Over the last decade, Ghana has made good progress in getting girls into school. By 2019, nearly 100 per cent of primary school-aged girls were enrolled in school, with 92 per cent in lower secondary, and 72 per cent in upper secondary.
Gender parity in enrolment had been achieved. Significant progress was also made in higher education, where 16 per cent of females were enrolled in 2019 compared to nine per cent in 2011, and the gap between male and female enrolment in higher education is narrowing.
Education helps people live their lives with dignity by giving them the capabilities to function in straightforward ways such as being healthy, having a good job, and being safe; as well as in more complex ways like being happy, having self-respect and being calm. Education helps societies become more peaceful, prosperous and sustainable.
This is not just theory. Ghana has changed a lot over the last 20 years. Along with rising levels of girls’ education, it has achieved significant declines in extreme poverty, child mortality and malnutrition.
Fertility has declined from 4.75 babies per woman to 3.83, raising the prospects that with continued progress, a demographic dividend might be in sight.
Girls and women going through school today are Ghana’s future. It is important that they succeed. Their education will have a particularly strong effect on enhancing productivity and improving other development outcomes, including prospects for the next generation and for the quality of societal policies and institutions.
The World Bank estimates massive costs of not educating girls at least through the secondary level. Gender equality – in school, at home, in the workplace, and other domains of public policy – is simply smart economics.
What will it take to continue this progress and realise a brighter future?
In the first place, we need to give more attention to the most marginalised children, particularly girls whose progress in school is complicated by poverty, disability or rurality.
It’s important for school systems to work with other government and NGO programmes, to take poverty out of the equation of every family’s decision about who to send to school.
This is achievable, for example, through scholarships or safety net programmes; to make schools inclusive, following the guidance of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and to ensure public financing and support for education meets the special needs of the most disadvantaged areas of the country.
Universalise secondary school
For many years, policy has focused on primary schooling, but to go out and work productively, you need to have a secondary education as well. A recent report by the Wittgenstein Centre demonstrates that higher levels of universal education can lead to wealthier, healthier, and more civically-engaged populations who are more resilient to climate change.
These same concepts are embedded in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and in Ghana’s Education Sector Medium-Term Development Plan.
Ghana’s Free SHS policy is a major step forward. But there is a long way to go to achieve universal secondary education. It is important that many sources of disadvantage referred to by the education plan are addressed – from early childhood through secondary schooling.
Another area is by supporting smooth transitions, through levels of schooling, adolescence, and into the work and social life as an adult.
The passage from childhood to adulthood is a period of momentous social, psychological, economic and biological transitions, particularly if they start from a position of disadvantage. Programmes such as CAMFED’s Learner Guide provide valuable support to girls at the right time and place.
A key factor in the success of this programme is the fact that these women grew up in similar communities and have experienced what it takes for a marginalised girl to attend school and succeed.
Having a relatable and successful role model who has been “in her shoes” is a crucial factor in fostering a successful mentor-mentee relationship.
UNESCO data shows a very low proportion of students in the early grades and at the end of lower secondary schooling who achieve minimum proficiency in mathematics and reading.
Improving the quality of education at all levels will help young people to realise their dreams, as well as the country to realise its development goals.
This means constant attention to building a qualified and motivated teaching force, and to optimizing the conditions for learning.
A multilingual country like Ghana has a special challenge to effectively engage students in their home language, as well as the language that will be used for instruction in the later grades.
There is also the need to create educational opportunities for older girls and women who may have missed parts of their education early on.
Creating lifelong learning opportunities—to catch up on basic skills, acquire a new skill, or pursue higher levels of education—this will help build a more inclusive society.
Today, Ghana is reaping the benefits of its past focus on education. Imagine what the future could be like if it could now ensure inclusive, equitable, quality education and lifelong learning for all. That’s SDG 4.
That is the best bet for a sustainable future; and a special focus on girls’ and women’s education will help us get there.
The writer is the Director of Partnerships, Yidan Prize Foundation.