How Ghana Can Avoid a False Start in the Race to Excellence in Public Education

by Ernest Armah

road to excellence-2

We should spend less time ranking children and more time helping them to identify their natural competencies and gifts and cultivate these. There are hundreds and hundreds of ways to succeed and many, many different abilities that will help you get there
– Howard Gardner, Psychologist

The road to better quality and transformative public education is paved with lots of contradictory prose and as a result, weak convergence on the way forward. Often those at the decision making table are quick to count the cost when it comes to taking real action (mostly because they were appointed to manage a system they don’t use); a posture which gives our Academicians an opportunity to delight themselves in flowery, technical vocabularies in their ivory towers of abstraction (pun intended). We had a reenactment of this annual ‘concert’ when news of the 2016 West Africa Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) results broke.

As usual, our students passed with colors that did not fly. Out of the 274,262 students who took part in the exams, 45% did not do well in English, 50% did not do well in Science and 66% did not do well in Mathematics. This blew the whistle for Morning Show Hosts of media houses, Public Relation Officers of Education agencies, cynical politicians and Academicians to assemble and have their annual loquacious feast, which marks the unpacking of cliché remarks, accusations and defensiveness.

Using the WASSCE results as rudimentary basis by contrasting failure rates to pass rates, they repeated ‘the biggest mistake of past centuries’, which is, ‘to treat all students as if they were variants of the same individual’. It became farfetched to imagine, let alone understand the unique circumstances of each WASSCE candidate.

Our system is biased toward exam performance. No doubt. Instead of being one of the proxies for intelligence, academic exams has become ‘the’ proxy.

Not every student will be academically astute and the thought that failure to pass WASSCE (or any ‘paper’ exam in general) will affect the potential and future of the not-so academically brilliant student is nowhere near an intelligent guess. Our over-emphasis on ‘paper’ education is just as disturbing as the churn-out of graduates without employable skills.

What is equally disturbing is our inability to put a firm grip on the dropout rates in our public schools. The much promised free Senior High School (SHS) program, if well implemented, will be of great relief to indigents especially. It will only be ineffective if many people become disinterested and distrustful of public education.
Though the retention rate (the indication of flow through basic education) at primary school stood at 82 percent as at 2014, the figure dropped to 78 percent at Junior High School. The rate further drops at subsequent levels of education. In the absence of reliable data owing to data management and access challenges in Ghana, it is not out of place to intuit that the dropout rate could be higher than projected.

An understanding of the circumstance and psychology of drop-outs is necessary.

The parents and guardians of these dropouts do not have the financial means to further the education of their wards. They are paralyzed by poverty. Hence some of these young dropouts by virtue of economic disadvantage eventually resort to illicit means and social vices to cope and feed themselves. This improvisation eventually become costly to society and even themselves in the long run. It is instructive to note that these people have needs which require immediate satisfaction. Some are teenage parents. Some are first-borns who have to take care of younger siblings and to some extent, their families. Thus, the usual, traditional form of education, the read and write mode of instruction, which takes a while to complete will not work. These people want food on the table. They want to take care of their siblings and family. The last thing they want is an exams re-sit; another nightmare.

Fortunately, some have honed their entrepreneurial edges into business enterprises. They however go about their businesses just to survive and thus, their businesses miss out on opportunities to grow and expand due to deficits in soft skills and better business management strategies. A study conducted in 2014 cited inadequate managerial knowledge and skills as one of the numerous challenges confronting small and medium scale enterprises in Ghana.

At the moment, perhaps it will not be practically feasible to attempt to balance investments across the various sectors of education. What is urgent however, is the need to support ongoing government efforts and leverage impact through a capacity building programme for these entrepreneurial drop-outs. In 2012, the government of Ghana trained 5,000 Junior High School graduates in Technical and Vocational areas (garment, cosmetology, electronics and auto-mechanics). In 2013, the number of beneficiaries increased to 8,000.

The talk about technical and vocational education gains momentum only when the issue of skills deficit of University graduates comes to the fore. It is a secondary topic, which clearly tells where our priority as a country lies. This has to change.