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.