Lessons in girl power in Ghana's schools

Ghana school class Mataheko school: Schools take part in interactive lessons directed from a studio in Accra

There are women walking through Accra's crowded streets performing remarkable balancing acts.

They have pyramids of fruit, water bottles and coils of clothing carried in bundles on their head. Their backs are ram-rod straight, their footing certain even in the steaming wet heat of Ghana's rainy season.

But there are other bigger balancing acts facing young women in this West African country.

How do they stay in education and avoid pressures such as early marriage and leaving school without any of the basic skills needed for work?

An innovative interactive education project is trying to improve girls' opportunities in school.

Making Ghanaian Girls Great is a pilot project testing daily catch-up lessons in English and maths in 72 state schools in two regions of Ghana.

Teacher absenteeism

The project, implemented by GEMS Education Solutions, is funded by the UK government's Department for International Development, as part of a project to help educate a million of the world's poorest girls, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nana Ogyedon Tsetsewah Nana Ogyedon Tsetsewah says cultural attitudes hold back girls

It's a hi-tech response to a low-tech problem. How do you get standardised lessons to widely scattered schools, where there are uncertain teaching standards and deep-rooted problems of teacher absenteeism?

It uses a form of online television, providing live lessons from a studio in Accra. The schools, without internet access and without a reliable power supply, are equipped to receive the lessons with a satellite dish and solar panels.

It's an interactive two-way system, so teachers in the television studio can talk directly and take questions and answers from pupils working with their own teachers in classes.

As well as one-hour lessons in maths and English there are after-school clubs - called Wonder Women lessons - designed to build-up girls' confidence and give them a chance to talk to role models.

Girls can ask questions about health, education or careers - and the lessons are aimed not just at girls at school, but also those who have dropped out.

Multiple marriages

The project was launched in Accra last week, with support from education officials and local traditional leaders.

Chairing the event was Nana Ogyedon Tsetsewah, a chieftain in Gomoa Akyempim in Ghana's central region. Her elevation to this traditionally male role was itself a cause of resentment.

Teaching studio, Accra Maths and English lessons are broadcast live from a studio in Accra

But she says how she really started a scandal was refusing to accept a system of multiple marriages, in which young women became older men's wives.

These young girls, only children themselves, are then effectively cut off from education and any chance of wider horizons.

"What happens is a girl of 11 or 12 years gets pregnant and she drops out of school. They think the woman's role is to have children."

'Life is war'

The obstacle to education in rural Ghana isn't a lack of school buildings, she says, it's about ingrained prejudices towards girls.

Ghana bank note Banking on change: The project aims to keep girls from dropping out of education

Uneducated parents don't value education for girls. "There's always that pull back," says Nana Tsetsewah.

"My people count their blessings as the number of children a man has."

There is a local proverb in her language that she says sums up the tough daily struggle of the rural poor: "Life is war."

And all too often it is girls who lose out from the short-term pressures for another income or one less mouth to feed.

But Nana Tsetsewah says there are changes - mobile phones and the internet are letting young people see another world and it's creating its own unexpected pressures.

Young people are frustrated by seeing an unobtainable life. From rural Ghana they're looking in at the global shop window of YouTube and Facebook - and they don't want to work the land any more.

She says she is a supporter of modernisation - and says it will bring gains - but also recognises "we're losing our culture bit by bit".

With echoes of unrest in several West African countries, she says that such tensions can be exploited by extremists promoting ethnic violence.

Tin roof and satellite

Muniratu Issifu, project manager for Making Ghanaian Girls Great, says that keeping girls in education is a key to making progress.

But the schools have to be seen by parents to be providing a good quality education. Something as practical as bad weather or bad roads could mean teachers routinely missing lessons, she says.

Screen on classroom wall The television lesson is projected on to a classroom wall

Mataheko school, in the Ningo Prampram district, is testing the interactive lessons.

It has bare floors and old wooden desks, with goats and chickens pottering around outside in the playground. But poking through the tin roof is a satellite dish, which links the school to the lessons being delivered by a teacher in a small television studio in Accra.

The screen is a whitewashed wall and it shows videos, singing and clapping exercises and the other classes taking part at the same time.

Measuring progress

Head teacher Vanderwell Augustt Gordor welcomes the extra lessons. It's a much more active style of learning and part of the process is to share different teaching techniques.

The pupils seem to like joining in and are impressively patient when the technology goes down.

Gordon Carver, project director for GEMS, says there will be a two-and-a-half-year tracking process to see how the results might have been improved for those children taking part.

Head teacher Head teacher Vanderwell Augustt Gordor welcomes the extra video lessons

He wants to apply a more systematic approach to understanding what works. There has been much international attention on the lack of school places in sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 30 million without any access to primary school.

But such global monitoring by Unesco has revealed the desperately poor quality of some schooling, with children spending years in classrooms but still remaining illiterate.

The on-screen lessons are also providing an extra daily resource to some hard-pressed teachers. In some schools there might only be a single qualified teacher for hundreds of pupils, Mr Carver says - and the two hours a day of television teaching could be an important addition.

The problem of teacher absenteeism has meant on average there has been no teacher at all in more than a quarter of lessons, says Mr Carver.

In many ways it might be seen as a case of necessity being the mother of invention - or a rather sophisticated workaround. It addresses the absence of broadband or reliable electricity and a shortage of teachers. It's a durable, scalable use of computer technology to fill a gap in learning and teacher training.

But in the end wouldn't it be better to have enough good teachers who could be there in person?

Digital learning

Curiously this experiment in West Africa taps into some of the ideas being tested in Western education systems.

Balancing act Balancing act: A parent walking past a school in Ningo Prampram

Digital learning is a hot topic, whether in the form of online masterclass lessons for schools or massive online open courses for higher education.

Charlotte Pierre, deputy director for the DFID in Ghana, says that education shouldn't be seen in isolation. Improving girls' education benefits the wellbeing of the wider community, improving health and reducing the likelihood of early marriage.

The UK government's aid policy has a big push on girls' education and teacher quality.

In Ghana, Ms Pierre says "inequality remains a big issue", with the need to narrow the gap in outcomes between the richest and poorest and girls and boys.

It's a country with many visible contrasts. At the launch of the Making Ghanaian Girls Great project there were traditional "queen mothers" in their headdresses and finery recording the event on an iPad.

There has been strong and sustained economic growth - with growing trading partners such as China. The roads of the capital are choked with cars - even though there are potholes that seem to be the size of small caves.

Ghana has invested in education as the passport to becoming a middle-income country.

"Education is the key to the development of any society," said Anthony Klopka, from the Ada West district assembly. But girls' education has been "falling on the rocks".

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