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In Ghana, primary education is free, and in recent years, more students have been enrolled.
Fees were abolished in public schools seven years ago when the government introduced yearly grants of about $2.50 for each pupil.
The funding covers the cost of learning materials, sanitation and sports equipment, and minor school repairs.
Kofi Asare is the executive director of the NGO Action for Rural Education and a former national program officer for the Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition.
He says the government has also introduced other forms of support for school children.
“They include the free school feeding program where each child is entitled to a square meal a day in school," he expalined. "It is currently on-going and involves about one million children out of the 7.5 million children in basic [including primary] schools. Though it covers barely 10 percent of the population of pupils, it has made significant impact in rural areas where issues of nutrition affect school enrolment and retention.”
Success brings new challenges
Despite these successes, there are also drawbacks.
Asare says school administrators complain of staff shortages.
“There is a deficit of 20,000 teachers," said Asare, "which has caused some 15,000 classrooms to be empty. In some cases, you have to merge classes one to three for one teacher to handle.”
Asare says it’s also difficult to recruit – and retain – instructors.
Part of the problem, he says, may be due to low pay: The average primary school teacher earns about 300 dollars per month. As a result, Asare says many teachers who go on paid study leave refuse to return to the classrooms. And, he says only about half of the nearly 4,000 teachers who receive advanced training each year return to work.
Many teachers prefer to stay in urban areas, depriving children in rural areas of the right to an education. In comparison, he says that three years ago, it was reported that over 550 teachers in and around the capital Accra were underemployed due to the excess number of instructors.
He also says the growing number of students has led to the hiring of many teachers who are not qualified. Currently, 38 percent of primary school teachers have not been trained.
Asare says these challenges have had a negative impact on the performance of pupils in basic schools, which include nursery school, kindergarten and primary school.
“Standards have been compromised hugely in the past 10 to 15 years," he asserts. "Available data from the National Educational Assessment suggests that less than 40 per cent of pupils in basic schools are proficient in English and math, and that is a worrying scenario.”
As a result, Asare said, many pupils fail to qualify for senior high school.
Improved training, accountability
Asare says action is being taken.
In 2006, the government and foreign donors including Great Britain’s Department for International Development introduced the Untrained Teacher Training Diploma in Basic Education program, a four-year effort to help 25,000 teachers obtain diplomas in basic education. Funding shortages have delayed the start of the second phase.
Asare says the problem could be eased by cancelling paid leave for teachers, which costs nearly $9 million per year.He also recommends an increased allowance for rural teachers and improved supervision of teaching and learning in primary schools.
Ghana spends over 10 percent of its gross domestic product and 31 percent of its budget on education. Asare says school administrators must protect that investment by eliminating waste and mismanagement.