Teachers on the frontline of COVID-19 learning loss: why independent low-fee private schools need support now more than ever
As Ghana’s independent low-fee private schools settle into the third term of the year and exams loom on the horizon, proprietors and teachers have the unprecedented task of trying to combat the challenges of learning loss, financial instability, and lack of staff. Following 10 months of school closures last year and the passionate efforts of school proprietors to safely open their doors, the focus is on bridging the learning gap. While these schools are battling to keep their classrooms open, as well as support their pupils in catching up by extending hours and term times, their resilience is self-determined with limited external support. Without formal state intervention any future pandemic waves could close their doors for good resulting in a spike of out-of-school children across Ghana.
Earlier in the year IDP Foundation commissioned Associates for Change (AfC) to assess the impact of COVID-19 on independent low-fee private schools in Ghana, who have been educating a significant portion of the school-attending population for many years. Data from Ghana’s 2019/2020 Education’s Basic National Profile highlighted that 37% of pupils in the country attend a non-state school. According to AfC’s findings, prior to the reopening of schools in January approximately 65% of independent low-fee private schools felt that they were at risk of closing, while around 15% had closed or were in the process of closing. At this point IDP Foundation was compelled to double down and support these schools with needs-based emergency relief funds in an attempt to halt any increase in Ghana’s out-of-school population. The good news is that despite over half of school proprietors battling with low cash flow, due to a lack of revenue during the 10 months of closure , more than 90% have been able to reopen. We believe their resilience is a product of proprietors maintaining a strong rapport with their community of parents, alongside access to some savings, alternative income or supporting finance (such as provided by IDP Foundation's grants) to help with teacher salary payments on reopening. While enrollment was lower than pre-pandemic for half of the schools when they first reopened, 6 months later the majority of schools are bouncing back. However, these are not necessarily with the same students, as migration from private to public, or alternative lower-fee private schools, alongside relocation has impacted the return rate of students.
Over time enrollment numbers have steadily increased, with around a quarter of schools experiencing a full return to 100% enrollment, and 60% having at least 80% enrollment, which shows that demand for low-fee private schools remains prevalent. With almost half of low-income families who send their children to a low-fee private school spending around a third of their household income on education, the decision to enroll in a one of these schools is motivated by a belief in the power of a good education. However, meeting that demand has been a challenge for proprietors as the closures resulted in high levels of teacher attrition, particularly in rural areas, where retaining teachers through some form of financial or non-financial support was increasingly difficult. During the closures more than half of teachers from independent low-fee private schools were forced to look for other work because the schools had no cash reserves to pay their salaries during closures.
Mr Amoah, the head teacher at New Hope of Glory Academy in Accra, believes the government should support low-fee private schools, “by paying our teachers, if not full payment, then half payment,” especially considering the need for extended hours to catch up on learning loss. The need for more financial support of low-fee private school teachers will in part improve staff retention levels. These schools often act as a pipeline for graduates in low-income communities to tip their toes into the teaching pool, and gain some experience and training before getting qualified as a public-school teacher. While this holistic pathway is contributing to fulfilling the teacher shortage in Ghana, it does mean low-fee private schools can be plagued with high turnover, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. With a renewed focus on quality teaching as the primary route out of the current learning crisis, supporting all teachers, whether public or non-state, alongside low or no connectivity education technology solutions must be a priority.
Access to remote learning during the school closures was a struggle for most students from low-income communities, particularly in rural areas. According to a sample survey of headteachers throughout our network of 700 schools, they estimated that only 5% of their pupils were able to access the government’s online learning website, while 11% could access the radio channel and 18% the TV channel. They also noted that when these students could access remote learning the absence of parental supervision and distractions of friends meant they didn’t fully participate. The schools themselves were not prepared for remote learning and therefore were unable to offer any teaching support during the closures, which puts pressure on teachers now to find alternative ways to catch up. Since reopening the schools have attempted to mitigate the learning losses with catch-up classes, teacher in-service training, additional hours, and extra homework, alongside proprietors’ attempts to increase their engagement with parents to encourage at-home support for the pupils. However, while the learning loss is not only significant there has also been learning degeneration and diminished motivation from students, meaning bridging the learning gap will be a significant challenge. This is particularly crucial for Junior High School form 3 students who will be sitting their Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) in November and are attempting to cover the syllabus in time. The most pressing question for these students is how does the curriculum, or testing structure, need to adapt to ensure that learning outcomes are not further compromised? And the answer must pay attention to the support of all teachers so a universal revised approach for accelerated learning can be delivered.
“Though the government has extended the time to November, I’m still afraid whether we will be able to finish the syllabus before the BECE,” Mr Amoah said. “The attitude of the children after school reopened was hectic… the children have forgotten everything that we taught them.” However, while bridging the teaching gap is going to be a significant challenge, with poor learning outcomes likely to increase, the students we spoke to at New Hope of Glory Academy still hold on to their hopes and beliefs in education. David, a form 3 student, is determined to get his learning back on track, “I feel I can catch up with what I missed during school closure, but I know it will be very difficult.” His fellow classmate, Juliet, agreed, “I want to continue my education to university…and become a journalist.” And the most crucial requirement for them to be able to achieve this will be proactive and determined teaching.
Learning loss from the COVID-19 school closures threatens the economic growth and general well-bring of a generation of children and is likely to create continued strain on intergenerational poverty for years to come. Any response to this growing education crisis will require a renewed commitment to education provision in the developing world, involving contribution from all stakeholders, both government and non-state. Mr Bonney, the proprietor of New Hope of Glory Academy, advocates for public and private education working together, “Government should consider the number of enrollments in public schools, whereby a class contains more than 100 pupils with one teacher, while a private school can do better.” What we need now more than ever is to bring all players together, with the same goal in mind – creating an inclusive education ecosystem that supports all teachers, whether in state or non-state schools, and equips them with adapted learning approaches and accessible educational technology. If we don’t, this generation of children will feel the impact of COVID-19 for the rest of their lives.