Restoring wider educational opportunity

“The necessity for institutional change is itself an expression of the need to preserve ideals” (The Mind of Africa, W E Abraham)

This week I complete a three-part mini-series on Ghanaian philosopher William Abraham, focussing on the background to an event last June to unveil a new picture of him. This now hangs in All Souls College dining room, between pictures of previous All Souls fellows  Sir Radharishnan (who became president of India) and William Blackstone (who became a noted English judge). The portrait honours William’s achievement, in 1959, in becoming the first African prize fellow of the College.

All Souls is sometimes seen as an out-of-date and elitist institution, hopelessly entangled with archaic practices. Famously, it holds fast to its once-a-century Mallard Hunt tradition, where after much eating and drinking, All Souls fellows lustily sing an ancient song, lifting their leader high on a sedan chair (akin to some Ghanaian chiefs perhaps?), as they follow the mallard (originally a live duck, more recently a wooden replica).

A less entertaining historical link is the origin of some of All Souls wealth, particularly that which came from the trade in enslaved Africans. Christopher Codrington was a major All Souls benefactor back in 1710. Much of his money came from his plantations in Barbados, using enslaved labour. Oxford activists have protested to highlight these issues including through a vivid tableau by Oluwafemi Nylander outside All Souls in 2016 (see photo).

The continuing need for action to address racism at Oxford and more generally in the UK is highlighted by the fact that in the nearly 60 years since William gained his prize fellowship at All Souls, there have been no further African prize fellows. There has been recent coverage in the UK media about unequal access in the UK education system, inspired particularly by statistics showing a relatively low proportion of black British students gaining places at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.  William believes there need to be major efforts to increase opportunity for all those from disadvantaged backgrounds at leading educational institutions. During our visit to Oxford, we were encouraged to hear of pilot schemes along these lines. One scheme gives additional places to students from disadvantaged background who come just below the borderline of gaining admission in the standard entrance process. This is complemented by offering the additional students intensive courses to ensure they are well equipped to compete on a fully equal basis once they start their University studies.

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All this reminded me of my shock, when attending various events last year at the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, to hear from distinguished Ghanaian academics I spoke to, that having come from modest rural backgrounds 60 years or more ago, they would stand no chance of achieving such academic success today, coming from the same backgrounds, under Ghana’s current education system.

How do these personal stories of the death of educational opportunity in the years since Ghana’s independence relate to official education performance statistics which show marked improvements in literacy and other educational achievement indicators in Ghana, at least over the last two decades?  I think the explanation has two elements. Firstly, general access to basic education has indeed been widening, but many schools’ performance in bringing the best out of their children (including the most talented) has nonetheless declined. Secondly, the introduction of the JSS structure by delaying the transition to senior secondary school till the age of 13 or later has effectively removed opportunities for the brightest children from basis schools to transition on scholarships to secondary schools at an age (around 11) when they could  readily catch up with children there from wealthier backgrounds.

Whilst “Free SHS” clearly has merit if implemented well, and could help continue a trend of wider basic achievement, it will do nothing to tackle the critical shortfall of high-quality teaching and excellence in our schools. Tackling these key issues requires sustained effort to raise the status of teachers and to improve their training, monitoring and leadership. We all need to push for a greater focus on creativity and excellence rather than rote repetition (“chew and pour”) in our schools. We need to allocate greater resources, both financial and managerial, to education, and particularly to improving teaching.  This is a challenge not just to politicians, but also wider society and particularly parents.  Our globalised world is now changing far too fast for anything less to suffice.

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We can learn from Ghana’s own past good practice, such as benefitted William and the Academy’s professors, where deliberate efforts were made to give children from modest backgrounds access to top secondary schools at the age of 11 or so, based on their academic potential.  Enabling Ghanas children from modest backgrounds to access academic opportunity, as well as being the fair thing to do, will bring Ghana substantial long-term development benefit by tapping our talent stores in full.

More information about William Abraham can be found at www.themindofafrica.com

The author, Henry Abraham, can be contacted at hjabraham@gmail.com

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