Education Gap in the era of Social Democracy

Mon, 28 Feb 2011 Source: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi

Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

Last Wednesday, February 23, was the 143rd birthday of the illustrious Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the founders of Pan-Africanism who moved to Ghana and died here in the first years of independence. The Du Bois Memorial Centre, obviously named after him, organised a public event to mark the day. It consisted of public lectures followed by a question and answer session, during which the audience of mostly secondary school students, asked question. I am happy to pass on one of the questions to President Mills, his Cabinet and all other officials of state as well as other rich and powerful people in this country.

The question, plaintively put, was this: why is it that no public officials send their children and wards to public elementary schools, popularly known as “Cyto”? It was an intelligent and perceptive question coming from a teenager who has already realised that as far as public policy is concerned, there is a chasm between words and deeds. The applause from the audience, mostly of her peers, showed that these young people are worried that we are being short-changed by the people in charge of public policy in this country.

The situation is familiar to even the casual observer. Our public primary schools are bad and have been getting worse over the past 30 years. It was not always like this. Before the rot set in, Ghana’s public elementary schools were the pick of the cream, and when I told a recent audience of mostly young people that almost every public official aged over 50 years attended a “Cyto” school they were incredulous. Their assumption was that no one could go from a “Cyto” school to a university.

To be fair, the decline in public school standards is an Africa wide phenomenon, as captured by an article in a recent article in the UN magazine, Africa Recovery:

“There is a typical image of an African school: A solitary teacher stands before 70-80 students. Perhaps there is a blackboard and chalk. The students may have desks, maybe just benches or the floor to sit on. Some may go to a school that has a few books or exercise tablets. Some may have no classrooms, but must sit outside, under a tree. Two out of every five African children are far less lucky -- there is no school at all.

By virtually any standard, education in sub-Saharan Africa lags far behind most other developing regions. One obvious reason is that the continent is the poorest. Without large and growing economies, governments have very limited tax bases to finance public school systems, while the bulk of African families cannot afford the high fees charged by private schools.”

On the face of it, one cannot blame government officials for taking their children into private instead of public elementary schools. After all, we know that Cyto schools are not good, especially when you have high expectations for your child. In the circumstances, we can understand why public officials, who like all good parents want the best for their children, would go private. But we need to go beneath the surface and examine the ethical, political and practical implications of the mass migration of public officials to the private school sector.

We need to remember that this is primarily a political and not economic issue. It is a question of choice and political will and how governments choose to govern and for whose benefits. We ought to remember that even while African children are educated under trees, there is no African government that lacks a fleet of huge vehicles, big house, big expense accounts and big everything for the ruling party and class. Furthermore, public elementary schools belong to the public and as such are the property of the government, so to speak. The government has responsibility not only to maintain the Cyto schools but to improve them and make them worthy institutions of which the nation would be proud. Bear in mind also that in setting salaries, costs used for education would typically be based on public expenditure, which means that people on “normal” pay would be expected to send their children to public elementary schools. In any moral and ethical system ministers and their deputies, members of parliament, district chief executives and all high government officials would be expected to send their children to the government’s own school system.

That certainly is the case in the UK, for example, where both the Prime Minister and his deputy, despite their private wealth and having attended posh private schools, have placed their young children in the public school system. Former Prime Minister and the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman were criticized for sending their children to schools that selected their pupils by entrance exams, since those schools are known to favour children from rich backgrounds. Even a Labour Party backbencher called Diana Abbot who had criticized Blair came under extreme fire when she put her son into a private school.

In the UK examples, no one argued that Blair and Harman, or even Abbot, did not have the right to seek a better education for their children; they were accused of hypocrisy, which most people felt was a fair charge. Even so, in the UK, public elementary schools are not the “death sentence” they are here. In Ghana, the chances of a child from a “cyto” school finding a place in a top-30 secondary school on merit is slimmer than a camel going through the eye of a needle.

What makes it far worse here is the system of selection into secondary schools which is weighed excessively in favour of children from rich backgrounds. The “aggregate” system takes no prisoners, and since there is no socio-economic weighting to favour children from poor or rural backgrounds, it means they have no chance of getting into university which has become the preserve of those from top-20 schools.

In this country, rich people have no respect for the poor, but public officials must be a different proposition. Article 4(a) of Chapter 5 of the Constitution encourages Parliament to implement policies and programmes aimed at redressing social, economic or educational imbalance in the Ghanaian society. You would assume that education would be used as a means of redressing the huge imbalance. No, education is used as a tool by the rich and powerful to widen the gap between themselves and the poor.

So, I will now attempt to answer the question put by that perceptive teenager last Wednesday. In this country, the rich and powerful don’t care about the poor. They pay lip service to caring about the poor; empty words. Every day we hear of efforts by the government to alleviate the suffering of the poor but that suffering rather increases year by year and that is because the rich take a disproportionate share of the national cake in many different ways.

As for the educational and aspirational gap, no government has even promised to do anything about it. Here and there some flimsy palliative such as giving a few university places to the rural poor is applied to a deep and festering wound; it makes no impression at all. The fact is that no government has done anything about this problem and the reason is simple. People in government probably believe that this is a natural gap and that children of the rich deserve the rewards for being brilliant or hardworking.

The gap is not natural. It is an artificial construct created by socio-economic conditions that have existed in this country for decades, and made progressively worse, at least since the fall of the Nkrumah government in 1966. No government has made the analysis that would lead to the right conclusions and therefore arrive at the right prescription. And that is because there is no political appetite to take on the powerful people whose privileges are thereby entrenched and even extended.

The question I have put, and which should be directed at the Castle, was asked by a young teenager and received applause from an audience of her peers. This means that the youth are politically alive and asking the right questions. It means that society should not take injustice for granted neither should governments believe that injustice and inactivity will be tolerated by the youth forever. The time to act is now. And luckily, we have a social democratic government in place. Fighting social and economic injustice is a key tenet of that ideology and President Mills’ credentials for fairness has been touted frequently by his party and associates. He has a big chance now to prove it.

This is not the last we will hear of this subject.


This article appeared in the Daily Graphic of Saturday February 26, 2011

Columnist: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi