High School Admissions & the Perpetuating of Class Inequality in Ghana

A friend of mine made a post last week about how the High School system in Ghana breeds neoliberalist adults and thrives on classism in the context of the high level of interest in the annual National Science and Maths Quiz (NSMQ). A number of mutual friends reached out to me to explain why neoliberalism was brought into high school discussion in Ghana and I think I did my best with these friends but I thought I would expand on my treatise on the issue here a little more. It is usually often funny how people usually think I am the Wunpini whisperer though lol. I only recently met her in person. Anyway, I think we think quite alike so no harm done.

I think many people don’t understand what neoliberalism is or are so well accustomed to the neoliberal world we live in that they find it hard to fathom any serious criticism of apparently innocuous aspects of the ruling system. These apparently innocuous aspects in actual fact are central to and integral in perpetuating the current global system. Neoliberalism basically is a socioeconomic system that favors a laissez-faire free market capitalist system. This system sees inequality as an inevitable consequence of human freedom and an important part of social organization. Neoliberalism is the direct opposite of Keynesian socioeconomic theory in late capital that advocates government intervention to mitigate the excesses of runaway capitalism. But we’ll focus on neoliberalism here because for all intents and purposes, it is the dominant global economic system among the governing class in a world dominated by American and British thought process. We’ll do so using the Ghanaian high school system.

Before we continue, let me give you all a basic rundown of the Ghanaian education system: we have an American style school system mixed with remnants of the colonial British education system. That means we have mainly “for profit” increasingly expensive daycare system followed by a mixed public and private nursery and Kindergarten System, Elementary School, Junior High School, High School, and an assortment of tertiary institutions and vocational institutions. Like the American system, our Elementary to High School education has been progressively made “free”. In the US system, the mother of all neoliberalist nations, the high school you attend closely and heavily determine your success in life. And the high school you attend is heavily regulated, with wealthy and middle-class children attending high schools with higher funding per student and the power lower classes attending lower funding per student high schools. The 1-5% group in America sends their children to highly exclusive private elementary, high schools. The reason for the funding gap between wealthy and middle schools and poorer schools is because of America’s zip code rules on where your children can attend schools. American society is highly segregated with wealthy families and middle-class families living in exclusive areas away from the poor and lower middle-class. As a result, they usually tend to send their children to the same schools. School funding is tied to property taxes and since upper middle-class homes and neighborhoods usually sport higher worth properties, they tend to generate higher property taxes which in turn means higher funds for their high schools. Since parents pay these taxes, everyone sees it as natural that their children get to enjoy these amenities compared to their colleagues in lower income neighborhoods. And this is where America’s extreme inequality and extreme social divide begins: the zip code you’re born into largely determine your success in life.

In Ghana, it is a different system: at least for now. But we tend to see this unequal system as natural and see inequality as an indication of hard work and a person’s worth. I recently noted with alarm the way people in Tamale, the town I grew up in treated people who looked poor vs people who looked rich. I envisage a massive shift in social organization in Ghana in the near future but let’s focus on the now. In Ghana, generally, neighborhoods aren’t as segregated as in the US so the neighborhood cannot determine your high school or elementary school of choice. What has influenced the schools people go to lie in the history of education in Ghana from colonialism to independence. Education in Ghana started with the European Christian missionaries. They built their “Christians only” schools and had to beat out the pagan in many a student before allowing him or her an education. All students had to adopt a European name to be registered as students in these mission schools. But these quirks of colonial mission school policy aside, these schools served as the breeding ground for the rearing of Ghana’s new Western educated elite. Many pioneer students from these schools were actually children of chiefs and traditional community leaders. In the northern part of Ghana for instance, this played out in hilarious ways. Many chiefs who were quite untrusting of these foreigners often sent children of other family members or children of people under debtor prisons because they felt these kids were being thrown away. But generally, some of the earliest mission school educated Ghanaians were children of elite traditional authorities. Despite the expansion of admission to other Ghanaians, these schools remained largely small in their admissions because of logistics. These schools then served as the breeding ground for the nascent Ghanaian Western styled educated elite alongside a couple of colonial government established schools like Achimota College catering to the colonial authorities’ interest of molding a new civil service. When Ghana became a Republic in 1960, just about 20% of the population had ever sat in a classroom and less than 5% had secondary education. As a result of these dire statistics and the government’s policy of industrialization, then President Nkrumah declared a policy of free basic and secondary education for all Ghanaians like how the American system worked. The mission schools resisted attempts by government to co-opt them into the newly created public education system. Remember that the colonial authorities supported the mission schools with public funds but still allowed them to operate as mission schools. The battle for control of these schools has evolved and continue to evolve over the years. What has happened over the years is that most of these hitherto privately-run mission schools are now quasi government schools because they receive tax payer funds one way or another. This history detailed above, along with the rapid growth of the Ghanaian population coupled with stop gap government policy on free education, and the woefully inadequate provision of school facilities has led to the current neoliberal education system we currently operate.

As a result of their status as pioneer institutions of higher learning in Ghana and the place where prominent Ghanaian elite were educated, most of these pre-independence and mission schools have remained quite popular among the Ghanaian elite and rising upper classes. These schools, as a result of their long history and institutional rigor, tend to be ran more efficiently than most other schools. As a result of the concentration of highly educated and wealthy Ghanaians as alumni of schools, they tend to have an outsized alumni contribution to school infrastructure development. Also, because a higher proportion of wealthy families have their wards in these schools, contributions from parents tend to eclipse even public or government support for infrastructure development for these schools. Because of this, they tend to have almost all the amenities that most schools in Ghana lack. I remember talking to a colleague of mine who attended Achimota College and he was recounting how a few parents would just opt to buy new generators for the living quarters of their wards in the school. This ability to offset the constant power shortage plaguing Ghana exacerbates the inequality between the rich and the poor in education.

My friend also recounted how on his first day of class after a holiday, almost every classmate mentioned visiting multiple European capitals for holidays, and he was the only one who only visited Togo. These schools tend to be the breeding ground of Ghana’s elite. And the way our high school system is organized helps perpetuate this growth in inequality. Prior to the introduction of the computerized BECE to High School selection process, school administrators usually had the wherewithal to liaise with WAEC to select the best candidates for their schools. This was a place for rampant nepotism and money buying admissions for students even when they didn’t qualify for the spots. A little explanation of the High School system seems in order here. In Ghana, all Junior High School students must write what we call the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) in order to qualify for Senior High School. Senior high school students must also in turn write the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) in order to qualify for college and other forms of tertiary education. Without success in either of these two, a Ghanaian is usually consigned to lower class status in the Ghanaian socioeconomic system. The elite high schools because of their better management and prestige status usually attract the most qualified and wealthy students. So, prior to the institution of the computerized system, most of these schools discriminated a lot in their admission process based on wealth and alumni status. But even with the new system, they still ran the same process according to my sources and conversations with alumni from these schools.

I want to clarify how this system breeds inequality and the making of neoliberal subjects in Ghana. I will show two fronts in this scheme. These schools in Ghana tend to demand, even with the computerized system, very high cut off points for student admission. So the Ghana Education Service cannot admit a student whose BECE grades go beyond a school’s cut off point. Their very high threshold requirements usually mean they get the most qualified Ghanaian students with the highest probability and chances of academic success. From the data, about 40% of students admitted to schools in the new system don’t go to their given schools. For many Ghanaians, the rigors and financial obligations beside tuition to attend these elite schools mean a significant number of them end up not attending these schools they’ve been admitted into. The administrators and alumni use this as an opportunity to get their legacy admissions in. Like I mentioned earlier, a number of my friends have attended these elite schools and have intimated that despite the new system, legacy admissions and nepotism and moneyed admissions or what we call in Ghana “connection” is still abound in the system. So, these elite schools therefore have a truly excellent mix of the most promising and talented young men and women in Ghana alongside wards of the Ghanaian elite whether children of alumni of these schools or wealthy parents who have the financial wherewithal to pay their wards way into these schools.

The situation you have up there creates the avenue for the perpetuating of inequality and elitism and the neoliberalism my friend mentioned in her critique of the high school system in Ghana. The concentration of the children of the wealthy in these schools mean they are able to meet the financial challenge to buy state of the art facilities for a truly world class education for their wards. These wards will then be able to do very well in the tertiary entrance WASSCE examinations. The concentration of extremely talented young men and women also mean that they are able to have the new crop of the most promising Ghanaians most likely to succeed join their alumni club. They then become fodder for a new breed of highly successful alumni to add to the existing elite. They are therefore pilfering not only the talents of the rest of the country now but the future support for the lower class educational institutions.

This system creates a small clique of continuing highly concentrated human capital and natural resources who build a band of brotherhood and solidarity. Most of our ruling elite one way or the other benefit from this system. It is either they are alumni of these schools or are looking forward to having their wards educated in these schools so that they join the Ghanaian elite class. So, any policy that stands to seriously solve this problem isn’t one they will seriously attempt to resolve. There are ways to change the system to ensure equitable distribution of talent and monetary resource. Take the American National Football League recruitment system for example. I am going to put a disclaimer here. This policy is in place because it is good for the American oligarchs running the NFL… By the way, the NFL recruits mostly from high school football. The year’s top rookie is often given to the lowest ranked team. The previous year’s worst team get to pick the best high school football draft. The winning Super Bowl team is the last to get a draft pick. As a result, there’s a good chance that any team can win the Super Bowl. It is however not the case in how we pick our high school students. The most elite schools year in year out get the choicest and most promising students to add to their already wealthy alumni ward base.

Unless we find a way to dismantle the hegemony these schools hold over the admission process, we’re going to continue to have the concentration of talent and monetary resources in a few elite schools in Ghana. Tertiary education is still one of the major ways to escape extreme poverty in Ghana. It is often the case that a school like Presbyterian Boys High School in Legon (PRESEC) might have 95% of their students qualify for and get admitted to the top Universities in Ghana like Legon, Tech and UCC but in a good year, a school like Chemu High school will be happy to have 10% of their students making it to these top tertiary institutions. Because high schools in Ghana tend to be boarding schools, bonds of brotherhood and camaraderie develop in these institutions and carry well into adulthood. It is rather easy and natural to find people highly defensive of their school. If we have a system where the rich and the poor as well as the most intelligent and promising and the less intelligent and less promising get to form bonds, we may be able to dismantle this elite system. But the education system, especially the High School system as is now is sure to contribute to the continued division and gap between the rich and the poor which is the hallmark of neoliberalism! And we are all worse off for it!

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