Empty Desks
3:05 pm
Fri February 28, 2014

In Ghana, School Absenteeism And Poverty Go Hand-in-Hand

Originally published on Fri March 21, 2014 12:35 pm

In Ghana, School Absenteeism and Poverty Go Hand-in-Hand

In the West African country of Ghana, 98 percent of the country's primary and secondary students are enrolled in school, but in some areas, a significant number do not attend classes regularly.  

According to educators and government officials, poverty is the major reason Ghanaian students miss school a lot. Despite the country’s strong middle class, the average annual family income is only about $3,000 U.S. dollars. That means many students across Ghana live in grinding poverty and must help their families by working in the markets, on farms or on fishing boats instead of going to school.

“The whole problem is money,” said Marie Aziz Tunde, an anchor at the radio arm of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation in the western city of Sekondi. She said absenteeism is not as big an issue in large cities as it is in rural and coastal villages. For some students in those areas, it comes down to their parents giving them a choice of eating or going to school. “You help me out in the market today, we sell, we get enough money, we can buy this food. But if you go to school, maybe you come home and there is no food,” Aziz Tunde said.

Many choose the market, like those seen on a school day earlier this month in the large, busy downtown marketplace for residents of Takoradi and Sekondi. Children carried baskets and trays on their heads in the market and on nearby street corners, hawking vegetables and fish.

They loudly called out the prices of their goods to those browsing in the market, often dropping their prices if they thought it would bring in a sale. For some, the daily profit might only be two or three U.S. dollars, but it still adds to what their parents are able to bring in.

At a nearby local junior high school, math and social studies teacher Patrick Dzebo said he knows many students who work in the market during the day to help their families survive. He said of the more than 60 students in each of his classes, about 10 miss school a lot because of economic reasons. “Their parents do not have enough money to give to them,” Dzebo said. “They cannot buy various exercise books, so some search for money. They will not come to school for two or three weeks.”

In the coastal areas, Dzebo says some students spend that time emulating their fathers. “They will go fishing for days or weeks before they will come to school,” he said.

Nearly 25 percent of Ghana’s annual budget goes toward education and free public schools are available. But buying school supplies and paying school fees may run $50 to $100 a year, which is a lot for poor families. Some students drop out to avoid the embarrassment of being asked to leave when they can't pay the fees. American businessman Don Felder has built schools in Ghana and paid school fees for numerous students over the years. “Their families just don’t have the income, so assisting with school fees is critical,” Felder said. “It does a lot for the students there and it keeps them in school.”

On one visit to Ghana, Felder and an associate noticed that many students in one rural area missed school a lot because they did not have shoes. The associate came up with a plan to help. “He sent me back with about 135 pairs of brand new sneakers. So I called the village together and started distributing out in the village with the kids,” Felder said.

Ghanaian students also have to wear uniforms. Aziz Tunde said the requirement keeps some out of school. “Some get uniforms torn and wouldn't want to go to school because it is torn and then your parents will say I don't have money to buy you a new shirt so you can stay at home.”

In the capital of Accra and other areas, some students wear uniforms that are faded and held together with pins. The government recently provided free uniforms, but as Aziz Tunde pointed out: “one each.” “So, if it’s dirty a child can say 'I'm not in school because my uniform is dirty. I'm not in school because my uniform is torn,'” she said.

Some Ghanian teachers say absenteeism can run as high as 30 percent in their schools. But Paul Krumpa, Ghana's Ministry of Education spokesman, said nationwide less than one percent of public school students do not attend classes regularly. That’s nowhere near the estimated 7.5 million who are chronically absent in the U.S. “We still have 200,000 students not in school now,” Krumpa said. “Some of them find themselves in areas where there aren't educational facilities. Some of them like to follow their parents [to farms], some are shepherds; they shepherd sheep and goats.”

He said the government is setting up evening programs and building new schools to reach some of those students. 

Absenteeism was higher when many schools operated under the half-day, split shift system, he said. When students skipping classes at these schools are seen on the streets in the morning, they can easily say they attended afternoon classes, and vice versa. “As much as possible, as a ministry, we are trying to abolish the shift system,” Krumpa said.

Five years ago, Krumpa said, 4,000 of the country's nearly 23,000 schools operated under the shift system. That number has been cut in half. “This year, we will eliminate an additional 400 out of the 2,000, so it's a gradual process,” he said.

To reduce the number of students who miss school for economic reasons, the government started a pilot program this year offering free lunches to attract students to school. In addition, some PTAs are helping students pay their school fees to keep them in school and some schools have started remedial classes to help chronically absent students catch up.

Leticia Brenyah teaches at a private boarding school for girls in Sekondi, where absenteeism is not a big problem. She has as many as 90 students in some classes, but said only one missed class a lot, and that was last year. Brenyah does, however, have a problem with a neighbor's 14-year-old son, who she drives to school. Recently, she found out he had ditched school for two weeks straight. “We asked him the reason and he had none,” she said. “He just roams about, takes a car and goes to another town. Yesterday, I asked where he went and he told me he went to the beach, just sitting there watching the sea.”

Brenyah said her neighbor’s son is among a group of students who don’t miss classes for economic reasons; they just aren’t interested in school. Like students in the U.S., they would rather go to the movies or play video games with their friends.

There are others who start skipping school once they have been registered for their exit exams. For the most part, these are students who aren’t planning to go to college and don’t care if they do well on the standardized test. They will graduate anyway.

Brenyah said she is determined to keep her neighbor’s son from falling into any of those categories. She calls the school several times a day to make sure he is in class. She also bought cell phone minutes for the teacher so she can call her if he goes missing. “I have taken this responsibility to make sure this child goes to school,” Brenyah said.

Ghana’s education officials say if more teachers took that kind of interest in students, absenteeism could be significantly reduced. Teachers agree, but some also add that the government should do more to help needy parents with school costs and reduce classroom sizes, so they can better determine the reasons behind their students’ absences.

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