COVID19: The Inequalities of Student Learning, Lessons from Ghana
COVID19: The Inequalities of Student Learning, Lessons from Ghana
The Quality Preschool for Ghana research project began in 2015, intending to improve early childhood education by supporting teachers and caregivers. This is primarily led by an international research team including Dr Elisabetta Aurino from Imperial College London and Dr Sharon Wolf from the University of Pennsylvania, who are working collaboratively with the Ghanaian chapter of the international non-profit, Innovations for Poverty Action. However, 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic changed education, forcing schools and universities to close and adapt to online or distance learning infrastructures overnight. Thus, researchers continued studying the learning process with the Learning in COVID Times survey, which examined the shift in learning outcomes from the schools in Accra into the homes. I discussed the results of the study with Dr Esinam Avornyo.
Dr Esinam Avornyo is a research fellow at the Institute of Education at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana and a member of the research team for the Quality Preschool for Ghana project. She was born and raised in Accra and attended schools there until the completion of her undergraduate degree. She then went on to study at the University of Cambridge for both her master’s and PhD, where she researched the role of play in the Ghanaian early education curriculum and classroom practices.
“school closures are increasing learning inequalities between students who attend state schools and those who attend private schools”
She said: “The study took place in Accra, and it is an ongoing study. These kids are in the greater Accra region, from seven school districts. The mean age of students was 10.1, so that is grades three or four. We asked the students to report on the devices they have at home”.
The main finding is that school closures are increasing learning inequalities between students who attend state schools and those who attend private schools: “Private school children had more access to materials to use at home than public [state] school students”.
These are materials such as books, electronic devices, and study guides to aid in learning.
There seem to be two factors responsible for this divide. The first is how well-resourced the private for-profit schools are, compared to government-run schools. The second is the economic disparity between students. These conditions pre-date COVID-19, although the survey did not ask about access to materials before the outbreak. However, these inequities are exacerbated because of the pandemic.
Dr Avornyo says that private schools had better infrastructure to support online learning. For example, about 62% of private school teachers sent learning materials via WhatsApp, compared to 16% of state school teachers. However, this can also be due to whether caregivers have smart devices at home or reliable internet to facilitate online learning; 23% of children enrolled in private schools had reliable access to the internet compared to only 10% of state school children.
Though more economically privileged students have greater proximity to online learning, the pandemic is clearly impeding knowledge access across all strata. In turn, the government organises many school lessons through television and radio. While only 2% of students reported listening to the radio for learning, Dr Avornyo explains that most people in Accra have a television at home. However, 60% of pupils claimed it was difficult to stay attentive.
“I personally watched some [lessons] on TV, and as an adult, I did not enjoy it that much. So, I can see why children did not enjoy it either; they need an adult to be there with them. For example, they would ask the child to pause and to read a story, so there needs to be an adult there to facilitate that”.
This leads us to another disparity between private school and state school students; 38% of private school caregivers reported hiring tutors compared to 27% of state school caregivers. Children with private tutors had the advantage of one-on-one attention and customised instruction. The survey revealed a divide in technology and resources, in addition to class-based barriers. For instance, 68% of female caregivers reported job loss, when asked about job and income losses. This reaffirms prior reporting of COVID-19’s effects on working women.
“We can make some assumptions that staying at home requires a lot of support for students, including feeding them. When there is income loss, this leads to food insecurity. In the public [state] schools, there is a feeding programme that 41% of students were participating in before school closures. During the closures, 34% of children from the public schools reported hunger compared to 26% of children from the private schools”.
The schools have reopened now, but Dr Avornyo and her colleagues say that online learning is becoming the norm, and the government will have to invest more in technology for state schools. Furthermore, across all schools, teachers will have to do more targeted instruction because many students fell behind during the pandemic, especially students with disabilities. These children did not receive any additional learning support during the school closures, and therefore, the inequality gap is wider between them and students without special needs.
If there is another crisis where schools must close for an extended period, these measures would assist with long-distance learning. However, a strategy is also required to assist parents and carers.
Dr Avornyo says: “From what we saw during the pandemic, these policies are possible. Internet data providers gave discounted rates [to schools] and we had school feeding programmes, so the government can improve or expand on these programmes. Where I see the challenge is social support for caregivers who lost [sic] income”.
Ghana is one of the low-to-middle income countries where 1GB of mobile data is not affordable, compounding the challenges for caregivers.
“We have done a lot when it comes to access, access from kindergarten to secondary level, but now we need to focus on quality. For me particularly, at the early-childhood education level, there is more that needs to be done to improve quality such as teacher education, materials, and infrastructure”.
Evidently, the task at hand is to raise the standards so that high-quality learning is available to every child, whether low, middle or high income.
Written By: Sabine Franklin – born and bred New Yorker, she earned her Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Westminster in 2020. Her expertise is in international development, global health governance, and political economy. She tweets @SabineFranklin
Header Image: UNICEF/UNI330861/Dejongh