At the beginning of this year, we changed schools. And we now find ourselves looking forward to mid-term break next week of our second term at the new school. Time has given me some perspective on our experiences so far with schooling, and I thought it high time for a little school report.
By far the biggest stress of our move to Ghana has been schooling. With many, many aspects of our move, with hindsight I can see how naive we were. And our school experience has been an excellent example of this naivety.
For the first few months of our life in Ghana, we spent it settling into our semi-rural life in Konongo. During this time, our youngest, was due to start primary school in Australia. So we decided homeschooling was the best option. Despite my concerns that they would be falling behind, and the anxiety related to this, I now see we wasted so much energy and emotion; when they were, of course, fine. We are both very big believers in the importance of school for socialisation; but we thought, in our naivety that our kids would make friends with other kids on the mine site; and socialise through that. We could not have comprehended the cultural differences which existed between our kids and those on the mine site. And we all tried hard, really hard. But it very soon became apparent that the local kids saw our place as a giant toy shop; which of course, that is what it was. But, they had no interest in actually playing with our kids, which was depressing for all of us. Our children retreated into themselves and their games; and visits from the local kids fell by the wayside. And it was the nature of play that was so different as well. Our kids love playing make believe games, dressing up and running around the garden. This was totally alien to the local kids, and the only middle ground was found by jumping on the trampoline. But 15 kids all boisterously jumping on a trampoline simultaneously does not fun make.
After a few months with exceptionally little outside social contact, we decided to try school. Our first school is situated in Kumasi, but on the outskirts. An hours drive away, it was the closest option for what we hoped would be a good education. It is a private Ghanainan school, teaching the Ghanaian curriculum. Which, in many aspects is much like the British system; with the exception of Ghanaian language as compulsory. The school is very well equipped, with a swimming pool and amazing music room. The heads of school all said the right things in our interview with them, and we felt quite comfortable in our choice. Despite them wanting to hold the children back a year as their Ghanaian and French language skills were lacking, we pushed very hard for them to remain in their correct classes, and I am so pleased we did. But all the ‘right words’ in an interview cannot prepare you for the reality.
And this is where we were naive in not recognising that cultural differences can be profoundly reflected in school pedagogy, and on a very basic level as to how children are treated. We were naive to think that as the only ‘obrunis’ (whites) in the school, given a short period of settling in, the children would be accepted as one of the group. While they all made friends at the school, they were teased, touched, and weirdly, their friends were ridiculed for being friends with the obruni. Thankfully these lovely friends all let it wash over them. Stranger still was some teachers reactions, swinging from calling Jock ‘obruni’ to his face (it’s not that hard to remember the one new kids name in class), to punishing all the other children in the class, apart from the obruni. Then the stories of other children being punished in the class started to come home. While the school said it had a no hitting policy, this was not always adhered to, and other punishments included kneeling on the floor holding a chair above their heads for half an hour! Equally depressing were punishments focussed on shaming a student; with other students encouraged to publicly shame the guilty party.
I appreciate that all sounds shocking to those of us used to ‘Western’ schools, but for many people, this, and far worse is reality. And perhaps there are those who would say it toughens the kids up. Perhaps, but not me.
Questioning authority is the unwritten ‘Second Amendment’ to the Australian psyche. But in no way was this encouraged. For a long time I struggled with a general unease about the nature of schooling. And that was quite apart from the punishments; which I felt a very bloody direct sense of unease about. I understand and fully respect the importance of good schooling, particularly in a developing country, where education is the only way out. But this was manifest in an intense seriousness about exams and learning of facts. Fun was not a part of the learning experience. A young woman training to be a teacher here laughed at me when I complained that school was not fun. School is not about fun, it’s about learning.
And that’s the whole crux of the problem. With this intense focus on exams and passing, the students were often stressed. School was not fun. Even our youngest, in Kindergarten had to sit exams, and ‘graduate’ to year one. And there were constant reminders to “Be Serious”. And then the hypocrisy of teachers not attending class because they were ‘busy’. Parents were not allowed to attend assemblies, assist in classroom activities (like reading with the young students). Indeed, we were not allowed to enter the school building except on one open day. Outside of ensuring homework was completed, we were not partners in our children’s education; we were customers.
We experienced a fundamental gap in our beliefs of what made learning effective.
I spoke (endlessly) to friends and teachers in Australia gave me much of their valuable time to listen to my concerns and help clarify our options. Thankfully my eldest had the sense to complain to us bitterly, and she returned to homeschooling. The straw that broke the camels back was when our middle child slipped out that a teacher had playfully hit her on the back of the head in class, hitting her nose on the desk, and in this humid climate she got a nose bleed. Enough was enough.
This set off a chain of events, resulting in the children and I moving to Kumasi during the week, and seeing Bill on the weekends, on some levels defeating the purpose of the move to Ghana. We started at a new school, a true International school. There are literally hundreds of schools here which claim internationality in their names, but very few follow an international curriculum. We have 30 nationalities at the school; and while most students are Ghanainan, many have travelled or lived overseas. And I can’t tell you what a difference it makes, to be different from each other, but share some commonalities. And no one calls us obruni.
The different nationalities are a very interesting mix, with students from countries as far afield as Côte D’Ivoire, Senegal, Nigeria, Lebanon, Korea, Japan, India and, of course, Australia. The curriculim studies the differences (and similarities) between host and home countries. And while there is still a seriousness about school work, it is cleverly manifest in such a different way. Lessons, particularly for the younger ones, are hands on. There is explicit communication that parents are partners in education, and extra lessons are given to those who are struggling. Rather than a directive in her school report to “Buck up” which was all the assistance our middle child was given in her Ghanaian language studies at the old school.
Of course there are still cultural differences, but these (while sometimes confusing) are to be expected. The classes are loud, and at times boisterous; but on the whole the children are very welcoming of new students. There is a real affection between them, constant calls of hello, holding hands, and the boys often walk with their arms about each others shoulders. We are loving the middle school concept, which does’t exist in Australia. It has given our eldest a greater sense of responsibility and reawakened a happy competitive streak in class. There is more homework than in Australia, but it is accepted (and completed!) and while everyone still writes exams, more than are probably necessary, they are not infused with major stress or dread. And while the facilities do not compare to the old school, we have learnt , while highly desirable, their presence doesn’t guarantee a good school.
I know there is no such thing as a perfect school. Parents inherently have their own children’s interests at heart, and in this emotionally charged setting, it is impossible to please everyone all the time. And parents who have themselves come from very varied school experiences; the majority of which attending school similar to what I have described above. But I witnessed a very interesting dialogue at a PTA meeting I attended during the week.
The topic was textbooks, and a perceived inadequacy of the current textbooks. Parents questioned whether the teachers were happy with the current books; and at some point in the conversation a teacher admitted that for some subjects, such as social science; there was not a ‘perfect’ textbook. Parents were up in arms, suggesting the teachers should be writing and publishing their own textbooks. The teachers thought, as did I, their time would be better spent preparing for and teaching class, than writing textbooks. But it struck at the heart of the matter. In the evolution of education, the parents were stuck in the same system that they had experienced; that it was possible to learn everything for a particular subject, for a particular year, from a particular book.
The head of primary schools eloquent response summed up all the unease I had felt about our experience. She said ‘We are not about learning every single fact inside a particular book. We are about teaching the children to question and to learn from their own experiences, to make learning an everyday part of their lives, not just something they do at school.’
I wish them well. Whether a country needs to escape the trap of poverty or to make a more humane world for our children’s children, the education needs to be about questioning and learning; not recitation of facts.
What an inspiring post. All credit to you for finding a solution and not putting up with a system that resorts to violence and stigmatism. It must be tough to be parted from your husband during the week but I’m sure your kids really appreciate the sacrifices that you have made. I really admire your strength and fortitude and how you’ve all pulled through what must have at times been really frustrating and hard for you all. Education is life-long, it should never stop being fun and creative whatever age you are. Lottie.
Great stuff Chrissie! The new school sounds heaps better. Things in Newcastle are cruisy- not much going on but lots happening. The survey is going well- we’ve got more money and new faces peeping up- still no director though. Love to the family- keep well.
I have followed your posts on regular basis and I am happy to say that this is almost a perfect description of the school system in Ghana, especially at primary and secondary school levels. I do not know how much time and effort you have spent in researching into this but you have done a very good job in your research and your comments (pros and cons) are all spot on. I write as a Ghanaian who went through the same system and now resident in Aberdeen, Scotland. Well done.
Dear Felix, Thank you so very much for your comment. I felt incredibly apprehensive clicking the publish button on this post because I am aware of how criticism can be taken when written by a foreigner. My only research has been our own experiences. Moving to the new school has represented a fundamental shift in our life in Ghana. Again, many thanks. Chrissie.
what a journey, and what learning for you all
beautiful quote of that teacher in her summing up, yes keep learning alive, then we can learn what we need to deal with what situations we face
including punctuation! Doesn’t it help!
Let me do that last sentence again.
Beautiful quote of that teacher, in her summing up. Yes, keep learning alive. Then we can learn what we need, to deal with what situations we face…
or something like that…
Wow Chris – what a journey you and the kids have been on. The first school certainly sounds difficult but it’s those experiences that really bring to light our own values and beliefs.
While in Gabon, I was offered a teaching position at a French international school as the ESL teacher. I observed for the day but was really shocked as to the treatment of students in the French system. After talking with a lot of my friends I came to realize just how different the system was as compared to our education in Canada. Fun wasn’t a part of the equation there either and the lessons were so rigid. Having spent so much time teaching to different intelligences in my Canadian classroom, the idea of textbook teaching was completely unappealing to me.
I’m happy to hear that you seem to have found a better fit for your kids even if it’s not quite ideal.
This is a helpful piece. Am looking at bringing my daughter (from Nigeria) to school in Ghana. This has given Me a good insight to a Child’s education system in Ghana.
Thanks for this wonderful work
Very good web log post. Perhaps you could invite the head teacher of the ‘local’ school to visit the international school, to learn better teaching methods, environment, etc.
Thanks for this information, I hope you can help me, my husband is working in Kumasi en I am moving there in July this year with my 10 year old daughter who does not speak English yet, we are now living in the Netherlands. I have been looking at living in Accra with her ( the company has a depot there with a house) and seeing my husband in the weekend. I would love to find out if this school maybe an option for her. I am visiting Kumasi in April and maybe come and see the school?
Thanks in advance.
Hi Jacqueline, It’s been sometime since I wrote that post, and since then, the children and I have moved to Accra for school and socialising, and (like your original plan), see my husband on the weekend. The second school in Kumasi (International Community School) was a huge improvement on the first one, and is probably worth a visit. I am a little concerned about your daughter not speaking English, as there doesn’t seem to be many Dutch people in Kumasi (but this of course can change). There are a lot of Dutch people in Accra. For us, with children who were 12, 10 and 7 at the time, after a year in Kumasi we were really feeling the isolation of a very small social life, and hence the move to Accra. There are a few good schools in Accra, and we are very happy with our move, despite the significant expense involved. Also, you may be interested to know their is an “after school” Dutch school in Accra, providing Dutch language lessons outside of regular school hours. Good luck and feel free to email any questions.
I think Chris has given you an accurate synoptic perspective on how the Ghanaian educational system is currently and and perhaps historically. As a Ghanaian, I can confess that we are not good at international languages like the Dutch.We are taught French at primary and secondary levels but not with the same levels of competence and accomplishment like the Dutch. Private school will be a preferred option for your children, I suggest. I am product of the Ghanaian educational system and can confirm some of the weaknesses, such as, a better private system at primary level and a generally better public system at secondary level. There are some private secondary schools that are very good. Other subjects such as mathematics, science subjects and geography to mention a few are as good as what you might find in most European schools with regards to the curriculum. I hereby mean the theory side. We do have a lot of exams in Ghana across board and our schools are not a place for continuous fun. Kids are expected to be serious most of the time, at least when they are in class. There is a lot of work to be taken home after school by pupils. However, do not worry. The Dutch used to colonize The Gold Coast (now Ghana) before they transferred their interest to the British. To be honest, the Dutch never left entirely and some did stay on till today. Therefore, there is a well established Dutch presence in Ghana. KLM has been in Ghana continuously for well over 30 years and, therefore, getting a direct flight in and out of Accra back to the Netherlands is not a problem. When I lived in Ghana, there were 3 direct flights a week to Schiphol. I think you will get a lot of Dutch people to help you especially around Accra and to some extent in Kumasi. Feel free to contact your Embassy in Accra. I can also help with any further information if you may wish to have.
Felix, Aberdeen, Scotland
Thanks for your input Felix. Completely agree with all you say. Have a good day.