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Prioritising micro-level experiences of schooling: A policy prospect for addressing inequality in basic education access?

Rodney B. Nkrumah, McGill University Vandna Sinha, University of Colorado

Ghanaian and Sub-Saharan African (SSA) governments are successfully implementing universal policy solutions to expand basic-school opportunities for children. Yet, a vital component of the basic education access (BEA) debate appears missing in education literature and policymaking contexts. The schooling experience of children in different socioeconomic and geographical contexts is overshadowed by macro-level quantitative indicators relying on enrolment and completion statistics. This reliance on macro-level indicators, however, underrepresents layers of inequities and injustices that drive unequal access to learning at local levels.

Since the 1990s, the implementation of global development frameworks – that is, Education for All, Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals – have contributed immensely to this process of quantifying educational access. Not only have they presented a unified framework that prioritises education as a pathway to sustainable development in SSA countries, they have also inspired policies and programmes to ensure that more children today have access to school than any other period in SSA’s history. Recent data from Unicef (2019) shows that 79% of primary school-age children in SSA are enrolled in school, an increase from 59 per cent in 1999. In Ghana, enrolment for primary school-age children increased from 58 per cent  in 2003 to 91 per cent  in 2016 based on education sector analysis reports (Ministry of Education, 2018). The emphasis on targets and measurement of development indicators over time has also regularised and nourished a culture of indicator-based research, helping development actors to monitor and track progress in BEA at national and subnational levels.

‘The schooling experience of children in different socioeconomic and geographical contexts is overshadowed by macro-level quantitative indicators that underrepresent the inequities and injustices that drive unequal access to learning at local levels.’

Despite these gains in BEA, deep-seated inequities and an emergent learning poverty prevails in Ghana and the SSA context. Research shows that a significant percentage of those who enrol in school fail to complete. Among those who complete, few attain the learning outcomes required to progress beyond basic and secondary education, especially those from the social periphery (Akyeampong, 2009). In Ghana, only 59 of every 100 children who enrol in grade 1 progress to grade 9, the end of the basic school system, and only 39 reach grade 12 (Ministry of Education, 2018). Ansong and colleagues (2015) also observed that 24 per cent of urban districts in Ghana showed consistent improvements in academic performance in basic education certificate examinations compared to only 5 per cent of rural districts. Following our recent review of existing research, children – and more often girls – from rural communities, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and children with disabilities have greater difficulties in accessing educational opportunities at the basic level (Nkrumah & Sinha, 2020). Children in SSA and Ghana in particular, come from highly diverse and unequal social contexts; for children who face equity challenges, exclusion from basic-school opportunities, is often the beginning of a long journey of grappling with systematic social exclusion.

These underlying inequities make the reliance on quantitative indicator-based approaches problematic in measuring what constitutes success in BEA. First, emphasis on enrolment and completion statistics reveals very little about micro-level experiences of access that informs ones’ learning outcomes. Second, since indicators do not capture school experiences, the realities of children, particularly those from rural and at-risk communities, remain under-represented in the macro-level success stories of BEA. Subsequently, deep-seated equity challenges needing urgent policy-level attention, i.e., who receives quality education, appropriate learning outcome, and efficient progression in school are often masked by macro-level growth in quantitative indicators.

The conundrum here is: how do we address the question of access in order to leapfrog inequality in BEA? At the research level, there is urgent need for qualitative methodologies to unpack micro-level experiences of schooling access which lead to exclusion, especially among at-risk population groups. It is also imperative to study pathways and transmission mechanisms through which such experiences lead to exclusion and develop indicators that capture experiences of limited access. The dearth of information regarding differential micro-level experiences of access and how such experiences impact learning outcomes tends to shift policy conversations about equity to focus on universal enrolment rather than targeted interventions that improve access conditions in deprived areas.

‘The conundrum here is: how do we address the question of access in order to leapfrog inequality in BEA?’

Research on micro-level experiences of schooling access can be the first step in repositioning policymakers to understand and design targeted interventions that improve conditions of access for at-risk children. Subsequently, policy solutions must prioritise implementing flexible school systems that suit the socioeconomic environment of children in at-risk communities. A means of achieving flexibility and suitability, for example, is localizing the language of instruction and investing in modern information technologies to enhance quality teaching in at-risk communities. Given that social and developmental problems that create the need for development frameworks today are associated with broader social problems of inequalities and injustices in our local communities, policy solutions to universalise access to schooling and learning would be maximised if we start by creating just and equitable communities and societies globally. Shifting policy solutions from universal enrolment for all to bridging the gaps in experiences of access at micro levels, can be just what is needed to leapfrog inequality in BEA.


This blog is based on the article ‘Revisiting global development frameworks and research on universal basic education in Ghana and Sub‐Saharan Africa: A review of evidence and gaps for future research’ by Rodney B. Nkrumah and Vandna Sinha, published in the Review of Education. It has been made free-to-view to those without a subscription for a limited period, courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


References

Akyeampong, K. (2009). Revisiting free compulsory universal basic education (FCUBE) in Ghana. Comparative Education, 45(2), 175–195. https://doi.org/10.1080/03050060902920534

Ansong, D., Ansong, E. K., Ampomah, A. O., & Afranie, S. (2015). A spatio-temporal analysis of academic performance at the Basic Education Certificate Examination in Ghana. Applied Geography, 65, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apgeog.2015.10.003

Ministry of Education (Ghana) (2018). Education sector analysis report 2018. Accra. https://sapghana.com/data/documents/Ghana-Education-Sector-Analysis-2018.pdf

Nkrumah, R. B., & Sinha, V. (2020). Revisiting global development frameworks and research on universal basic education in Ghana and Sub‐Saharan Africa: A review of evidence and gaps for future research. Review of Education. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3205

United Nations Children’s Fund [Unicef]. (2019). Primary education. https://data.unicef.org/topic/education/primary-education/