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Opinions Sat, 29 Oct 2011

The Tragedies of African Democracies - XI

The Tragedies of African democracies: why the best doesn’t mean good

Primary and Secondary Education in Ghana: the way to the future

The greatest challenges that confront the educational system in Ghana are the issues of lack of infrastructure, low quality of education, outmoded curricula, inconsistencies in government policies, lack of motivation among teachers as well as opportunities for self-development for teachers at the lower strata of the education ladder.

A close observation of the experimental Junior Secondary School (JSS) system, underscores the correlation between the quality of teacher and the quality of pedagogy. Same applies to the availability of infrastructure and teaching materials and how they impact on the quality of teaching and learning.

In hindsight, I am inclined to believe that my foundational education – the experimental JSS, a model on which the current junior high school syllabus is based – had provided me with a solid foundation to move on to compete at all levels of the educational system, both home and abroad. While some seek to impute the systems failures to this model of education, I am convinced that the unemployment problem that has engulfed Ghana would have been worse if Ghana had maintained the old-fashion elementary school system – the primary and middle schools structures – without any provisions at all for exposures to vocational oriented programs.

Being an experimental model, my school and all other experimental ones which pioneered the JSS concept, were equipped with the necessary accoutrement for the experimental undertakings. Designed to train the individual in all the three learning domains – the cognitive, psychomotor, and affective domains – the concept was to instruct and prepare the student to use his or head – to think and reason; hand – to construct or make things; and the heart – to develop interest and appreciation for their own environment and the ones beyond. This form of education involves reason, intellect, intuition, creativity. It is a process or a set of experiences that allow humans to create themselves or, perhaps, recreate themselves where each individual’s natural endowments become his or her strength. It is opposed to the banking education we read about in Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Opressed.”

Though a few of the teachers were not trained, they were made to undergo in-service training to comprehend the modules. It was no mean achievement that after successful evaluation of the program, the JSS concept was rolled out nationwide, but without the necessary accoutrements that accompanied the experimental schools, and a clear precursor for its failures nationwide.

Students were introduced to all the range of disciplines – including vocational, career-related and the foundational courses for pure academic endeavors – from which they made their choices, based on their areas of strength, as they progressed. For instance, in a Bookkeeping class, students were introduced to the very basics of accounting, enough to close an account for daily sales in a shop. As part of that training, students were introduced to typing and shorthand writing. As it were, there were enough typewriters for each student, one student to one typewriter, so each of the 45 of us in a class had a typewriter when it was time for typing lessons. Similarly, in carpentry classes, we were taken to the carpentry workshop where every student had all the tools needed for the day’s assignment –mostly saws, planes, hammers, chisels, etc. Some students were able to construct their own tables and chairs and equally undertook repairs out of these fundamental lessons. The training helped students identify their career interest and the paths to it and pursue it vigorously.

When practical lessons required the use of more advanced tools, there was collaboration between the experimental school and the technical school in town, where we were transported to undertake the practical aspects of programs, sharing equipment with students at the technical school. Subjects such as basic electrical engineering, auto mechanics, carpentry, and bricklaying were all part of the experimental curricula.

The process of teaching itself was driven by inquiry, self-responsibility, and accountability, one that allowed students to become learners rather than memorizers. This was opposed to the “banking education,” I mentioned earlier, which pervaded the education system prior to the introduction of the JSS concept. In the banking education system, knowledge was bestowed by the teacher upon students who were considered to know nothing and only received, filled, and stored knowledge. This system regarded students as passive and malleable, creativity and critical thought are discouraged. The JSS concept could, therefore, be regarded as a dialogic process fashioned in line with Frere’s concept of liberation of the individual from the oppressive and dehumanizing relationships.

What this exposure did was that, students were able to identify their own strengths as early as in those foundational classes. Out of this, some moved straight to the technical schools to hone their vocations in their chosen areas. Those who believed they were well cut for the academic journey chose that path and so on.

This might sound wishful for a return to the past. Though the public school system today is not even a pale shadow of what pertained in the experimental schools, the model is almost atavistic compared with current modes of instruction in countries that are prepared to face the challenges of the 21st century. Today, even the electronic typewriter is almost phased out in many developed countries. Young people – both students in our schools and those entering teacher education programs – are digital natives who grew up in a world of computers, Internet, cell phones, MP3 players, and social networks. This is in contrast with the analogous time and space-based education that our schools are offering these kids. If a 10 year kid in Nima, a suburb of Accra, could use the Internet to generate credit card numbers, which he in turn uses to pillage owners of these cards online by ordering and shipping items to himself through a labyrinth of manipulations, that kid must be well abreast with the application of these ICT tools, but for the wrong purpose. All that kid might need is reorientation on its honest application. Globalization means Ghanaian schools have to prepare students for a competitive international economy in which jobs move around the world. It means the achievements of the Ghanaian child are compared with his or her peers worldwide, as they compete for limited opportunities globally. This is where the world would not wait for us to put our house in order. The most prepared students win the day.

The fact is that “our world is being transformed by profound demographic, economic, technological, and global changes. Change of this magnitude and pace is rare, last occurring during the Industrial Revolution. But our social institutions – government, health care, media, banks, and schools – were created for a different time, for a pre-digital, national economy, and must be refitted for a new world,” Arthur E. Levine points out. Our schools need active, interactive, collaborative, and individualized education, not time-based and mass promotion. The Internet and the array of information it offers makes traditional textbooks an anachronism. Today, students are reading on the go with their Ipads and kindles.

Even if we had been lucky to have the best educational system in the sub-region, it would still need to change. The best is comparable; our best does not mean good in comparison with the ideal. We can choose to compare what we have with other failing systems in the region and bask in mediocrity. The actuality is that those countries, just like Ghana, have also been stagnant for the most part of their independent years and not viable options for any meaningful comparison.

But to make education in Ghana a tool for the liberation of the mass poor, it must be emancipatory and geared towards social peace and tranquility; it must be geared towards the economy and it must be purposeful. That education does serve economic purpose is not in doubt. This has long been recognized. For one thing, education has a vital bearing on social peace and tranquility; it is education that provides the hope and the reality of escape from lower, less-favored social and economic strata to those above.

In the advanced industrial nations, however, education has a central economic role. The modern economy requires a well-prepared, adaptable labor force. The expanding sectors – production based on technology and on the arts and design, the great and growing travel, cultural and entertainment industries and the professions – all must have an educated work force. Education also both prepares and inspires the innovators who respond to the interests and diversions of an educated population. Education makes education economically essential. Social decency and political stability require, however, that there be a recognized and effective chance for upward movement, escape from the lower levels to the higher. If this does not exist, there is the certainty of social discontent even the possibility of violent revolt. This is what happened in Tunisia with the cascading effects into other Arab countries. With a high literate or educated population, the Tunisian economy, until the overthrow of the ruling family, had been operated like a village economy with economic opportunities denied the masses. Clearly, educated people are more likely to stand up to challenge the status quo than the uneducated.

For upward escape, either by the individual or by his or her children, education is the decisive agent. The ignorant are held to tedious, repetitive or otherwise burdensome toil and, on frequent occasion, to no work at all. With education and only therewith comes improvement; without it there is none, and the plausible recourse is crime and violence. A case could be made, and perhaps should be made, that the best in education should be for those in the worst of social situations. They are the most in need of the means of social escape. Unfortunately, such has not been the case with education in Ghana. The purpose of education is still undefined to meet the practical needs of economic development. For this reason, those who formulate the educational policies for the country’s public school system, which churns out the most failures, do not themselves have their wards in the public school system.

A writer like John Kenneth Galbraith has even argued for the democratic dividends of education. In his estimation, “it creates a knowledgeable electorate intellectually abreast of issues and decisions that affect their lives. Or there must be surrender to the voices of ignorance and error. These, in turn, are destructive of the social and political structure itself. Traditionally, we think of democracy as a basic human right. So it is. But it is also the natural consequence of education and of economic development. That is because there is no other practical design for governing people who, because of their educational attainments, expect to be heard and cannot be kept in silent subjugation. So, to repeat: education makes democracy possible, and, along with economic development, it makes it necessary, even inevitable. And it has a further reward.”

All democracies live in fear of the influence of the ignorant. In the United States, from the experience with Huey Long, Gerald L.K. Smith, Father Coughlin, George Wallace, the more extreme of the religious fundamentalists and in recent times the militias, it is known that a certain percentage of the population is available to support virtually any form of political and social disaster. It is education and education almost alone that keeps this minority to a manageable number. So if we in Ghana think we can fill the airwaves with half-baked media gatekeepers and their illiterate “serial callers” and expect different results than what we are seeing today, we must truly being in a dreamland. We are just reaping the results of lack of respect for what works.

Returning to the very driving concept behind the reform, the reform tried to take away the emphasis on academic education and encourage vocational education from the very lower stages of the educational system. Prior to the reform, the educational system was purely geared towards a purely academic ends with vocational training relegated to the background with no serious policies in place for technical and vocational training, notwithstanding all its glaring benefits it offers the individual and the nation at large. This made people looked down on vocational training as a choice for the weak minds, the dumb, and so on. That thinking is still ingrained in the Ghanaian sub-consciousness. The point is that there was no motivation for students to consider vocational training, while it is exactly what is needed to make people productive in a system that is gloated with too many literati but lack people with the required skills in the performance of certain vocational related jobs. I saw it in New York. The city required more still benders than it required lawyers and MBAs.

Obviously, the success of the experimental JSS had not been promoted to the public well enough for Ghanaians to really appreciate its achievements. Therefore, those who do not really comprehend what the model had been only placed their judgments on the poor replica that emanated from the experiments. There is no doubt that the current JSS system is a pale shadow of what the original model was or was intended to be. Even a change of name from JSS to Junior High School (JHS) did not bring any structural changes to the content and method of delivery of lessons, apart from the name change. The actual implementation, as stated earlier, has not yielded the expected results, as the process was met with many bottlenecks. Looking at the structure of its programs, most of the subject areas needed tutors with requisite training to handle them. But what became apparent was that teachers were not prepared enough for the takeoff of the reform.

If Ghana has to make that quantum leapfrog in the educational front, then it is important to review the current educational system from the primary level to the tertiary institutions. This is a practical way of understanding what went wrong and how it could be fixed.

With oil resources about to generate some reliable cash flows, there is no doubt that this is the time to return to the full implementation of the JSS concepts, whereby government would make available to the education sector the necessary educational infrastructure and the supporting learning accoutrement for effective teaching and learning towards the implementation of the JSS concept. In fact, many Ghanaians would like to see a complete overhaul of the education system – from the foundation levels through to the tertiary institutions. This must be done without any political coloration and must be done with the national interest in mind and not which political party did what and how. It must also involve all the stakeholders for the purposes of effective planning and implementation.

Another major problem is the inconsistencies in government educational policies. The recent change of government in Ghana and the subsequent reversal of the educational policies of the previous government is a typical example of how inconsistencies in government educational policies can adversely affect education and educational outcomes. While I do not think that number of years spent in school will necessary make any differences in the education of young people, it has become a bone of contention between the two political parties in Ghana, to the extent that when the previous government increased the number of years spent at the senior high school (SHS) from three to four years, the new government reversed it to the three years when they took over the reign of government after the 2008 elections.

The bone of contention between the two political parties with regard to the one year difference– whether for four or three years – does not necessarily make any significant difference if the accompany syllabus, infrastructure, accoutrements for teaching and learning, and quality of teacher training remains the same. The point is that if the same syllabus is being taught for three or four years with outmoded teaching methods and low quality of delivery, students would still graduate without the necessary skills that should prepare them for the life ahead – preparedness for the job market, further studies, etc. Many Ghanaians felt that the debate between the two political parties would have been better focused if the essence of the debates were about quality of teacher training, about curricula, and was about how to connect the training of young people to industry. But as usual, our honorable men were more concerned about the number of years than the quality of the students we churn out. Similar to the debates that led to the changing of the name of the school system –from Junior Secondary School (JSS) to Junior High school (JHS) and from Senior Secondary School (SSS) to Senior High School (SHS) – I thought the debates were just too simplistic and offer nothing new to students and their parents. The contention between the two parties is that: for the NPP, the three years is simply not enough for the students to finish their programs and must be extended to four years; and for the NDC, the three years is simply enough, besides the facilities are simply not in place to keep students for another year, so they must move on. What an opportune moment to have gone beyond such a simplistic debate to examine what the mess the state has created with the time commitment of young people over the years?

If by making my little daughter spend a year longer in school would prepare her for the life ahead of her, I honestly would go for that. But if by an extra year she would still graduate with training that does not make any difference in her life by preparing her well enough for life’s challenges ahead, I think it would be preposterous to keep her in school for a year longer, anyway.

Obviously, the various educational curricula across the wide spectrum of elementary, high school, and tertiary education have not been very reflective of modern skill-based educational curricula. The results have been the churning out of hundreds of thousands of young graduates at all levels of the educational ladder whose educational experiences are irrelevant to the needs of industry and a burden to society. It is unfortunate to observe young people commit years of their formative lives to a process that does not lead them anywhere meaningful. Today, being an excellent student does not guarantee an excellent life, not even an average life.

Other problems include lack of motivation on the part of teachers as a result of low wages and lack of opportunities for career development and personal improvement. In some cases, wages for new entrants – teachers - are delayed unduly and so on. In 1994, as new entrant to the teaching field, I had to wait for seven months to receive my salary. Some of my colleagues who could not wait as a result of the hardships they encountered deserted. Close to two decades, newly trained teachers still grapple with the same problems in the face of new challenges. This is irrespective of advances in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) which could help facilitate these processes in a timely manner to reduce the waiting time for new entrants to the field of teaching. But in the face of all these obvious failures, government officials go about repackaging speeches indicating how ICT could propel national growth when they cannot lead the way in adopting these technologies to solve some of these glaring bottlenecks in the administration of salaries for the newly-trained.

This has led to a situation where most teachers regard the profession as a way station en route to a more attractive profession. This is irrespective of their inadequate training. While it is not a bad thing to veer from one profession to another - especially when it allows for upward social mobility - the situation tends to deprive the profession of the most talented, as they are the ones with the highest possibilities of leaving the field. The picture for most people is that the profession is for those who are not able to access other lucrative opportunities. The net effect is those who remain do not engage with the profession with the commitment it deserves. If teachers are the gatekeepers for what is allowed to influence the minds of our students, then it must be obvious that a teacher who is not motivated cannot motivate his or her students. In a jurisdiction such as Singapore, the top five percent of students from the high schools make it to the teacher training colleges. This is because the government places emphasis on education reflecting in the remuneration and motivation of teachers and so on. The effect is that education has been a major tool in the great transformations that have taken place in that country and other emerging economies.

Finding solutions to the aforementioned problems require a very diligent engagement of all stakeholders, using the bottom-up approach in conjunction with development models such as the private public partnership (PPP) which seems to have been producing results in many development projects. Again, my own experience with a USAID project in Ghana attests to this. Prior to our community interventions in identified locales, community members waited on the government to provide all educational inputs to schools in the project locales. Whatever happened in the schools was left between the students/pupils and their teacher once the latter was sent to school. Parents were not concerned about the schools. This situation left the schools in deplorable states. When the “Community School Alliance” program, sponsored by USAID, was deployed to mobilize the communities to take responsibility for their schools, it helped in mobilizing both material and human resources and above all commitment among local people toward their schools. These models can be applied nationwide to encourage rural communities to have interest in the education of their children and to put government on it toes to fulfill its side of the bargain. These would help alleviate the infrastructure and human resource shortfalls in most of the deprived schools.

At the policy level, there is the need for a national debate toward building consensus on the way forward for Ghana’s educational policy. This can be done through policy negotiation from the local to the national level similar to the national consultative assemblies and hearings which heralded the drawing of Ghana’s 1992 constitution. Though this would be an expensive undertaking, it would provide the country with a roadmap for educational delivery. The point is that irrespective of which government is in power, the core principles and policies that direct national education will be agreeable to both the policy-makers, implementers and society as a whole. This would help reduce the detrimental effects of inconsistencies in government policies that occur with the change of government.

The approach to building consensus on policy could be extended to issues concerning remuneration and motivation of teachers and even the needed reforms with regard to curricula to reflect current needs of industry. It must also be seen in the light of teacher advancement or human resource development. The consensus must give adequate room to contain inputs from teachers as they thought could help in the delivery of quality education.

All in all, engagement and consensus building are keys to the improvement of Ghana’s educational system. Though financial resources will also play a great role, they will not be very effective if the aforementioned elements are not pursued vigorously. It is insanity to continue to do things the same way again and again and expect different results.

Please print this article and share with any school teacher you know. Let’s open up space for these forms of discussion. I believe we can make a difference through this discussions!

The above-title is serialized into 30 articles covering issues of politics, corruption, education, immigration, the economy (Ghanaian economy), unemployment, land tenure, dearth of policy innovation, and stories from the frontlines – Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, ECOWAS and the AU. The series are syndicated and media houses/outlets interested in enriching the national debates in Ghana for the 2012 are free to publish all the series.

By: Prosper Yao Tsikata

Email: pytsikata@yahoo.com

Columnist: Tsikata, Prosper Yao