British schools can make a difference in the struggle to provide universal primary education in some of the world's poorest areas. Bob Doe reports.
RUNNING a school is a tough job anywhere. But imagine this: the government is committed to free education for all in this country and has guaranteed that every child in your locality can come to your school.
The problem is, as a result, even with classes of 50 you have to run two shifts a day to cram them all in to the available classrooms, several of which lost their roofs in a tropical storm five years ago. The local authority simply does not have the millions of pounds needed to repair your school and the hundreds of others that were wrecked.
Staffing is your other nightmare. Your school is in a remote rural area where few want to work. Teaching is not well paid anywhere but urban schools provide the chance to supplement the basic salary by teaching holiday classes. Subsistence farmers cannot afford such extras, and anyway children are needed on the farm or at home.
The school has no accommodation so even those drafted in to teach under government national service requirements may not turn up if they cannot face the five-mile walk. One of the most important ingredients in school improvement here is a bicycle.
Those who do turn up may not be trained or motivated to teach; alcoholism among staff can be a real problem.
There is no water or electricity at the school; there are no toilets and few books or resources. It hasn't been painted since it was built and few classrooms have desks or chairs.
Annual funding for each child is the equivalent of a few pence. Education is "free" but parents are supposed to provide exercise books for nine subjects.
In this arid, sub-Saharan region, however, even in a good year, nothing grows during the three-month dry "lean-period". So parents may face a choice between exercise books or feeding the family.
There is more. But this shows the scale of the task facing those trying to run primary schools in Ghana's Upper East Region.
There are positive aspects: the tremendous public enthusiasm for education and the strong tradition of communal support.
And now UK schools have the chance to help Ghana through an ambitious school improvement project funded by the lottery and by funds they have raised themselves.
The project, based in the regional capital of Bolgatanga, aims to promote the kind of rural school development Ghana needs if it is to meet its objectives of free, high-quality basic education for all.
It also offers hundreds of schools here in the UK an unusual opportunity to become involved in that development by twinning with and supporting a Ghanaian school.
British children can learn about life in sub-Saharan Africa and make new friends there. The scheme provides excellent materiual for the new global citizenship schools are now expected to teach. Staff and pupils alike may come to realise their own privileges while being inspired by the ability of communities such as these in and around Bolgatanga to make progress against apparently impossible odds.
Link Africa, a Cambridge-based development organisation, pioneered twinning by linking schools in the UK and South Africa. As a result, it has now been asked to work with Ghana's education service and has just received funding to extend the scheme next year to Uganda.
Clive Bush, principal of Linton village college in Cambridgeshire, has just returned from a visit to his school's twin in the Shoshanguve township of South Africa. For a small sum of money, he said, twinning had brought development and race issues to life in his school
assemblies and in personal and social education lessons, as well as inspiring projects in English, drama, music, art and
Linton's link was initiated by its principal. But now it had taken on an energy of its own and led to personal friendships among teachers and pupils and visits between both schools.
The twin, Boepathutse junior secondary, has been transformed by Linton's support which, among other things, has just enabled a classroom to be converted in to a science laboratory.
Pat Kubedi, Boephathutse's former principal, also cherished the relationship:
"We can learn a lot from Linton's experiences in self-management.
"The twinning programme is re-igniting the love of learning and the desire to teach. From the bottom of my heart I thank the community of Linton village college for extending their hand of friendship."
Link Africa is now searching for 120 UK primaries to extend this hand thoughout Ghana. Ghana promised free elementary education to all in 1987 and has made progress. Numbers in primary schools have increased by 50 per cent in the past 10 years. But an expanding population means the proportion of the age group receiving primary education has actually declined slightly from 75 per cent in 1987 to 73 per cent in 1998, according to government figures.
In the remote Upper East Region, 500 miles from the capital Accra, less than half (42 per cent) of primary-aged children are in school, though unlike the country as a whole this represents an improvement on 1987, when less than a third were.
"Girl-child education" is a particular priority. Girls are more likely to be kept at home to work on the farm or look after siblings: 69 per cent of six-year-old boys in the region started primary school in 199798 compared with only 59 per cent of girls, and girls are twice as likely to drop out. This disparity is being tackled by providing food for families whose daughters attend regularly.
Ghana has made education a priority: its share of government spending has risen from 17 per cent in 1984 to 35 per cent in 1998.
Primary schooling accounts for around 60 per cent of the total education spend. But even so that represents only about pound;13.50 per child in primary education - 90 per cent of it going on teachers' salaries. The equivalent figure in the UK is approaching pound;2,000.
Ghana has had over pound;300 million in education aid since 1987. But it knows it cannot rely for ever on aid, which, in any case, often arrives with unhelpful strings attached, is spent on the wrong things or can be corruptly misappropriated.
An evaluation of a British government-backed school development project in another area of Ghana concluded that such aid was most effective when it both supported the professional concerns of teachers and involved the local community.
Link deliberately targeted the country's most remote and neglected region. Its aim is to support teachers and the district authority and to enable schools and communities in the UK to assist similar communities in Ghana to help themselves.
Link works with local officers from the Ghana Education Service. With their help, it provides in-service training to improve teaching and school management. It also passes on the cash raised by twin schools in the UK.
It targets Ghanaian schools that work effectively with their local community - through parent-teacher associations, school management committees and with the support of village chiefs and elders. To these, Link guarantees $400 (pound;250) to help with school development.
To qualify the school must draw up a development plan agreed with its community. It must also demonstrate local support by raising 100,000 cedis - about pound;11 at the current exchange rate.
That may not seem a huge sum. But poor subsistence farmers may never see cash at all. So for many schools this means communal work to grow maize or millet on school land or collecting stones for road-building to raise the cash.
It is the kind of self-help they understand: "We have a tradition of communal work. When a villager is too old to work his fields we do it for him so he will have a harvest," one village elder told me.
Community support for the school also ensures public scrutiny of the way the cash is used. To ensure the money is spent properly, each school must also open a bank account so that all transactions are recorded.
Schools that sponsor an African school get a profile of their twin, annual reports and regular newsletters on Link projects.
Link Africa, Orwell House, Cowley Road, Cambridge CB4 0PP telephone 01223 06665 fax 01223 578665 www.linkafrica.org
SIX OF THE BEST SPURS PUPILS ON...
EVEN in the barest of classrooms in Ghana, teachers manage constantly to reinforce and encourage pupil success and maintain enthusiasm and concentration by drawing on a resource that is entirely free and in endless supply - applause.
With few other classroom aids, most lessons are whole-class, and chalk-and-talk. But when a child responds to a teacher's satisfaction, the other pupils are told to clap - which they do instantly and with obvious relish.
Schools ring to the sound of regular rewards delivered at top volume and in crisp, perfect unison. For this is not our own random, rippling applause but a short, sharp, six-note rhythm universal in Ghanaian schools: clap, clap, clap-clap-clap, clap.
It seems to help keep the whole class alert and involved. Asked why pupils do it so enthusiastically, 14-year-old Nabil from a secondary school in Bolgatanga said: "You clap loudly because one day they will be clapping you."
'PARENTS WANT CHILDREN TO BE LIKE US'
PAUL Ponka, headteacher of Pelungu primary, 15 kilometres from the nearest road near Bolgatanga, is a model in his village.
Rural schools find it difficult to recruit staff. "Many refuse to come," he says. Pelungu teachers have to walk six kilometres to get to school in the morning - there is no regular transport.
But, though he could easily find work elsewhere in Ghana, Paul like many heads in this region, has dutifully returned to the village of his birth and the school which taught him.
"We are the models. Parents would like their children to be like us one day," he says. "They know that things are changing. They cannot grow enough to feed their families and believe that if their children are educated like us they will get good jobs and support them."
Parents have recently built a mud kitchen to provide a daily meal of sorghum cereal for pupils. "They cannot support us financially but whenever there is building to be done they come out to pick stones or fetch water."
The local chief arrives late to a meeting arranged by Link and apologises. He had had to see a man about a reservoir for the village. "Education is important," he says. "But water is life."