15.01.2006 Feature Article

The bridge is long and the water deep ...

The bridge is long and the water deep ...
15.01.2006 LISTEN

bridging the wealth divide.* Most families and children in Ghana have before them a long bridge spanning deep water and not the means to either cross the bridge or swim while keeping their heads above water. Ghanaian society is polarising and its social arteries are hardening. The society is evolving into a two tiered one, a society of two Ghanas —one that reaps the benefits of economic development through fair or foul means and another that is left to languish in struggle and despair.

Income inequality has risen at the same time as the gap between the educational attainments of the richest and poorest has grown. The rich feel more secure; the poor less hopeful. President Kufour is quoted as saying that " African countries' quest for higher and faster growth must be combined with a shift to more equitable distribution of incomes. He pointed out that greater inequality would only engender less social cohesion, increase in crimes and greater risk of political upheaval"(Ghanaweb Accra, Nov. 7, GNA).

Mr President, you hit the nail on the head, this is one of the many problems facing Ghana. Other problems are unemployment, corruption, poor sanitary conditions in our cities and the widening financial gap between the rural and urban areas. All these problems should ring alarm bells for you Mr President and those in leadership positions or are involved in the government of the country.

The poor will always be with us but the widening chasm of opportunity is in my view the most serious challenge facing the country. The respective lifestyle of the rich and the poor represent a scale of difference in opportunity and wealth and is a standing offence to the Ghanaian traditional values and the ideals enunciated in the Ghanaian Constitution. These inequality trends will not only engender less social cohesion as the Presidents noted but are also bad for the economy, our democracy and culture.

The class system that has developed provides real material rewards and benefits for the owning class and the upper middle class at the expense of the poor and working class people. Class in Ghana is more than money, it influences destiny in the society. It also encourages the culture of elitism that regards the poor as unworthy. This elitism is evident everywhere you turn.

We seem to 'worship' the rich even those whose wealth have been acquired through illegal or immoral means. If you are not wealthy or if you do not drive a Mercedes, Pajero or BMW you have very little respect.

I have no issue with people getting what they deserve, based on their effort, drive and intelligence. Indeed some of these people generously donate to worthy causes including welfare programs carried out by the churches and NGOs and I doff my hat to them. However, concern must be expressed as to how some of the rich people acquired their wealth especially those who suddenly become rich. If the status is achieved through corruption or through criminal acts how are those who are not winners in this respect supposed to respond? In my opinion of all the factors widening the gap between rich and the poor, inadequate education opportunities is probably the most destructive.

Education is a fundamental human right and should be the cornerstone in the battle against poverty. When it comes to develop a country economically, socially or politically, education is very important. However, the education system in Ghana is nothing to write home about. Expenditure on education has been negligible compared to the travel budget. for government.

Over the last few months there has been much written about children being out of school and child labour in Ghana. According to Dr Dickson, a Director of Education "Ghana currently has a total children population of 6.3 million out of which over 1.2 million were engaged in some form of child labour or the other, adding that, over 200,000 of them were presently engaged in hazardous labour. Volta Region, she said, was leading with 33 per cent as the region with most working children, followed by the Western Region with 27 per cent, while the Upper West Region was the region with the least working children. (Ghanaweb, 10 October 2005). Another Director of Education also remarked that despite improvement in school enrolment there were still children of school going age who were outside the classrooms and needed to be enrolled. Ghanaweb 27 Oct 2005).

The fact that large numbers of children still have no access to affordable education represents an enormous lost opportunity not only in terms of human resource but in terms of the stratification of society. Education is not only about teaching skills and knowledge but it has been designed to shape societies. It enriches personal development and assists in overcoming social disadvantage. The early missionaries to Ghana used education as the handmaiden of the church. During the 1950s and early 1960s economic development and industrial growth in Ghana reduced poverty and income inequity and accelerated upward social mobility. Those with educational qualifications, good command of English, and high-level technical or professional skills profited the most from the process. The generations at school during this period had opportunities to use education as a route to social mobility. They were encouraged by bright but often poorly educated parents. Many parents realise the value of education and so are sending their children to private schools even though some of them cannot afford on their incomes alone to maintain the children in those schools The present and previous governments have managed to successfully kill off the idea that education has any value. Getting a decent education, working hard and becoming a good worker are not enough. Normally, you need connections to get there, or, at least, you get there much faster with connections.

Education that is tailored to the needs of the nation, the individual and community may help in reducing poverty. However, schools in Ghana as agents of social change have failed to close the educational achievement gap between rich and poor. Indeed the gap is widening. The fact is our public schools are in decay, perpetuating the advantage of the wealthy that send their children to private and expensive schools. I can understand why Mr Twumasi Ankrah, the Headmaster of Demonstration D.C. Junior Secondary School, will call for legislation to compel ministers of state, MPs and individuals occupying top positions to enrol their children in public schools. (Ghanaweb, 1 November 2005 *) *but I do not think legislation is the answer.

Educational institutions and their admission and selection processes play a significant role in reducing or maintaining social inequalities. With the current admission processes and corruption, few students from the poorest and disadvantaged schools would ever win a place in some of the highly endowed senior secondary schools in the country. I am aware that some schools have quotas for students from less endowed and deprived schools but these students are only chosen if they are a few marks outside the cut-off point. or they have "connections" or push the brown envelope. While we have very poor public schools this quota system is a good stop gap measure but it is my hope that all public schools will have adequate facilities to ensure all students irrespective of the school they attend reach their full potential.

If you ask why some schools are bad you hear people talking of low standards, bad teachers, a negative environment and poor buildings. Ms Lydia Osei, Deputy Director-General of the Ghana Education Service (GES) seems to put the blame for poor public school outcomes on teachers. She has "observed that at the basic level, students from privately owned schools often found it easier to enter well-endowed second cycle institutions". She said "it was however interesting to note that most teachers in these private schools were not trained teachers, adding that with trained teachers largely being employed by public schools, the situation was inexcusable" (Ghanaweb Accra, Oct. 11). I do agree that some of the teachers in the public system are not committed to their vocation. Indeed many of the students in the public schools have better attendance records than the teachers who teach them but these students have not managed to read and write by the time they finish the JSS. Some teachers appear to have relatively low expectation of the students and so are not likely to challenge them. It is common knowledge that in schools in the poor areas in Ghana, the tendency is to teach down. There is a temptation for instructional standards to concentrate on low level materials. While the child in the private school has a task that might increase his or her thinking skill, his or her counterpart in the public school is involved in repetitive tasks that do not really push him or her to increase his or her analytical or cognitive skills. Having said that Ms Osei seems to forget that most of the public schools have dilapidated buildings and there is a dearth of books. To be able to help children, teachers need help. They need more access to information, about what works and they need staff development opportunities and better conditions. Teachers in some public schools are not paid on time or have salary arrreas.

We need to bridge the gap between the haves and have nots. There are practical things that can be done and it is imperative that we take real steps to address this situation. We cannot rely on repeated foreign hand outs while our agricultural and education sectors are degraded.

In my opinion a sustained investment in education and employment opportunities can help bridge this gap between the rich and the poor. The school should provide opportunities for social mobility. Despite the Education Reform Program of 1998, the Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) 1996 and the Government White Paper, basic education is still neither free nor universal and most schools do not have adequate facilities contrary to Article 25 of the constitution. It may be argued that soaring educational expenditure has kept the potential from being fully exploited. I beg to disagree; there is money in the system (Dr Anthony Akoto -Osei, Deputy Minister of Finance and Economic Planning says the same thing but with a different emphasis) we need to reprioritise. If we cut down on the number of Ministers and Deputy Ministers, the number of overseas trips undertaken by the President, his Ministers and various officials of Government Business Enterprises and also cut down of the number of people in the travelling party (It is alleged that the Energy Commission spent the equivalent of 90,000 USD on foreign travel Ghanaweb 11 Jan 2006) we would be able to provide textbooks for schools and drugs and equipment for our hospitals.

The bridge may be long and the water may be deep but with good leadership, better economic management, accountability, good governance, significantly reduced levels of corruption and planning it may be possible for many people to cross that bridge. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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