Monday, November 17, 2008

Corporal punishment and lack of teacher training in Ghana not to be idealised

I read an interesting article today by an American grant consultant, called 'Ghana offers some lessons in discipline, teacher quality', where he compares Ghanaian schools with those in Iowa, USA. With children having passed through both the public and private school systems here in Ghana, I found the lighthearted and naive assumptions and conclusions of the author to be disturbingly superficial.

The intention of the article was to stress both discipline and higher educational standards for the folks back home, but to praise both of these aspects of the Ghanaian educational system, without placing them in their context, with all their pitfalls, is also a dangerous stand to take.

There is a passing comment about the paddle that is present in the corner of every classroom. This American author would be no doubt suing the school board if his children were beaten with any of the implements used commonly in Ghanaian schools for ‘discipline’. He glances over what would be considered by western standards as a culture of child abuse in the educational system across Ghana.

Children are caned on a daily basis. The acts of indiscipline warranting the caning include being part of a class of 52 children, where one or two have not completed their homework or memorized a certain passage to perfection. My own son attended a semi private Ghanaian school for five years and came home with welts, having been beaten for this very reason, despite having completed the tasks himself.

When I confronted the teacher and principle I was told his skin was too soft and hence marks were left, and they could not be blamed for that. There is no guilt or shame among educators in Ghana for beating children. It is an integral part of the curriculum and culture. Students from as young as five years old are tasked daily with chopping grass with machetes and cleaning out gutters on the school compound. This again would amount to using children for manual labour by American standards, and again, not completing these tasks to the teacher’s satisfaction also attracts stiff beatings. The respect he commended in classrooms can be rather attributed to fear. Students may call their elders ‘Sir’ and “Ma’am’ but unlike the system in the west where often teachers are close mentors, in Ghana teachers and students have a relationship closer to dictator and servant.

I also came across an interesting article on the TimesOnline site, "African cane tames unruly British pupils". A teacher is interviewed at a Ghanaian school, "Children must be taught. You don’t sit down and discuss directions with a child – you tell them where to go,” he said. "Children are beaten for misbehaving or failing to do home-work, but not for poor results".

One of the students sent from the UK by his immigrated parents, Sienam, admitted that he had been caned “many, many times” by his teachers in Ghana. “Any time you do something you know you shouldn’t do or step out of line, you get caned.” It is the reality of the system.

Secondly, with regard to curriculum, the Ghanaian standard is modeled after the British system of the 1950s and 60s. The author must have seen on his many visits to Ghanaian schools, some of these textbooks taken directly from 1950s editions from the UK. The focus is on memorization and many times regurgitation. Essays which evoke the child’s imagination are not part of curriculum, and students are not asked to write ‘in their own words’ about topics they read about. What results, as a close American friend of mine teaching at the University of Legon currently experienced, is that 50 out of 60 students will submit THE EXACT SAME PAPER. She is now at a loss as to what recourse to take. I am not sure that American schools should encourage a return to this type of learning, when the school systems in the west have intentionally moved away from these methods, after realizing children gain irreplaceable skills by applying their knowledge outside textbooks.

I have yet another concern regarding the author’s assessment of the quality of teachers in Ghanaian schools. Constantly during my son’s five years at a prominent and well respected Ghanaian elementary school, I was shocked by the lack of basic grasp of English grammar amongst the teachers. They constantly marked wrong grammar as correct or even worse, corrected proper grammar with complete mistakes. The problem was not concerning only one teacher but many, and I can guarantee it is not an isolated problem with this particular school. The average pay for an elementary school teacher in Ghana is less than $200 per month, which does not attract the most talented pool. The wages and living conditions in the rural schools are even worse, meaning these schools suffer an even worse fate in terms of their faculty.

Kofi Annan, illustrated in the article as a typical example of the products of Ghanaian education, is the child of Ghanaian Royalty, having graduated from the then highly elite boarding school ‘Mfantsipim’ back when the British system resembled the contemporary curriculum of the day in the UK, is definitely not representative of the average Ghanaian child, with comparable opportunities. Especially in today’s Ghana.

In fact, he states that education is ‘mandatory’ in Ghana, and indeed it may be, but the reality on the ground is that the streets are lined with children hawking goods during school hours, and estimated figures are closer to 60% of urban children are actually attending school on a regular and consistent basis. The rural areas are nowhere near this figure. Many villages have no schools to attend, let alone the money for the fees.

Though I do agree it’s a good idea to get people in western countries with developed economies to stand up and re-evaluate their school systems and the lack of respect among the youth of today, I don’t believe that exonerating the educational system in a poor country like Ghana, with it’s lack of infrastructure and a culture of corporal punishment, is fair in the context given.
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A. Gillispie said...

Amen! I just read the article you referenced this morning and had the same thoughts. How has this guy spent so much time in Ghanaian schools and come away with that conclusion?!

Anonymous said...

I have read the article you quoted and to be frank your posting is much more biased and highly exaggerated in comparison.

In your hasty attempt to rebutt an article which, I suppose, does not conform to your idea of "Ghanaian education", you intentionally come up with half-truths and complete falsehoods to justify your entrenched perception.

That is a shame!

I am a Ghanaian. I, like many Ghanaian children, received my elementary and secondary education in an unimaginably poor rural area of Ghana, but I had a good foundation which enabled me to gain admission into an ivy-league college in the States.
We may not have had the very best of what money could buy, but certainly we did not recieve an inferior education judging by my grades in class.
It is totally false to claim that "students are not asked to write 'in their own words' about topics they read".Infact, we were taught never to copy from others but submit our own independent work every time.
Since when has teaching children to keep their environment clean become an abuse? In America, they have the money to hire peple to take care of the schools' environment, in Ghana the children help to clean. There is nothing superior about the American approach.
At least, we are not confronted with the issues of shootings and violence in many of the schools in the west. And the reason for that, if you care to know, is:Ghanaian children are taught to respect authority and not fear them,as you claimed.
Reading your post will not help the reader, because it is not only full of exaggerations, but outright antagonistic in nature.

Have a nice day!

The pale observer said...

Dear anonymous - my point in this article is that the author of the other article is being naive. I can guarantee you that if HIS OWN CHILDREN were made to use machetes to cut grass in the heat or clean out gutters, and were beaten if they slagged off, hew would be UP IN ARMS. As a westerner I know this. It is all good and well for Americans to say that discipline is missing in the west but none of them would condone disciplinary measures that happen in Ghanaian schools. I have seen the welts on children and witnessed brutal beatings. I've seen girls dragged to the front of all their schoolmates and beaten harshly for wearing hair extensions. By western standards this is abuse. The man who wrote the first article would agree.

As a Ghanaian you might say the children dseserve it for misbehaving, or that it teaches them a lesson, but in the west we have been trained and ingrained that you mustn't hit children as they have human rights and that hitting them doesn't encourage them to explore the reason what they did was wrong, why they should not do it again etc. Hitting teaches like to a dog, that if you do it you will be hit and it will hurt. Period.

I knew this article would provoke backlash from Ghanaians, and I never said that brilliant students didn't emerge from the system, but it is my firm opinion that they, like you, they emerge DESPITE the system, not because of it.

I was not exaggerating when I explained both the level of english grammar possessed by my son's and friend's children's teachers, nor the FACT of the University level paper submitted by almost the entire class at Legon.

I know that Ghanaians are very proud, but there are times when you must admit that things are not at the level they should be and that there is room for imporvement.

The man who wrote the original article at least admitted that there was room for improvement in Iowa, why can't you admit the same for issues of discipline and teacher qualifications in Ghana???

The pale observer said...

Hi Again Anonymous - I found the information below on the site put up by the International Literacy Institute:

"Approximately 50 out of 100 children in poor areas do not go beyond primary school, and many of these lack basic skills necessary for good jobs. In addition, at the Junior secondary level, about 37% of school-aged children are not in school. Recent data from TIMSS show that Ghana’s science and math achievement is quite low when measured by international standards. This result appears to be due to three factors: an insufficient foundation in basic skills, high reliance on rote learning, and poor preparation of teachers starting at the primary.

In sum, the available research suggests that there are several key areas in need of improvement in Ghana’s educational system, including: (a) Improving teacher training; (b) Increasing student motivation via better teaching and improved instructional materials; (c) Improved management and administration; and (d) Better development links between schools and communities. "

Are they also biased and exaggerating? Or acknowledging the need for change?

The pale observer said...

And lastly - on the same site:

Teacher Quality and Retention:

Recent data showed that Ghana has the second lowest rate of teacher retention in Africa (at an average of only 8 years as a teacher, ranking only after Botswana).
Before employment, approximately approximately 40% of Ghana’s primary school teachers have received little or no training in education.
After employment in schools, primary school teachers are often isolated, dispersed and most receive little or no in-service teacher training.
Teachers lack the training and language skills and resources to be effective community development agents.

For more information, contact:
Prof. Dan Wagner
ILI/University of Pennsylvania

Copyright © 2006 Literacy Research Centers: National Center on Adult Literacy (NCAL) and International Literacy Institute (ILI),
at University of Pennsylvania/Graduate School of Education, All rights reserved.
(Questions about this site? Please contact

krissy said...

Thanks for all this info and research Holli.

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