Ryan Duncan

Understanding learning disparities in Ghana’s basic school system: implications for achieving learning equity

By Rodney Buadi Nkrumah, 2023 GEM Report Fellow, PhD candidate at McGill University

The deadline for the Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring access to quality basic education and learning skills for all children (by 2030) is barely 7 years away. Yet, the Spotlight report series on foundational learning in Africa, a partnership between the GEM Report, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa and the African Union, shows learning levels in many African countries remain low: only 16% of primary school-leavers achieve minimum literacy skills compared to 61% globally.

Beyond low learning levels, inequality further characterizes many African countries. In Ghana, studies show that there is a major regional dimension in access to and quality of educational opportunities. The South has a large advantage over the North, making regional inequality an important part of the conversation in Ghana’s attempts to achieve its SDG learning goals.

In my fellowship paper for the GEM Report, I relied on UNICEF’s foundational learning assessment (MICS 6) dataset as well as on field interviews and focus groups from rural northern Ghana to understand regional dimensions associated with learning inequality in Ghana’s basic school system. Using literacy skills to represent learning, I was interested in answering two questions. First, what are the current levels of learning in the four main regions of the country? Second, what forms and determines learning inequality to guide effective policy response to learning challenges in Ghana.

Literacy skills vary in Ghana’s four main regions

My study demonstrates low levels of literacy skills in Ghana’s basic school system. In 2017/18, only 6% of lower primary, 29% of upper primary and 59% of Junior High School (JHS) children achieved the literacy level expected at grade 2 level according to the MICS, which is even lower than the globally agreed minimum proficiency level. The levels recorded in Ghana are lower than those recorded in countries like Sierra Leone. The findings further show that literacy skills vary by the region children attend school. For instance, 25% of lower primary and 79% of JHS students achieved the expected literacy skills at grade 2 level in Greater Accra compared to just 1% and 39%, respectively in the Northern region.

Percentage of Ghanaian students achieving the MICS minimum proficiency level in reading, by education level

Source: Author’s calculation from MICS 6 data

Micro-level experiences are central in forming inequality

There seems to be little agreement on how to address the root causes of inequality. This makes it harder to address the learning challenges, which is needed to spearhead Ghana to achieving its education goals related to SDG 4.1. The interviews and focus groups discussions undertaken revealed that the problems faced by children in disadvantaged areas that shape learning outcomes are usually absent from key conversations on education access and learning in policy circles. These problems are mostly micro-level experiences related to language differences in the classroom, gender roles in children’s work, and tensions between school and farmwork. For instance, tensions between the formal school calendar and livelihood patterns based on subsistence farming and seasonal rainfall often forces many children, and boys particularly, to abstain from school during peak farming seasons.

…It’s a farming community, so if it rains and your father has to work on the farms or complete his yam mounds, the child has to automatically go and help the father, no matter what. If a child is grown and can support, he has to go and support. That takes children away from school for a week, two weeks, or three weeks. … [School Principal].

Micro-level experiences in children’s environment matter in addressing and monitoring learning inequality

Further analysis shows that though these experiences seem to matter in understanding how learning inequalities are formed in rural northern communities, few of these experiences are available in household-survey datasets like MICS that measure learning and inform policy decisions on achieving learning equity. This shows in the tensions between schooling and farming activities and children who need to engage in economic work to afford basic schooling and learning materials like textbooks.

The majority of the problems children face can be traced to local experiences that disrupt their learning process. This has implications for policy decisions that target learning equity, but also on ways to improve monitoring of SDG 4.1.1. First, designing policies to improve school access and learning needs to address and mitigate the micro-level experiences children face in their local environment that negatively impact such learning. Second, being guided by the micro-level experiences also calls for such experiences to be made visible in household survey datasets, to effectively monitor equity issues surrounding children’s learning.

A comprehensive report on the status of foundational learning in Ghana was produced in collaboration with the Ministry of Education as one of five country reports which made up the inaugural Spotlight Series launched in 2022. The second Spotlight Series was launched this month at the AFTRA Conference in Zambia, one of the 2024 Spotlight focus countries alongside Mauritania, Niger, South Africa and Uganda.



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