The Demise Of Public Education In Ghana: Double Track Or Double Tragedy

Feature Article Minister of Education, Dr. Mathew Opoku Prempeh
FEB 28, 2019 LISTEN
Minister of Education, Dr. Mathew Opoku Prempeh

Almost every day a flood of constantly worsening problems are described in the press. These problems appear unrelated but are they? An unrepentant elected legislator, sees no connection between his rantings and the death of a journalist. An electoral commissioner who sees no connection between violence at a by-election and the low turnout and the final results. An imperial president flying to the United States with public funds, ostensibly to raise private funds for a national folly. A pyramid scheme, collapses in broad daylight in full view of regulators, wiping away the investments of ordinary people. A homogeneous nation is Balkanized into tribal enclaves. Youth without a sense of national identity. Paid servants of the public extorting bribes in uniforms paid for by the public in full public view every day. Worry not, for the leader says the macroeconomic numbers are getting better. If you are hungry or dying, a drone may bring you food or medicine. A filthy capital city will tomorrow be the shiniest city on the hill in Africa. Armed thugs kill and cause mayhem at will but we are doing just fine. Most youth are functionally illiterate in both native languages and in English. A fully equipped quaternary teaching hospital remains mothballed because of political football while people perish. Some high ranking political figures knowingly claimed double salaries but no one is seeking redress. What are the main root causes of these observed phenomena? They may be related to what we have learned as a nation and how we have learnt those lessons.

Formal western education entered our history and our traditional systems of education and knowledge, in what is now known as Ghana, in a Portuguese classroom at St. George’s Castle, Elmina, in 1529. The idea of the Europeans were twofold. First, to propagate the gospel of their religion and second, as time went on, to reduce illiteracy so that the primary goal would be achieved without force.

By the time Independence came centuries later, numerous schools run by missionaries had already been well established in the country. The three model schools in Ghana then were Mfantsipim School, founded by the Weslyans in 1876, Adisadel College in 1910 by the Anglicans and Achimota School which was established in 1927 by the British colonial government with a research and agricultural focus. Other parochial schools like St. Augustine’s College in 1930 and Odumase-Krobo Secondary School in 1938 followed. Following self-government, Nkrumah introduced a wave of Ghana Education Trust (GET) schools to democratize education in Ghana, from the clutches of the Education Act of 1870, whose beneficiaries were the few who had the means.

Gordon Guggisberg, Governor of the Gold Coast Colony from 1919 to 1928, recognized education as “the keystone to progress” but described the Gold Coast education system as “rotten to the core” then proceeded to focus on primary education while recognizing the need for secondary and higher education.

The Accelerated Development Plan of 1951 was instituted in 1952 by the first Convention Peoples Party (CPP) led government to provide quality education and enhance the rapid development of education at all levels. At independence, Dr. Nkrumah further spelled out the government’s vision for education with three goals. First, as a tool for producing a scientifically literate population, secondly for tackling many environmental causes of low productivity and third, for producing knowledge to buttress Ghana’s economic potential. He believed that education was essential for rapid technological and economic growth. Linking education, labor markets and their requirements were central to this policy. In addressing the Gold Coast Legislature two days before independence, Nkrumah said, “We must seek an African view to the problems of Africa. This does not mean that western techniques and methods are not applicable to Africa. It does mean, however, that in Ghana we must look at every problem from the African point of view … Our whole educational system must be geared to producing a scientifically-technically minded people. Because of the limitations placed on us, we have to produce, of necessity, a higher standard of technical education than is necessary in many of the most advanced countries of the Western world … I believe that one of the most important services which Ghana can perform for Africa is to devise a system of education based at its university level on concrete studies of the problems of the tropical world. The University will be the co-ordinating body for education research, and we hope that it will eventually be associated with Research Institutes dealing with agriculture, biology, and the physical and chemical sciences which we hope to establish … today in a country of five million inhabitants nearly half a million children enjoy primary education. We must, however, provide further outlets for these children and give them an opportunity to learn something of engineering, tropical agriculture and of the problems of tropical medicine and hygiene. Only with a population so educated can we hope to face the tremendous problems which confront any country attempting to raise the standard of life in a tropical zone”

Three years later, in 1960, the government introduced fee free compulsory primary and middle school education and invested heavily in the training of teachers to promote quality primary education. The Ghana Education Trust (GET) was established to support rapid expansion of secondary and technical education, which was key to the progress of the country. Between 1958 and 1960 the GET contributed to 59 approved government secondary schools. The National Teacher Training Council was established in 1958 to oversee the quality of the teacher training and two existing university colleges, the University College of the Gold Coast and Kumasi College of Arts and Sciences and Technology were heavily resourced.

At the center Nkrumah’s reforms was the African identity. The system embarked on training teachers to present material from an African perspective. Subjects pertaining to the understanding and analysis of the African cultural identity, values and practices were introduced. Teaching in the lower primary schools was in local languages while English was used as a medium of communication in the upper primary years. Further, the new Education Act in 1961 articulated the vision of education and the structures for delivering its goals. For example, the Act gave the responsibility for expanding primary education to local education authorities. These policies resulted in the expansion of access at all levels of education and in just a matter of a few years after independence, the World Bank described Ghana as having an education system that could be described as one of the most respected in Africa.

After the coup d’etat of 1966, the National Liberation Council (NLC) made a few decisions regarding education. They scrapped the seven-year development plan and modified the free textbook scheme and required parents to pay part of the cost of the distribution of textbooks to students. They also slowed down the rate of primary school expansion. The NLC through the Kwapong Reform Committee in 1967, reduced the 10 years of elementary education during the first republic to an eight year basic course prior to secondary education. Unsuccessful students were enrolled in a 2 year program of continuation classes prior to vocational schools. This created an impression that vocational and technical education was of 2nd class status. A minority of well off children through private schools, began by-passing the public system. This problem has grown exponentially over the decades in creating a situation where a significant percentage of students successful at university entrance arrive from a few elite schools. A significant drop of standards in the public system began during this era and has effectively continued to the present.

In 1974 under the government of the National Redemption Council (NRC), the Dzobo Committee reviewed what was then viewed as an elitist education system. This resulted in the publication of the New Structure and Content of Education, which introduced the concept of the junior secondary school (JHS) and senior secondary schools (SSS). Pre-tertiary education was reduced from 17 years to 13 years. The 6 years of primary education remained unchanged. The five years of senior secondary school was reduced to four years and the two years of senior secondary school remained unchanged. The system thus went from a 6-4-5-2 to 6-4-2-2 configuration. New emphasis on vocational subjects such as tailoring, wood work, catering, dress-making, metal work, technical drawing, masonry, and automobile technology were introduced. Employability on exiting the system at any point was central to these reforms.

In 1987, under the Rawlings led Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) government, the Evans-Anfom Committee reviewed the education system again. The stated objective of the reforms under this regime was to improve the quality of education but make basic education free and compulsory, while strategically reducing the length of pre-tertiary education from 17 to 12 years. Again, there was an attempt to continue to emphasize vocational and technological pursuits in the education system, to some degree at the expense of academics. By the mid-1980s, the decline in Ghana’s educational system which began during the NRC era partly due to a government inspired devaluation of the role of education in public discourse, worsened sharply under the PNDC, following a period of protracted poor economic performance in the 1980s.

The educational reforms of 2007 under the first New Patriotic Party (NPP) government of J. A. Kufuor, focused on the preservation of cultural identity and indigenous knowledge, developing human capital for industrial growth and a renewed focus on science and technology. This approach was similar to Nkrumah’s original goals for the education system. The senior secondary school years were increased from 3 to 4. Considering that this had originally been reduced from 7 to 3 years, this adjustment seemed to be valid. These changes were implemented under the chairmanship of Josephus Anamuah-Mensah, then vice chancellor of the University of Education in Winneba. The two years of kindergarten were formally added to the basic education years to provide universal basic education. The increase of the SSS years to 4 years was to enable teachers to complete the syllabus and make the students more competitive for the WASSCE, as the evidence available suggested that the additional year was beneficial.

After barely a year in office, the new National Democratic Congress (NDC) government in 2008 reversed the decision made by the previous government and returned Senior Secondary School to a three-year curriculum, as it had been under the Rawlings led PNDC government. This aggravated already problems of access and quality in the secondary school system.

We live in a global society and the adaptation of principles of education from advanced countries to Ghanaian culture has been a continuing challenge in relation to desired outcomes. The various national objectives recommended by various committees over the decades have been properly motivated, however in a global society, our outcomes must include the competitiveness of our graduates with their peers around the world.

There is general agreement on the curriculum for the pre-secondary years but even then there are some glaring deficits. One glaring deficit, being that history is not taught in junior secondary school. Children who do not have a sense of their own history cannot develop a national identity and cannot engage effectively in a global society. In senior secondary school, history is still an elective subject, so Ghanaian children’s knowledge of their own history in relation to world history is completely absent for most in this education system. Furthermore, international evidence suggests that the “quality of secondary education, especially in math and science, has a stronger impact on economic growth than years of schooling. Equitable access to secondary education for poor students, and especially girls is an additional factor enhancing countries’ economic growth performance”. However, only about 25% of SSS have an appropriate math and science curriculum. As a result graduation rates from tertiary institutions in math and science barely hits the 10% mark.

Graduates of Ghanaian secondary schools from the 60s and early 70s excelled on international standardized examinations in both the US and the UK, often receiving advanced placement in many elite universities. They were sought after in both undergraduate and post graduate programs because of the quality of the product of the education system embodied by these young graduates. In the US, many were routinely exempted from English Proficiency examinations. From the 1980s to the present, our students have lost their place of pride around the world and many are barely able to qualify for community colleges in United States after graduating from Ghanaian universities. Their predecessors easily made it into the most competitive Ivy League schools after Ghanaian secondary education from the 60s and 70s.

Faculty of Ghanaian universities attest to the fact that new students now routinely have to complete remedial courses on admission for readiness for the university curriculum. The effects of the drastic reduction in the number of years in pre-university education are quite obvious and educators should be left to make the necessary changes to achieve the identified and agreed-upon objectives of the system. This is not a matter for politicians. Years of political interference have essentially destroyed the system and greatly endanger the future of development of the country, as most of the products of the system are unemployable.

In attempting to address problems of access, which is only one dimension of the difficulties in the system, the current NPP government has introduced a double track system which further reduces the number of hours and days of direct student teacher contact. This double track system is really a double tragedy system. In addition to the reduced didactic hours, the period that students spend when they are off track is also grossly underutilized. Structured community education on the “off” periods could include subjects in the humanities such as creative arts, history, music, literature and even Information and communications Technologies (ICT). The prospect of many adolescents having so much unstructured time between Green and Gold tracks, only increases the risk of such social ills as increased delinquent behavior and teenage pregnancies. The social costs of this hurriedly implemented policy are yet to bear fruit. This is a knee-jerk response to a complex and multi-faceted problem which is a core driver of our continued underdevelopment.

As a comparison, in Canada and the US, in the ninth year of basic education students arrive at secondary school and have 4 or more years of formal curricular education ahead of them. In the ninth year of basic education Ghanaian students would have completed junior high school, with only 3 years between them and university and no alternative pathways for other career options.

In Canada the four-year high school student who is unable to achieve enough in four years, can take an optional fifth year. In the United States similarly, such a student can enroll in a junior college and remediate to obtain a General Education Diploma (GED) certificate. There must be flexibility in the system, recognizing different school standards, individual variations in aptitude of students, psychosocial stressors etc. which may cause a student to need more time to graduate.

The recent World Bank Human Development Index (HDI) assessment of our students is a clear indictment of our education system. We ranked 116th out of 157 countries in education. On the UNESCO Education for All Development Index, Ghana ranked 97 out of 120. For math and science education our ranking was 90 out of 137 and trending downwards. This is nothing less than dangerous for the future of the country.

Most educators use a version of Bloom’s Taxonomy which outlines progression from “remembering, understanding, application, analysis, evaluation to creativity” in the outlining the goals of the learning experience in an educational system. Our system produces graduates who show little critical thinking and generic problem-solving abilities and sadly the dearth of critical thinking abounds in our national discourse. We do not analyze facts or respect data, we make major decisions fueled by emotions, with deadly results around us in all spheres of life.

We have at least two lost generations of youth to a disintegrating education system and its impact on our daily lives is pervasive. These range from associated poor health literacy and preventable causes of morbidity and mortality, to a minimal understanding of environmental sciences and our unsolved and growing sanitation crisis in the country.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide, a significant number of students completing SSS barely achieve any of the markers of critical thinking and analysis. Any employer in Ghana is also familiar with the singular lack of ethics, poor listening skills, inability to follow instructions accurately, indiscipline and the absence of team-centeredness in many employees. We all know how hard it is to find ethical, disciplined and professional workers for the many projects that are part of our rapidly growing economy. The economy is growing rapidly but economic development is not occurring at a commensurate pace, largely because of a poorly educated and poorly skilled work force. Many are simply unemployable in an economic transformation dependent on translatable skills from an education system that must be STEM focused.

The country is at a point where because of the lost generations, a significant revamp of our adult education programs by our leading universities is necessary to provide enriched education to adults outside the workforce, to make them employable. The $1m per district program touted by the present government, should be applied to human capital development in conjunction with input from the captains of industry at the local/district level. Joint government and industry funded work-based skills development and education is necessary to sadly bring us to the education and labor metrics of the pre-1966 era. This is truly a national emergency.

Some of the aspects of the education include trained teachers at the kindergarten level, where until recently only 25% of teachers were qualified. Exposure to science, math and information technology at the pre-school level is key to developing young minds in a functional way. At this point, an investment in access and quality yields the greatest long-term return. Also, much lip service has been paid to vocational/technological pursuits. These professional and skills development programs are capital and resource intensive. No government since that first republic has made the necessary investment.

Finally, though the Young Pioneers Movement was vilified after the 1966 coup, for many unfounded reasons, one must remember that patriotism, the African identity and broad social discipline, which were the fundamentals, do not meet young Ghanaians along their developmental journey these days. That is partly why there is so much lawlessness in all spheres of life. There are no secular institutions for the development of social discipline. No Boy Scouts, Girl Guides or Ghanaian equivalent of same. This lawlessness has now been validated by the two major political parties in the form of vigilante groups and threatens to grossly undermine democratic and electoral institutions in the country. We have not stood still after February 1966, we have lost ground. A lot of it.

How the country utilizes knowledge and experiences from these repeated educational reforms outside the political lens, will determine the extent to which education and economic development will interact to achieve Ghana’s goal to become a middle level income country by 2020. We are well off that target.

T. P. Manus Ulzen is Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Alabama and Author of Java Hill: An African Journey – A historiography of Ghana

[email protected]

Twitter: @thaddeusulzen

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