them from slipping through the cracks?

Seeking solutions in culture

It seems that other African countries are also grappling with how to unite modern educational systems and philosophies with indigenous value systems. They also want to understand what role religion should play in society at large and in schools.

In Ghana, it is said that the five fingers of the hand are of different sizes and lengths but of equal significance and importance. So, education should be organised in a way that enables all individuals, irrespective of their background and interests, to participate in and benefit from the system.

I organised three focus group discussions, each lasting for 90 minutes and led by a skilled facilitator. One of the issues they tackled was how politics, religion and culture could positively influence education. There were eight people in each group – among them politicians, religious Christians and Muslims, policy makers, teachers and students.

There are about 27 million people in Ghana and, while the country is ethnically diverse, more than 71% of citizens identify themselves as Christians. Another 17.6% are Muslims.

All of the discussants agreed that educational reform was necessary. They said that culturally relevant school environments would show learners their traditions and cultural histories were valued by the system. This, they asserted, would make students feel more comfortable at school and ultimately encourage them to work harder.

The participants identified religion as a powerful tool for improving schools, arguing that religious leaders had the influence to teach children about committing themselves to civic responsibilities – like performing well at school to secure good jobs in future.

Politicians have a major role to play, since they craft education policies. These policies, the discussants agreed, need to expand education to meet Ghana’s growing demand.

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