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Education in Ghana: fuelling the commitment to leave no one behind

Written by Catherine Blampied

How can motorbike fuel help tackle educational inequities? A few months ago – while conducting research for ODI’s forthcoming report on ‘Leaving No One Behind in Health and Education’, the latest in our series of ‘stock takes’ – colleagues and I found ourselves discussing this question with communities, teachers and local officials in two of Ghana’s poorest rural districts, Banda and Zabzugu.

Over the past two decades, Ghana has made admirable overall progress in improving school enrolment rates and narrowing the gender gap, especially in the lower levels of education. Successive governments have consistently prioritised education as an issue of national strategic importance. Nevertheless, our research highlighted large and persistent geographic disparities in access and attainment, as well as concerns among parents about the quality and safety of primary and pre-primary education.

The Northern region of Ghana, in particular, continues to lag far behind the rest of the country. Nearly a fifth of 13-15 year olds there have not received any formal education, compared to just 4% nationally, and only 16% of girls who took secondary school maths exams passed them in 2015. The Northern region is a large, rural territory, with a low population density, and inadequate roads and infrastructure. Consequently, it is challenging and expensive for the authorities to deliver services equivalent to those in other areas of the country. It also has widespread and severe poverty, and is socio-culturally distinct from the rest of the country.

Given these factors, recruiting and retaining trained teachers poses a major problem. Teacher absenteeism in deprived areas of the country is rife, and the practice of lobbying for better (urban and southern) postings is pervasive. Local officials from Zabzugu district in the Northern region told us they end up ‘begging’ teachers to stay on.

We know why they [teachers] do not want to come. The schools are far away. There is no accommodation there… in these places a man builds a house for himself and his family, there are no places to rent. So the teacher lives in the town and travels a very long time every day and it is expensive. Or they sleep on the floor of the classroom.

The skew of human resources towards urban and wealthier areas is a challenge common to many countries. But it is not an insurmountable one. As our forthcoming report shows, in Ghana several recent initiatives have been successful.

Strengthening accountability structures

One example is the partnership between Ghana’s Ministry of Education and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) via a $75.5 million grant programme implemented by the World Bank between 2012 and 2016. This funding supported the planning, monitoring and delivery of basic education in the 75 most deprived districts. It was allocated to district authorities and directly to schools.

A key activity was strengthening already existing accountability structures. For example, Ghana’s Education Service employs ‘circuit supervisors’, tasked with regularly visiting schools in their area to check whether staff are present and carrying out their responsibilities. Yet almost all of Ghana’s education budget is absorbed by salaries. Very little is left for other recurrent costs such as travel expenses. Our focus groups highlighted how, in Banda and Zabzugu, a lack of funds was reinforcing inequities between the urban and central communities and those in more remote, rural locations.

We have been given motorbikes for monitoring, but no money to buy fuel to enable us to monitor the schools… Because my circuit is closer to town, I am able to do regular and routine monitoring, but my colleagues who monitor schools in the hinterlands that are 60km away from the township are unable to.

By covering operating costs such as motorbike fuel, GPE funds supported increased monitoring by circuit supervisors. Training in the use of ‘School Report Cards’ was also funded. At the time of our fieldwork – one year after the funding had ended – local education staff made clear the difference it had made in enhancing performance and accountability.

Recruiting and training local people

Another key activity funded by the the GPE grant was recruiting and training people from the local communities as teachers. The GPE grant provided $15 million for Ghana’s ‘Untrained Teachers Diploma in Basic Education’ programme, a fast-track teacher training course combining distance and residential learning. A recent assessment of the programme’s 6,480 trainees found that they were more willing to stay in remote and rural areas than those on the traditional pre-service training programme, probably because a high proportion (72%) are from the communities in which they teach.

As a middle-income country with good overall primary enrolment rates, Ghana is technically no longer eligible for GPE assistance, and almost all other donors have withdrawn from its primary education sector. But the success of previous, donor-funded initiatives point to promising policy options for the government to now take forward. Understanding how remote areas of the country can narrow the gaps in teacher deployment and performance is vital to ensure that no child is left behind because they were denied a good quality education.