Introduction 

The COVID-19 pandemic may not be the first major event to disrupt individual countries’ education systems, however, the significant impact it has had is a stark reminder that countries cannot continue to pursue narrow education policies and programs that ignore the complexities of provision from state and non-state players. Hence, any national response to the pandemic, as well as any attention paid to other pre-existing challenges in the education sector, must focus on building resilience in all settings to ensure that no child is left behind.

In Ghana, the period before the pandemic was characterized by a significant improvement in basic education enrolment, however, quality of learning remained low and highly unequal. A response to the demand for quality education has led to the rapid growth of private schools, particularly in communities underserved by public provision. However, the existence of these schools, more specifically low-fee private schools, has led to lively debates over which sector, public or private, delivers better learning outcomes while promoting the welfare of the child. In light of overarching systemic challenges, this brief will put such debates aside and focus on making a case for a holistic view of the education landscape. This means taking actions that address the barriers preventing schools (both public and private) from achieving their core mandate of providing quality education to children. 

This brief has drawn evidence from existing literature and major research commissioned by IDP Foundation across three critical periods: before the COVID-19 pandemic, during COVID-19 forced schools’ closures and after schools were able to reopen. The pre-COVID study sought to explore the ‘Challenges Faced by Pupils and Teachers at Government and Private Schools’.  The second was a ‘COVID-19 Impact Assessment of Low-Fee Private Schools within the IDP Rising School Program (Pre-Reopening Report)’ and the final was a ‘Post COVID-19 Impact Assessment of Low-Fee Private Schools within the IDP Rising School Program (Post-Reopening Report)’. The following three key areas highlight the emerging needs that government and other education actors should focus on, in the medium to long term, as efforts are being made towards achieving a robust education system.

1.     There needs to be a mindset shift around including low fee private schools in government interventions.  

In Ghana, the implementation of learning interventions in schools has assumed that private schools are better resourced to address their needs and perform better than public schools, resulting in them often not being prioritized for interventions. This assumption has been based on general BECE performance and superior classroom infrastructure of a few elite/Grade A private schools without taking into consideration the numerous low-fee private schools, as well as key issues surrounding literacy and numeracy competence. In fact, in comparing the performance of private and public schools, the broader picture could be missed. For instance, for the more than 35,000 children that were assessed in July 2018 for the National Education Assessment (NEA), the performance of P4 and P6 pupils (both public and private) was generally low, with only 19-25 percent of pupils (across grades and subject areas) meeting the NEA criterion for proficiency (set at a low bar of 55 percent). 

Source: IDP Foundation (2018): Learning in Ghana: Exploring the Challenges Faced by Pupils and Teachers at Government and Private Schools in Central Region
Source: IDP Foundation (2018): Learning in Ghana: Exploring the Challenges Faced by Pupils and Teachers at Government and Private Schools in Central Region

While results for private schools were marginally better than public schools, the general performance across both has been low and therefore requires targeted interventions at all levels in both settings. In addition, when looking at low-fee private schools where the test scores were slightly better, a pupil from the poorest quintile could expect to achieve an English score that is 5.24% lower than a peer from the richest quintile, when other factors are equal. This reinforces the need for the government to implement policies that do not deepen existing inequalities but rather support all children within all educational settings to achieve at least the minimum nationally-set learning outcomes.

The Ministry, as part of efforts to address learning outcome challenges, announced plans to conduct a National Standardized Test for P2, P4 and P6 pupils to guide interventions in the following year. Though this approach may seem a step in the right direction, the unavailability of public documentation casts doubts on the inclusion of private schools in these plans. While the pilot already excluded the private schools with reasons largely unknown, it is essential for the Ministry to include all schools within the education sector in the assessment to obtain a holistic picture of where the key barriers to learning outcomes lie for all children and use this inclusive information to drive public-private partnerships with stakeholders who can provide solutions that will improve the efficacy of the overall education landscape and not just holistically a section of it. 

2.   Safe school infrastructure and access to teaching and learning materials should be a concern for all stakeholders

The quality of school infrastructure and the availability of teaching and learning materials can affect learning and educational outcomes. The need to ensure that all children learn in safe classrooms with adequate materials is more critical than ever given the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on teaching and learning, parental income and low-fee private schools’ resilience. The World Bank has predicted that the effect of the pandemic on household income has the probability of reducing parents’ capacity to support education, which could lead to lower education spending and reduced school participation. In Ghana, a study conducted in 2018 and funded by IDP Foundation shows that in general, public schools tend to have better infrastructure than majority of existing private schools, however, several challenges remain. For example, only 5.3% of public schools have a functional boundary wall which may result in trespassers or distractions during class hours. The low number of schools with computers in both private and public schools is also concerning. In the digital age, where ICT has taken a central role in teaching and learning, a conscious effort in addressing these infrastructure needs is crucial.  In addition, data from this research indicates that sharing of textbooks remains a problem in both public and private schools despite the existing policy mandating the government to supply all schools (both public and private) with adequate quantities of textbooks.

It may be easier for the government to make budgetary allocations or bid donors for loans to improve public school infrastructure than for non-state schools. There could be an argument that revenue from fees collected should be used to address infrastructure challenge, and this is often the case, however with fees being set so low, to remain accessible for low-income families, prioritizing infrastructure needs remains a struggle. Without a change of approach in how these challenges are addressed, the contribution made by non-state schools to education access may decline leading to state schools becoming overwhelmed, or worse, an increase in out of school children. To avoid this may require effective policies that encourage financial institutions to lend to low-fee private schools at a lower market rate. Also, a more favorable tax regime for private education investment could have a positive impact. The implementation of existing policies, such as free textbook, to cover both public and private schools could help free some funds for low-fee private schools to improve their infrastructure. And for stakeholders, designing programs that address infrastructure needs and access to teaching and learning materials should benefit the non-state sector as well as public education. 

3.     Ensuring Teacher motivation and presence in classrooms

Teacher motivation is a contributing factor to effective teaching and learning. According to the pre-COVID study conducted by IDP Foundation, more low-fee private school teachers (42%) felt motivated than those in the public schools (18%).  The evidence from the study suggested that the personalities of the pupils topped the list of factors that influenced a teacher’s motivation in both public and private schools. The two other key factors were pupil learning progress and colleagues. This may be contrary to the general perception that teachers in public schools are more motivated because they are better paid and have job security, among other benefits.

If the overall goal of the education sector is to strive for the best possible learning outcomes, then analyzing what private schools are doing differently to achieve higher teacher motivation with fewer resources could be explored.  However, with the pandemic having a devastating impact on education, these ‘motivated teachers may have either resigned or felt less motivated or secure. The pandemic highlighted the lack of security felt by private school teachers as, unlike their public-school counterparts, most were not paid during the 10 months of school closures. The COVID-19 Impact Assessment reported teacher demotivation as one of the key challenges proprietors were confronted with pre-opening of schools. Approximately 53% of proprietors said their teachers were leaving the school and resorting to other income generating activities. Around 26% of proprietors attributed this to an inability to pay teachers during the school closures. 

Alongside this, some school children moved from private schools to public ones, due to the pandemic-induced financial hardships of parents, while others may have stopped schooling altogether[1]. The assessment found that at least 53% of parents were struggling financially because their salaries had not been paid for months, their businesses had declined, they had lost customers, and many had lost their main source of income and become unemployed. This affected their ability to pay fees with the majority (69.2%) of the parents sampled indicating they were unable to pay tuition fees. The impact of this resulted in a significant reduction in enrolment in some private schools[2] while most public schools struggled to accommodate the influx of new students. This points towards the need for programs and assistance that enable proprietors to keep enrollment up and pay teacher salaries.

 

Conclusion and Recommendations

As governments rethink ways to improve education systems in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, several studies[3] have highlighted the need for more government and donor support to public schools over private schools because the former serves a greater proportion of low-income earners. But the reality is that the pandemic affected all children including about one million[4] kids educated in low-fee private schools. Sadly, proprietors of these schools had limited to no cash reserves to pay teachers, adopt virtual classes, or maintain school infrastructure during the closures[5]. This has resulted in a loss of experienced teachers, a burgeoning learning gap and the permanent closure of the most vulnerable schools. As a form of emergency support, the IDP Foundation supported vulnerable schools within the Rising Schools Program through grants and interest forgiveness to open and remain reopen but their sustainability should extend beyond philanthropic actions[6].  To prevent a ripple effect that could seriously impact any education gains made over the last decade, government budgetary allocations and programs need to be geared towards supporting children in all school settings. While there are obvious challenges for the government to support every aspect of private school operations, targeted support could be adopted. For example, government have supported private schools with training of teachers in new curriculum implementation and provision of other technical support when these schools were regulated by the Ghana Education Service. Therefore, based on such past commendable effort, it will be good for government to provide more targeted support which could come in the form of dedicated funding to improve classroom ventilation, furniture, handwashing supplies and posting of trained teachers to schools severally affected by teacher attrition during the pandemic. 

Also, as the government has started pursuing blended teaching and learning (digital and face-to-face), expansion of ICT infrastructure is key to ensure that no child is left behind. Procurement of digital resources and implementation of programs should benefit all children and therefore all schools. With current data suggesting that the non-state education sector accounts for about 33% of total enrollment (Creche to JHS)[7] It would seem any initiatives that don’t include these schools could negatively impact a third of the school-age population.

Timing of any next steps is crucial, particularly as lessons learnt from the pandemic continue to generate broader support from stakeholders for the implementation of policies to improve education outcomes. Government may wish to prioritize leveraging this support to enhance capacity to improve the overall education landscape and ensure that no child is left behind. 


Sources

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