The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded a study to investigate the differences, if any, of the academic performance between private and public elementary schools in Ghana. A partial report of the study was published in Ghanaweb's General News on May 29, 2003. Normally, private elementary schools in Ghana are solely funded by their owners for the purpose of making a profit. They are also owner-controlled. The owners of private elementary schools could be individuals or church organizations. Besides, private elementary schools are called various names such as preparatory, international or experimental schools. And most of them are located in regional urban centres such as Accra, Kumasi, Koforidua, and Cape Coast, where there are a good proportion of elite or Western educated class. However, recently the number of private elementary schools has increased exponentially, for some had sprung up in small towns, which, hitherto were dominated by public elementary schools. Arguably, the market economy policies of the government and deterioration in conditions in public elementary schools are responsible for this trend. The government's policy of private enterprise has encouraged many private entrepreneurs to establish private schools while the government has failed to enforce its existing regulations on private schools. The terrible conditions in public elementary schools can be traced to chronic government under-funding that started by the Rawlings regime and continued by the present government.
The USAID's study used three main methodologies in generating data for analysis: standardized testing, interviews and observations. Standardized tests in mathematics and English language were administered to a random sample of both private and public elementary school students in Ghana. The study reports that at level three or primary three, private elementary school students had a mean score of 48% in English compared with those in public elementary schools that had 34%. With regards to mathematics achievement at the same level, the mean score for public elementary schools was 58% and 41% for private elementary schools. Nevertheless, the report did not disclose any standard deviation scores or other variances that could be used to determine variability or spread of the test scores in the two systems under comparison. Though the contents of the tests were not disclosed in the report, it appears that the contents were culturally biased against students of public elementary schools, a majority of whom are from the poor, lower class strata of our society that lacks social capital; Hence, the disparity in performance between the two systems. The report did not also explain specifically why level three students in the public system outscored their counterparts in the private system in English language. The primary cause may be the focus of each of the system. In the private system, more emphasis is put on learning to communicate in English language, that is why most students in that sector are able to speak English with impeccable fluency. In that system no time is spent on learning our own languages. Needless to say, most Ghanaians regard people who speak English language fluently as having the highest level of intelligence, though English language fluency is just one form of intelligence. There are however other intelligences that are equally important such as mathematical/logical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and artistic. Intelligence as I understand it is the ability to solve problems or make products that are appreciated by a particular culture. In this regard, wood carvers, farmers, and herbalists are intelligent, because make products that are valued in our society. The same thing can be said of our elders and priests. Another factor that must be investigated is why primary three students in the public system outperformed their counterparts in the private system in the mathematics test.
As well, the study reports that those private elementary school students at level 6 or primary 6 outperformed their counterparts in the public elementary school system in both mathematics and English. The conclusion is that students of private elementary schools performed better than those in the public sector in both mathematics and English language. Nonetheless, a longitudinal study would have been more suitable for measuring the academic performance of students in both systems than an exploratory study that the USAID undertook. This is because students from both systems must be tracked from elementary school through university before we can jump into any conclusion of which system is better. As well, we have to control variables such as the socio-economic background (the level of education of parents and guardians, their profession, their employment income or wealth, etc.), which part of the country students live, conditions in the home environment and peer influence.
By contrast, public elementary schools are located in both rural and urban areas where there is a need for so-called modern education. But they are the only form of formal elementary schooling in rural areas and depressed areas in Ghana, where the people are predominantly peasant farmers, fishers, and petty traders. In Accra, public elementary schools are pejoratively labeled “seito” and have almost collapsed. In addition, public elementary schools are funded solely by the government through Ghana Education Services, the second layer of bureaucracy next to the Ministry of Education. Public elementary schools are free as guaranteed by the Ghanaian constitution. So the primary aim of providing public elementary school is not profit-making. In this paper, I will highlight the essential points in the study that the USAID conducted, along with a critique. I will also put forward some recommendations to strengthen the public elementary school system in Ghana.
In analyzing the causes of the disparity in the test scores between students in the two systems, the report cited many factors. One is the attitudes of parents and guardians of students in both systems. In the private system, according to the report, parents and guardians provide their children with textbooks, stationary, school bags, dress, shoes, and food, in addition to assisting them with homework assignments. This may suggest that parents and guardians of students in private elementary schools are more 'serious' with the education of their children than those in the public sphere. Nevertheless, we cannot draw an absolute conclusion in that way. Poverty is an issue; so is the perceived importance of in-school education. Indeed, some of the parents and guardians of students in the public schools are struggling to make a living and may not have the time to devote for their children's education. This is not surprising given that most of the parents or guardians of these students in the private system are well-to-do or well-educated or both relative to those who have their children in the public system. Educated parents and guardians could play an influential role in the education of their children by making sure that their children do their homework and attend school regularly. Such parents also encourage their children to choose a profession or career at a tender age, so that as they grow they have in mind what exactly they want to do with their education. This becomes a source of motivation for such students. Wealthy parents or guardians with a low-level education background usually hire the services of tutors to help their children with homework. Consequently, the performance of students in both systems can be traced to class differences. Another point to bear in mind is that some of those who manage the public elementary school system have their children educated in the private system. In this case, how then would they manage the system better when they no interest at stake? What about the perceived irrelevance of in-school education among parents or guardians of students in the public system? Well, we should state that, from our observation, traditionally education is perceived as a means of gaining skills for survival.
Most of these parents might have realized that the academic-oriented education that their children receive is not helping them to survive in their own environment. Apart from speaking a foreign language such as English, these parents do not see any substantial differences between the abilities and skills of “ modern educated person” and traditionally educated person; hence they show a lukewarm attitude toward the formal education of their children. In fact, both education commissions established in Ghana in 1974 and 1984 respectively, to study and suggest an improvement to the Ghanaian education system were confronted with the need to make the system relevant to our culture and development. However making the Ghanaian education system relevant, to serve the diverse needs of the public, is an enormous challenge that would continue to confront policy-makers, professional educators, and others who want to transform the system.
The second factor cited in the report is the attitude of teachers in the public schools toward their work. Despite that teachers in the public system are professionally trained, better paid, with retirement pension, and more promotion opportunities than their private counterparts, most of them are unmotivated in their professional lives. As the report stated, most teachers in the public elementary schools are usually behind the completion of their mathematics and English syllabi due to either frequent absences from school or apathy on their part. However, the attitude of teachers in the public school system toward their work is no different from that of other government workers. In fact, after 47 years of political independence from Britain, we still associate government work with Whitman's work (the colonizers' work); hence, the productivity of government workers is very low and teachers in the public elementary schools are no exception. Linked to public school teachers' attitude to work is the quality of supervision. According to the report, headmasters or head teachers in private schools normally engage in more frequent and stringent supervision of their teachers compared to those in the public school system. This is also not surprising in that head teachers in the private system depend on the services they give to students for their own salaries and profit, if they have any ownership interest. Therefore, if they give poor education services, their clients would withdraw their children and that would be the end of business for them. Headmasters or teachers in the public system do not face this situation; for they receive their pay and benefits from the government regardless of the quality of services they render to their students. For that matter public teachers have no fears of losing their jobs or pay. As well, parents or guardians of students in the public system have no means of addressing their dissatisfaction with the public school system except to protest to the headmaster or withdraw their children from those schools and place them in the private system.
Finally, the report attributes the poor performance of students in the public school system on the tests to the size of classes. The report states that teacher- student ratio in the public sphere is 1:39 and that of the private system is 1:23. This disparity makes it easier for teachers in the private system to provide more individualized programs and attention to their students, particularly those who are unable to function effectively in the conventional curriculum because of different learning styles or learning disabilities. Besides, teachers in that system are also able to provide quick feedbacks to their students on what they have learned. In this way, students could seek remedial instruction before it is too late. However, in the public system the teachers do not give frequent performance feedbacks either because of the huge class-size or apathy on the part of the teachers. In addition, we should not forget the fact that while a private school could refuse to admit more students, a public school does not have that option. One could imagine the reaction of parents whose child was refused admission into a public school on the grounds that the classes were full. Such parents would condemn the school, teachers and the government. Yet for some strange reasons spaces in our elementary school system do not match with our demographic growth. While population in a town may grow two or three folds, the carrying capacity of the existing schools invariably remain the same. So in some cases a class could have as many as 45 students. How could a teacher effectively teach that class?
Do we need public elementary school system in Ghana? What policies should be put in place to address the problems that the study has identified? The disparities between private and public schools are growing and this is likely to produce a huge underclass and a small privileged class in the country, if something is not done about it. From my practical experience and theoretical perspective, the reform of school system may take three major approaches: regulatory, spending, and governance. The regulatory approach centralizes the control of education in the offices of the minister of education, directors, co-coordinators and inspectors. Proponents of this approach contend that senior education administrators must formulate countless policies and regulations to control the training of teachers, the curricula used in schools, the maximum number of students in classrooms, discipline code, admission procedure, hiring of teachers, and a host of other things. The spending approach looks at education as a form of social and economic investment. Supporters of this approach argue that to improve education more money must be spent especially on increasing teachers salaries and benefits, reducing teacher-student ratio, and purchasing basic resources and facilities. Naturally, most teachers and teachers unions support this approach because it tends to put more resources into the system and more money into their pockets. However, more money does not necessarily translate into effective teaching and learning. The governance approach, on the other hand, has to do with who has the authority to make decisions in the school system. This could take a variety of forms. One variant of this approach is turning the authority of running schools to head teachers and teachers and then hold them accountable for the performance of their students. Nonetheless, this approach involves deregulation of the education enterprise and empowerment of head teachers to make crucial decisions in matters relating to curricula, teaching scheduling, teachers performance, students learning and behaviour. Another variant is to turn the running of schools to the community where the schools are located. In this approach, the community participates directly or indirectly in the management of schools in the locality. It is possible that the USAID research report could be skewed in favour of the private elementary school system, particularly the results of the standardized testing. This is because in spite of all the pronouncements of the USAID, it has a hidden agenda to advance the political and economic interests of the United States. The United States' exports to the so-called third world countries are humanitarian aid, machinery, and food, but also its ideology of private capitalism or enterprise. For instance, the research report does not say anything positive about our public elementary school system as if it has no redeeming qualities; nor does it say anything negative about the private elementary schools in Ghana as if it is a better model for Ghana. Besides, most people who read the report are likely to conclude that private elementary schools are superior to the public counterparts. Nonetheless, based on the research report it is too premature to write off the public system or replace it with the private system. We should note that the private school system fosters division based on class, ethnicity, and religion. Even some of them charge their tuition and materials fees in US dollars. How many people would be able to afford this? And the government looks on in the holy name of market economy! Also, at the university level, there is no an empirical study to show that students who were educated in the private system perform better than those who were educated in the public system. As well, the public elementary school system is a beacon of multi lingualism in Ghana: learning our own languages and English. It was through the public system that some of us learned how to write and read our own language, which has given us a strong sense of identity in this part of the world where racism abounds. Our public schools also play an important role in holding our nation together, by bringing together children of different ethnicity, language, religion, culture, socio-economic background and give them a sense of shared purpose and destiny. Since public elementary school system is crucial to our future survival as a nation, we put forward the following recommendations, which are a mixture of many approaches, to reform our public elementary school system in order to improve the quality of education it provides to its students: 1). Local control of education. In Ghana it is believed that it takes a whole village to raise or educate a child. Yet citizens or residents of villages or towns have no say in how public elementary schools in their jurisdictions are managed. People who run the Ghana Education Services bureaucracy in the regional capitals have no idea about the needs of schools, students, and teachers at the local level. Thus the control of education at the local level must be handed over to an elected Local Education Council (LEC) that would be responsible for hiring head-teachers and teachers, firing them, evaluating the head teachers, safeguarding school assets, controlling the school budget, and determining policies such as discipline of students, attendance, closure and opening of the school. The Council would also fund raise to allow the school to have extra money to buy needed resources. The local education council (LEC) must report directly to the Ministry of Education, and the District Education Office should play only an advisory role. The Local Education Council would meet, may be, once every month to discuss a progress report or strategic plans from the head teacher. The council meetings must be opened to the public and people must be allowed to make presentations or ask questions on educational issues relating to schools in the district. When people at the local level are given such a voice in the running of schools in their area, it would help to minimize all the irregularities in the management of schools and misappropriation of schools resources of books, chalk, furniture, and materials. In the document” Support for Education Decentralization in Ghana: USAID'S District Grant Mechanism (2003)”, the model of decentralization practiced in Ghana still places too much power in the office of the District Education Office (DEO). Though, the District Education Oversight Committee (DEOC) of the District Assembly is charged with monitoring school performance in the district – conditions of school buildings, provision of teachers, teacher and student attendance, school staffs, performance of duties, and the moral and disciplinary issues of staff and student- this model does not place the control of education in the hands of people in the locality where the schools are established. This is why we think the DEOC should be abolished and replaced with LEC. 2). Every elementary school must have a budget, specifying its sources of spending. The education committee must control the budget. This suggests that the government must provide adequate funding to every elementary school. In fact, conditions in most elementary schools are horrible. Some do not have roofs on their building, while others have no buildings at all. Textbooks, teaching materials, chalk, notebooks, attendance register, chairs and desks are in critical short supply in our public elementary schools. According to the Ghana Education Services 3% of public school classes are held under trees. We suspect the percentage is higher than the GES has reported. As well, most schools do not have textbooks or materials to write on. In this case, how do we expect students in this system to learn? 3). Empowerment and hiring of head teachers. Head teachers must not be hired indefinitely. Rather, the Local Education Committee (LEC) should hire them on a contractual basis. The contract should only be extended on satisfactory performance of their duties and responsibilities. Head teachers must in tend be empowered to make strategic decisions in running their schools and must be held accountable for the performances of their schools-teachers and students. In this case, the head teachers would be regarded as leaders of their schools and would be expected to demonstrate leadership qualities. The rationales for this recommendation are basically two. One, when something happens in the school then we know who is definitely responsible at the local level. Two, it would be a source of motivation for head teachers, who are invariably stuck in a bureaucratic mud and had to depend on a central authority in making critical decisions affecting their schools. 4). Mandatory periodic in-service program. Ghana Education Service must organize mandatory periodic in-service programs for untrained teachers and those who want to teach in the public elementary school system. Candidates who successfully complete the training program must be certified to teach. The educational entry requirement for such training should be SSS certificate with passes in five subjects, including English or any Ghanaian language, and other skills and life experiences. In some cases, minimum education achievements in four subjects along with substantial life experiences and valuable skills (eg. agriculture, herbal medicine, art, carving, cloth weaving, etc.) should be accepted in lieu of the conventional entry requirements. The in-service program would help to address the shortage of elementary school teachers particularly in small towns and rural areas. It would also help untrained teachers to acquire basic pedagogical strategies and subject matter knowledge for an effective teaching at that level. Reports have it that there are estimated 652 classrooms in rural areas without teachers to teach the students. Those that lucky to have teachers many of them untrained. 5). A yearly criterion-referenced test in mathematics and English/Ghanaian language, based on the school curricula should be administered to students in primary three, 5 and 6. The results of the test should be used to assess the effectiveness of the school curricula, teaching strategies and students' problems-solving skills. As well, the results should be used to hold teachers and parents accountable. 6) Elementary school teachers' certification should be renewable. And the renewal of certification must be supported by, say, 50 hours of professional improvement activities. The professional improvement activities include any activities that would improve the skills, knowledge and experiences of the teacher. For example, learning to build a boat is a legitimate professional improvement activity, in that the teacher would obtain a practical understanding of the principle of flotation and material science. So is learning to drive a car, doing a research in educational issues or problems, taking a course, and attending education workshops. The Ministry of Education should set comprehensive guidelines in this respect. 7) Similarly, head teachers must also be certified and the certificate renewable. The certification should be awarded upon a satisfactory completion a leadership program. The District Education Office (DEO) should be responsible for organizing the program. It may contract the university of Education or University of Cape Coast to run such program. No teacher should be hired as a head teacher without having completed the Elementary School leadership Program (ESLP). A teacher under some circumstances could be hired as a head teacher without ESLP for a period not more than one year. 8) Teacher-parents interview. The District Education Office should mandate this as part of the plan to promote communication between elementary school teachers and parents/guardians. At the end of every term, every public elementary school must schedule a teacher-parent/guardian interview. The sole purpose is to provide parents/guardians the opportunity to discuss the academic achievement and behavioural development of their children. Parents/guardians could ask questions not only about their children, but also how the school in general is run. The teachers in turn could discuss with parents what they could do to help their children improve academically. 9) Education levy. To generate enough money to run our ailing public elementary school system, the District Assembly of each district must be given the power to impose an affordable education levy on every resident of the district, who is over 18 years old. The Revenue Department of the local authority administration should be responsible for collecting the levy. An education levy is better than user fees or school fees for four fundamental reasons. First, since not only people with school-going age children would pay the levy, the corresponding revenue base would be quite substantially larger. Second, the Free Basic University Education as enshrined in the constitution is not violated in any way. Third, it does discriminate against people who send their children to school. Lastly, as the government is required to provide sufficient funding for public elementary schools, so must community members contribute a little bit toward education by way of a special tax? 10) A well-structured curricula for mathematics, English/Ghanaian language, environmental studies, and social studies must be introduced in the public school system. Other relevant subjects to be included must be determined at each local level by the LEC. This flexibility would allow the LEC to decide what subject it must add to the school curricula in order to boost retention, regular attendance and local interest in the schools. For example, some LEC may develop a curriculum in cultural studies that encourage knowledgeable members of the community to teach the school children valuable skills. Some LEC may add drumming, fishing, basket-making, or carving to its school curricula. 11) The traditional practice of giving guaranteed jobs to teachers from training colleges must be stopped. Instead, teacher training college graduates should apply for teaching positions in District Education Offices (DEO). The DEO would then forward the applications to the appropriate LEC. The LEC would conduct interviews to select suitable teachers to teach in its schools. No trained teachers should be given jobs simply because they have undergone training in teacher college. We have learnt with deep disappointment and sadness that the Ministry of Education has plans to support private schools through cost-sharing, allocation of teachers, supply of teaching materials, and free participation of private school teachers in government sponsored in-service training programs (Ghana Review International, April 1,2004). We also learnt from the same source that the government has recognized private elementary schools as partners in development, in realizing its Free Compulsory and Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) policy. We disagree with the government on three grounds. First, private elementary schools charge school fees, even some charge dollars. We wonder how this could ensure an equitable access to basic education in order for the government to achieve universal basic for all Ghanaians irrespective of socio-economic background. Second, in our considered opinion strengthening private elementary schools by giving them more resources, when public elementary schools are in a state of crisis, would likely accelerate the demise of the latter. Private and public elementary schools are not at par with each other. Public elementary schools in most urban areas, as we know, are tottering on the verge of collapse owing to two decades of total government neglect. Third, we do not think that private elementary schools are in development partnership with the government. We know for a fact that most private elementary schools are blatant violators of the Ministry of Education school regulations. We do not know, for example, of any private elementary schools in Ghana that teach their students how to write or read our indigenous languages. Nor do they adhere to the Ministry's curriculum guidelines. Thus, we want to assert that the fundamental philosophy undergirding the operations of private elementary schools run counter to Ghanaian development in all its aspects. In concluding this paper, we would like to state that our public elementary school system needs reform. The above recommendations are our action plans to transform the public elementary school system in order to bring about improved students and teacher performance. Having said that, we should add that any reform of public education in Ghana would not be successful unless the government undertakes a full consultation with all shareholders of the education .A skillful salesmanship is also needed to sell the reform ideas to the public. We should do away with the colonial model of policy-making, where one or two individuals impose their decisions on the masses of the people without consulting with them or their representatives. As well, head teachers, teacher, parents must be adequately in-serviced with any reform program. Political will is also needed in any reform program that the government undertakes to fix our deteriorating public elementary school system. Y. Fredua-Kwarteng is a mathematics educator and school administrator in Canada's newest territory, Nunavut. F. Ahia is an assistant professor of mathematics education at University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.