Over the last decade, Ghana has made good progress getting girls into school. By 2019, nearly 100% of primary school-aged girls were enrolled in school, with 92% in lower secondary and 72% in upper secondary. Gender parity in enrollment had been achieved. Significant progress was also made in higher education, where 16% of females were enrolled in 2019 compared to 9% in 2011. Although female enrolment in higher education still lags behind male enrolment, the gap is narrowing.
These are very significant achievements. Education helps people live their lives with dignity by giving them the capabilities to function in straightforward ways like being healthy, having a good job, and being safe; as well as in more complex ways like being happy, having self-respect and being calm. Education helps societies become more peaceful, prosperous and sustainable.
This is not just theory. Ghana has changed a lot during the last 20 years. Along with rising levels of girls’ education, it has achieved significant declines in extreme poverty (from 30% in 2000 to 13%), child mortality (96 per 1,000 births to 46), and malnutrition (19% to 13%). Fertility has declined from 4.75 babies per woman to 3.83, raising the prospect that with continued progress a demographic dividend might be in sight.
Girls and women going through school today are Ghana’s future. It’s important that they succeed. Their education will have a particularly strong effect on enhancing productivity and improving other development outcomes; including prospects for the next generation and for the quality of societal policies and institutions. The World Bank estimates massive costs for not educating girls, at least through the secondary level. Gender equality – in school, at home, in the workplace and other domains of public policy – is simply smart economics.
What will it take to continue this progress and realise a brighter future?
- Give more attention to the most marginalised children – Particularly girls whose progress in school is complicated by poverty, disability or rurality. Many girls who remain out of school suffer more than one disadvantage. It’s important for school systems to work with other government and NGO programmes to take poverty out of the equation for every family’s decision about who to send to school; for example through scholarships or safety net programmes; to make schools inclusive, following the guidance of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and to ensure public financing and support for education meets the special needs of the most disadvantaged areas of the country.
- Universalise secondary school – For many years, policy has focused on primary schooling; but to go out and work productively, you need to have a secondary school education as well. A recent report by the Wittgenstein Centre demonstrates that higher levels of universal education can lead to wealthier, healthier and more civically-engaged populations who are more resilient to climate change. These same concepts are embedded in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and in Ghana’s Education Sector Medium-Term Development Plan.
Ghana’s Free Senior High School policy is a major step forward. But there is a long way to go to achieve universal secondary education. It is important that many sources of disadvantage referred to by the education plan are addressed – from early childhood through secondary schooling. These include significant hurdles for children from lower income families or poorer regions; children with disabilities; children attending less well-performing schools; and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
- Support smooth transitions – Through levels of schooling, adolescence and into work and social life as an adult. The passage from childhood to adulthood is a period of momentous social, psychological, economic and biological transitions. It’s tough for children to navigate it all on their own, particularly if they start from a position of disadvantage. Programmes like CAMFED’s Learner Guide provide valuable support to girls at the right time and place.
Young women volunteer with their local secondary schools to identify girls at risk of dropping out, mentor girls, and teach them important life skills. A key factor in the success of this programme is the fact that these women grew up in similar communities and have experienced what it takes for a marginalised girl to attend school and succeed. Having a relatable and successful role-model who has been ‘in her shoes’ is a crucial factor in fostering a successful mentor-mentee relationship.
- Improve the quality of education – At all levels. UNESCO data show a very low proportion of students in the early grades and at the end of lower secondary schooling who achieve minimum proficiency in mathematics and reading. The Education Plan cites concern for poor outcomes in the WASSCE, EGRA and National Education Assessments. Improving the quality of education will help young people in Ghana realise their dreams, as well as the country to realise its development goals. This means constant attention to building a qualified and motivated teaching force, and to optimising the conditions for learning. A multilingual country like Ghana has a special challenge to effectively engage students in their home language, as well as the language that will be used for instruction in the later grades.
- Create educational opportunities for older girls and women – Who may have missed parts of their education earlier on. Education does not only happen during schooling years – it’s a lifelong need. In rapidly developing countries like Ghana, it’s particularly important for people who may have had limited opportunities for learning earlier in life (the majority of whom are girls) to return to education or training. Creating lifelong learning opportunities – to catch up on basic skills, acquire a new skill, or pursue higher levels of education – would help build a more inclusive society.
Today, Ghana is reaping the benefits of its past focus on education. Imagine what the future would be like if we could now ensure inclusive, equitable, quality education and lifelong learning for all. That’s SDG 4. That’s the best bet for a sustainable future. And a special focus on girls’ and women’s education will help us get there.
The writer is Director of Partnerships, Yidan Prize Foundation