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Feature Article of Thursday, 26 July 2012

Columnist: Zubeviel, Thomas

Decentralisation, Marketisation And Ghana’s Quest For Education For All

Over the past couple of years, the need to provide quality education for all has gained increased attention in academic literature and discourses. Proponents of the idea have maintained that in an increasingly globalised society where premium is put on equal rights for all; it is apt that an enabling environment is created for all persons, irrespective of difference or disability, to attain their highest potential. Deliberations about education for all in the educational discourse have been concentrated on the rights of all persons, irrespective of colour, ethnicity, creed, physical conditions and socio-economic background to access quality basic education. Indeed, the deliberation has assumed international proportions and has engaged the interest of many national and supranational organisations.
Proponents of the notion of education for all argue further that, creating conditions which disadvantage some groups of people or exclude them from accessing quality basic education fly in the face of morality as well as being educationally unproductive. In contrast, they see inclusive education as providing the best environment for socialisation and development and as augmenting a ‘culture of education for all’ which facilitate eventual acceptance of all persons into the larger society. This is grounded in the thinking that inclusive and quality universal basic education celebrates diversity and serves as a launching pad for all citizens to realise their potential and contribute to national development through effective socio-politico-economic participation. Some academics are convinced that even within a supportive legislative framework, the implications of universal basic education are humongous, affecting such issues as: social, economic, political and community development. Indeed, education for all can be regarded as the latest development in a historical quest for equity and mutual co-existence.
This article contends that schools face more challenging circumstances in antagonistic reform environments and that there is weak evidence for the messianic role of decentralisation in solving the problems of education. Over the years, education systems have shifted from reform initiatives underpinned by principles of equity, social justice and altruism, to new policy imperatives hinged on concepts such as academic excellence, parental choice and competition. In such contexts, students with disabilities and/or special educational needs, socially and economically disadvantaged learners are susceptible while schools seeking to implement innovations that enhance education for all tend to be swimming against the powerful currents of such reform initiatives. This article comes on the heels of a write up by the indefatigable S. K. B. Asante which appeared in the July 19, 2012 edition of the Daily Graphic. The author advocated for greater decentralisation, autonomy for certain schools and the charging of fees, if need be, to enhance quality education in these schools ‘that are doing well’ so that other schools can learn from these ‘exemplar’ schools. The crux of the article in question was that greater decentralisation will ensure that problems are nipped in the bud before they degenerate into bigger issues that are difficult to solve and thus require the intervention of ‘remote’ authorities whose efforts are generally less effective.
Many attempts have been made in the past to halt and reverse poor educational outcomes in the country resulting in an ‘unending cycle’ of educational reforms and reviews. Recent efforts include the New Education Reform Programme of 1987 and the constitutionally mandated Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education Programme. Moreover, as part of efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goal on Universal Primary education and Education for All framework, the government also provides fee free education through a capitation grant, free uniforms, free exercise books. In addition, Ghana has ratified the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action and all international treaties on the rights of all to quality education. The government has also enacted the necessary constitutional provisions for the education of persons with disability. Indeed, the evidence suggest that Ghana’s quest and commitment to education for all pre-dates most of the international protocols and frameworks; yet the fact is that many young people are still excluded from education while the literacy rate still does not meet national benchmarks. This may be related to contradictory imperatives inherent in certain national policies.
Studies suggest that in countries that celebrate consumer choice, liberty and competition, governments tend to subscribe to principles of the market in their bid to solve the ‘problems of education’ or ensure an equitable distribution of public goods. This is because the market forces are regarded as an efficient means for allocating resources and are also more responsive to the felt needs of individuals. In other words, market discipline better create the environment and links necessary for consumer freedom, allocation of scarce resources, generate diversity and provide the form of flexibility needed for effectiveness and efficiency within the state.
The state creates greater market flexibility by reducing social overheads and the power of trade unions; by encouraging the privatisation of public utilities and the welfare state; and by celebrating competitive individualism or by developing the state as a ‘strategic leader’, who shapes the direction of the national economy through investment in key economic sectors and in the development of human capital. Nevertheless, these market principles have been heavily criticised for being an effective tool for masquerading social bias under the shroud of neutrality. These market philosophies are also seen as a class strategy which has as one of its major effects the reproduction of relative social class (and ethnic) advantages and disadvantages.
In general the state does not hand over everything to the private sector or decentralise every aspect of education. According to Stephen Ball, the state may bond education more closely to national economic interests grounded in an unambiguous assertion and emphasising of what the state regards as the goal of education – public good or wean education from direct state control which gives an impression of increased autonomy to educational institutions to prosecute state requirements while subordinating education to the canons of the market and standards of business culminating in the refashioning of a competitive private good. These result in the adoption of new social relationships, values and ethical principles; new forms of governance and generically-managed, performance-based institutions oriented towards the imperatives of the global market place.
Ghana’s education sector can be said to have been decentralised and marketized since it provides parents with greater choice of schools for their children - parents can choose any school to send their wards to (public or private) national or international; with the institution of the capitation grant, there is the likelihood that with time schools that are not performing well will have less resources as parents send their wards to better performing schools; the increase in the number of private schools and decentralization of decision-making via strong local management is yet another evidence. Other features of a decentralised and marketized system include prescription of curriculum content and assessment systems and performance monitoring through more stringent quality-control procedures using quantifiable outcome indicators.
Schools benefit from the decentralisation of financial management since spending decisions are better made locally. This also applies to other decision making processes and implementation of innovations. In addition, decentralisation helps leadership to effectively delegate authority and monitor performance as well as enhance effective resource allocation and utilisation.
The danger however is that in decentralised and marketized educational systems, schools become entangled between two contradictory but unequal imperatives: opening up access to a diverse range of pupils and try to design sincerely responsive provisions for their needs and characteristics or attend to pupils whose attainments will boost the school’s performance and consequently make the school more competitive in the educational market place even if this means sacrificing some of its fundamental values for standards. In most cases, schools choose the latter as this has the greatest consequences for the survival and status of the school itself. This position has been criticised for being overly simplistic because schools work in collaboration with one another to muster the necessary intellectual and cultural resources to appropriately respond to these challenges. However, this idea of schools or teachers working collaboratively to help improve students’ performance may be new or less developed in Ghana.
Indeed, the suggestion has been that in many countries many learners, especially those with special educational needs, have been given no more than a passing reference in recent educational reform legislation and that in contexts that put premium on high achievement; such children are at best irrelevant, or at worst an encumbrance. In the Ghanaian context, many academics are of the conviction that government is still in a ‘dilemma’ regarding inclusiveness and that even though inclusive education seem to feature in most policy statements there is more to show for policy rhetoric than for inclusive practices.
Having operated under a highly centralised administrative system for time, Ghana adopted policies in the late 1980s with the aim of curing the ills of the socio-economic and political systems that existed at the time. These policies also led to the crumpling of direct state control over many sectors of our national life and the rise of competition, accountability and so-called parental choice in the education sector. Currently, the seemingly fair admission system has been high-jacked by the few who have the social and cultural capital to circumvent it. Aside this, there are over a thousand schools under trees; with an adult illiteracy rate of 33.4% and several communities share one school. In such a situation, most parents are hardly informed about their rights or may not have any choices regarding which schools their wards attend. It has been suggested that poorer and less educated parents are less likely to be informed about their choices and rights compared to their peers who are better educated and well to do. In larger Ghanaian cities where parents have some alternatives, some groups of students are not likely to be admitted since schools focus more on improving their performance in order to attract more resources from government and to please their much more enlightened clientele and alumni.
According to Ball and co., the publication of performance indicators result in schools that are fixated about improving their competitive edge more driven to attracting 'motivated' parents and 'able' children who have the greater potential to better their course rather than students who are likely to find learning difficult. They indicate further that resources tend to be taken away from pupils with special needs to those that have the greatest probability of improving school performance. Therefore, students who are less likely to contribute to enhancing academic outcomes are more likely to be rejected. Is there any wonder that some schools in Ghana have stringent cut off points for students they admit? Indeed, the grades one obtain in either of the national examinations (BECE or WASSCE) determine to a greater extent which career path one can tow regardless of whether one is deeply engaged by that career or not. Is there any wonder also that certain stringent admission criteria are used for admissions into certain professional institutions or schools in Ghana?
What these recruitment, screening, and selection tend to do is an overwhelming bias toward establishing procedures and standards at each step in the admissions process that screened out 'problem' students and admit the 'best' students, with 'best' being defined as students with good academic records, good attendance, good behaviour, a mastery of English, social and cultural capital and no special learning problems. In such cases, the borders between good schools and poor schools become clearly drawn out while a discriminatory cycle is set into orbit; good schools continue to perform well and attract good students and good parents and thus good results. The reverse is the case for poorly performing schools. With the calibre of students who enter such so-called (so-called because good schools are measured in terms of their performance in examination rather than having inculcated relevant educative experiences into students) good schools, teachers in such schools rarely need to work any extra hard apart from offering the needed support and guidance. The impact of such rationing mechanisms is better appreciated when one considers the fact that test scores are related to one’s background – learners from poorer backgrounds and communities perform worse than those from the ‘leafy suburbs’ and for that matter get poorly paid jobs as compared to their peers from much better backgrounds. Indeed, learners from certain remote villages may not even know the varieties of career options available to them as the only professionals they may know are teachers, nurses, priests et cetera. This may be worse for female students who may not have any of these professionals as mentors or role models.
It is also apparent that middle-class parents are better placed to take advantage of the opportunities in the education market by utilizing their social and cultural capital in liberalised education systems. While more enlightened parents are more likely to make demands on the education systems and negotiate preferential treatment for their wards; pupils from poorer homes with uneducated parents become highly disadvantaged especially when planning and management decision making is decentralised. Furthermore, school leaders find it difficult to implement equity provisions due to pressure from more enlightened, well-connected and expressive parents who may make demands based on self-interest rather than for the collective good. Currently, head teachers and principals at all levels of the education system are generally engrossed with financial management and public relations within the education market place – negotiating with funding agencies, non-governmental organisations and governmental agencies such as GETFUND, liaising with chiefs and opinion leaders as well as alumni for support - while educational leadership, regarded as ‘second only to classroom teaching’ in terms of its impact on school improvement and effectiveness is relegated to the background.
Some scholars have also suggested that market-based reforms run counter to some of the very principles on which the reforms are grounded. They maintain further that most decisions in the education sector are motivated by financial considerations as against broader educational philosophies while the notion that educational values will remain untainted even in the face of competition is seen as untenable by other academics. In a typical competitive market situation moral principles and higher order goals are sacrificed for profit or financial purposes. Applied to education, the quest to maximise gains (not necessarily financial) as against loses results in more casualties for marginalised and less able students and poorer communities. It must be argued however that competition in itself is desirable as it is likely to bring out the best in schools and students; nevertheless competition based on the need to improve the academic image of the school as measured quantitatively by test scores may not be healthy for all students and the nation at large. The situation is even exacerbated when decisions for resource allocation are made on the schools based on test scores. It is evident that most Ghanaian children are still educationally excluded according to the 2007 UNDP report while those in schools are literarily ‘included’ – added to the number – of school going children in mere pursuance of free compulsory basic education without expecting much from them anyway. Indeed, the quest to improve the academic image of schools via measurement of only cognitive ability which inevitably disadvantage persons with special needs (because they could be highly skilled or able in other areas) seems questionable in the light of the provision that education in Ghana is aimed at the total development (cognitive, affective and psychomotor skills) of the human person.
Critics may argue that some or indeed most of the issues raised here do not apply in the Ghanaian context and schools are not directly affected by such market dynamics. Nevertheless, there are still implications for a large number of students who have less obvious disabilities as well as those who are marginalised or disadvantaged. Thus, market-based based reforms may play a role in crowding out students with special needs from schools as they are not regarded as attractive commodities in the educational supermarket.
Marketization and decentralisation seem to be the policy of choice for most governments because it allows them to take credit for implementing good policies while contracting out blame to schools, students, parents (for not making the right choices) and teachers for not living up to the standards. It has been posited that the ‘parachuting’ of the tenets of the market into education policy find both support as well as academics who think the presupposition that everyone is in possession of the cultural code required for decoding the objects displayed in the educational market place is flawed and that the long term effects of choice, competition and decentralisation is inversely proportional to the immediate gains – if any.
However, some context specific questions need further exploration if Ghana is ever going to achieve education for all. For instance, is there a genuine need to provide quality education for every Ghanaian citizen? What hurdles need to be cleared in terms of practical commitment to education for all? What resources do teachers need at the classroom level to deliver quality education for all learners? How can we explore local capacities and resources to ensure inclusive practices at the classroom level? Is it not more feasible to provide the least minimum conditions for all schools to succeed in providing quality education rather than to elevate some schools as educational ‘meccas’? The issue of education for all has more to do with human attitudes towards inclusion than availability of resources, capacity or contradictory government policies because countries that have the resources and capacity seem to be grappling with the issue in much the ways as poorer countries.
Zubeviel Thomas

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