|Girls and Basic Education - A Cultural Enquiry - Education Research Paper No. 23 (DFID, 1998, 160 p.)|
In this study we have attempted to do three things: first to provide an argument for acknowledging and using the cultural dimension in educational development, second to put the case for a culturally more appropriate research methodology; and third to address the issue of access and gender in schooling within a cultural framework.
The argument for taking more account of cultural issues in education and development is now gathering pace, particularly amongst those dissatisfied with economic-centred models of change in developing country settings. Though the concept of culture is far from simple it does seem possible to arrive at a working definition which views the concept as both about what people think and do and how we, as educators or development people, describe and evaluate those beliefs and actions. The time is now past when culture was viewed as something 'they' did in exotic climates, it now being concerned with issues of relationships (e.g. with time, the environment, power and hierarchy) maintained and changing amongst people and agencies involved in the social domains of the economy, home and the school.
The case for a more culturally-appropriate research methodology has also been well put: the debate moving on from crude debates about quantitative or qualitative approaches to an examination of methods of social enquiry that take greater account of the cultural nature of that investigation.
One of the aims of this study was to demonstrate a case for according more weight to the use of biographical and life history methods in educational research. In doing so the researcher is faced with maintaining two parallel sets of tensions - first in the balance that needs to be struck between the individual and the contextually-situated nature of individual experiences and second in the balance between the subjective and objective.
In the description and analysis of the study's findings an attempt was made to keep in check these sets of tensions with 'objective' contextual material providing breadth and setting contrasted with the 'subjective' testimonies drawn from individual life histories.
In taking this approach we are emphasising two dimensions of cultural importance: that the teachers' and girl pupils' life histories be told in their own words (and that these 'voices' are given 'space' in the text) and that, as far as possible, be embedded in genealogies of context. If space had permitted we would have liked to have provided room for full life histories of selected individuals. As it is we have attempted to draw out of the experiences common and shared concerns which should be of use to educationists and aid personnel interested in learning from the grassroots what is and what could be.
In focusing upon the problems of access to and dropping-out of school by young women and girls in one national setting, this study provides a good opportunity for us to gain a greater understanding of the cultural nature of both problem and solution.
In the first domain of the home a picture was painted of a society shaped by matters of kinship, descent, and the extended family. The practice of fostering and its impact on educational opportunities for young girls was identified as one area of particular importance. The work expected of a child (girls being required to take a larger share) in the home was also identified as a barrier to achieving greater participation of young people in schooling. Attention was also paid to the cultural values inculcated in the child: godliness, obedience, humility, hospitality, gratitude and national pride, and the effect, particularly of obedience and humility towards elders, upon the schooling of girls in a Western-type education system.
Finally, we looked briefly at the major changes occurring within the Ghanaian family e.g. the re-structuring of authority patterns within the home, the changing role of women within society and the likely impact these might have on the girl-child's life at school.
The Northern and Southern settings for the two case studies provided some evidence for the view that support for schooling was generally strong in the South and more so in urban than rural settings. Opportunities for women to play a greater part in the social and economic life of the nation had led, paradoxically, to a situation where urban extended families looked to poorer relatives in the rural villages to provide help in the home.
Three issues emerged as significant when women teachers and girls talked about growing up, namely the traditional and widely-held attitudes concerning what girls and women could and could not do; the expectations of girls vis-à-vis those of boys; and for girls the importance of successful women as role models. The support offered a girl whilst in school by members of the extended family and the problems young women face at times of family break-up provide food for thought particularly when considering the targeting of aid towards those most in need. Identifying the child-at-risk as well as the drop out would follow with the necessity for closer collaboration between professionals working within the social development and educational arenas.
The experiences of girls and young women give testimony to these changes, with poverty and family break up on the one hand; and on the other, for the successful woman teacher support from the father being factors that determine their futures.
The second domain - the economic described the situation of poverty in Ghana from a macro and micro perspective, arguing that economic policies such as structural adjustment in the former create an array of 'winners' and 'losers' in the latter. The child-at-risk portrayed in our first section more often as not resides within an economically vulnerable household where relative lack of wealth is contingent upon location, gender, age and health.
The relationship between poverty and schooling is particularly striking within this nation setting with evidence that structural adjustment and 'dash for growth' economic strategies provide, 'a strong and positive relationship' between enrolment and poverty status. There is also surprising support for private education (particularly in the capital) and evidence that the mean parental expense of educating girls is significantly higher than that for boys at both primary and secondary levels.
The experience of poverty of those interviewed fell into two broad categories: the first termed, 'the culture of power' - a critical understanding of current and past circumstances that bring about poverty, and the second, the 'power of culture' - in which individuals and communities speak the language of possibility and coping strategies.
In the first case, it is clear that many girls are put at risk economically for very small amounts of money and that some parents, particularly fathers, are abrogating their responsibilities in supporting their daughters, leaving the girls themselves to juggle between attending school and becoming the family breadwinner. The value women teachers put upon the financial sacrifices of their family in supporting them through school and college indicates the importance in differentiating between willingness and ability to pay for an offspring's schooling.
A consequence of the liberalisation of the economy and an encouragement of the free market has been the realisation by many family members that being out of school is more profitable for their child than being in. This has serious implications for those involved in improving the quality of Basic Education, with parents more conscious of schools providing 'value for money' and more effective vocationally-orientated training.
A curious view to emerge from the experiences of older and younger females is the belief that economically times are much harder now. It would appear that though, on a macro-scale, Ghana experienced severe economic depression in the late 1970's and 1980's, many feel that the quality of schooling remained high with parents shielded from the financial burdens faced by parents currently.
In terms of ways forward the research confirms the view that whereas in the past schooling was viewed as "free" parents today are much more discriminating in their attitude to sending their children to school, many taking the view that 'failure' in examination or the incidence of pregnancy "wastes" precious economic resources.
Solutions to help those in financial difficulty include reducing school fees for the very poor, payment of fees in instalments, and recognition that many girls can finance their own education given flexibility in school hours and curriculum.
A re-examination of the relationship between the world of the school and the world of work is necessary therefore and needs to take account of the experiences of those who manage to succeed through school often as a result of their own resilience and resourcefulness.
The world of school made up our third domain. Here we found a situation where many of the core cultural values described earlier translated into how the teacher behaves and how he or she expects the children to learn. Knowledge valued for its own sake, reliance upon question and answer and rote learning, and fluctuations in the quality of educational provision, particularly between the North and the South of the country, shape the educational experiences of most children.
A major issue seems to be the amount of time on task a child experiences with many children spending significant periods of the school day doing nothing and learning very little. The rhetoric of educational reform needs to be placed alongside the lack of attention (even in the rhetoric) to issues of language policy and teaching - learning methodology.
The women and girls interviewed, once again showed an optimism and sense of realism in looking for ways forward. These tended to be grouped into two broad areas: first ways in which the community can continue to help schools with provision of furniture, lunch-time snacks for children, housing for teachers, and secondly arrangements made within the school to improve the teaching-learning process. Here the 'voices' of the children need to be listened to much more with sensible suggestions advocating such things as reading clubs and class libraries.
The life of the teacher is generally a sorry one with many still enjoying their career but believing that it was much more difficult now with teachers receiving less respect from the children and the community and for many seeing teaching as a stepping stone to a better paid and higher status occupation.
For children, life at school is worthwhile in terms of potential social investment but an experience fraught with difficulty and disappointment. Heavy emphasis upon punishment, the equation of success with the academic, and a belief that education is given to rather than being drawn out of a child characterises the culture of many schools.
The 'too old for the class' girls and those with special needs are most at risk with learning difficulties being see as the responsibility of the child rather than the school or the teacher.
In terms of policy implications this research indicates that much more needs to be done in framing both problem and solution within a holistic framework that takes account of the domains of home, economy and school. The chart below gives a number of examples of ways forward which, though located in a particular domain, should be viewed within the larger world of the child's life.
That home life for many schoolgirls is shaped by matters of kinship, descent and the extended family. The practice of fostering and the work expected of many girls has implications for the development of compulsory schooling.
That recognition be given to the cultural values inculcated in the child at home. Obedience and deference to elders, for example, will have implications for those keen to develop more child-centred teaching methods.
That the situation of rural girls be accorded particular attention e.g. in the development of non-formal provision for girls working as domestic servants in urban homes.
That attitudes towards the education of girls still raises
questions of parental awareness of the benefits of schooling, the necessity of
examining the support available for poor families to send girls to school, and
the broader question of the amount and flexibility of schooling
That the concept of the 'Girl Child' be extended to include the 'Girl Child at Risk'. It is clear that 'drop-out' is not an event but a process and often involves very small amounts of money. The question of 'safety net' provision at national and local level needs to accompany policies to increase participation in schooling.
That macro economic policies such as structural adjustment create an array of 'winners' and 'losers', particularly at the micro level of extended family. The encouragement of the free market has also led to a realization for many that being out of school is more profitable for their child than being in.
That in many poor homes the sole breadwinner is the girl-child at school. Recognition of this needs to be accompanied by more flexible school time tabling and a re-appraisal of vocational training.
That the introduction of school fees has meant that 'success' is now a question of a return on an investment. The 'culture of failure' in many schools with excessive and poorly administered assessment procedures can have major consequences for the underachieving child.
That solutions to these problems lie in both hands of
policy-makers and in the creative way many girls and young teachers juggle the
relationship between the world of school and the world of work.
That schools are still places where many children spend significant periods of time doing nothing and learning very little. Many of the cultural core values described earlier translate into how the teacher behaves and how he or she expects the child to learn.
That little attention is paid to the 'culture of the classroom' where issues of attitude to knowledge, teaching methodology, and language policy constrain efforts to implement reform.
That the life of the teacher is still very hard with many perceiving their profession as low status. Improving the position of teacher requires not only better conditions of service but the development of professional practices within schools. Such a task falls to the head teacher well supported by district education offices.
That the experiences of the child in school be accorded more
importance. The frequency of punishment, support in the learning of literacy and
numeracy, and the existence of successful women teachers as role models for
girls and boys are areas mentioned by many children. We need to listen to what
the young people are telling us about their educational experiences and the
solutions provided by them.
For those charged with improving the educational system it would seem important to look not just at an array of inputs that need putting into the system or the outputs as measured by examination scores but to giving greater priority to the day-to-day processes of teaching; to examine ways in which the teacher can be better supported in what he or she tries to achieve. Giving more attention to the cultural dimension of being a teacher will result in considering such issues as the social standing of the profession, the interface between the teacher's life in the classroom and in the community, and in enhancing the career path of those who enter the profession. The importance of successful women as role models to young female pupils and the negative stereotyping of some women within the profession are also matters of concern.
Finally, much more importance needs to be accorded to the voices of those most affected by educational reform. The women and girls interviewed in this study are not passive recipients of Government or Donor initiative but resourceful individuals able to provide ideas and solutions grounded in the realities of their daily lives. It is up to us to listen.