The structure of basic education inherited from the missionaries and the British colonial administration is comprised of six years of primary school and four years of middle school. The official age at which pupils begin schooling is six. Until the introduction of educational reforms in 1987, the 10 years of elementary schooling constituted the first circle of education. All students completing the tenth grade wrote the Middle School Leaving Certificate Examination conducted by the West African Examination Council (WAEC). Established by a 1951 Ordinance, the Examination Council conducts all public examinations for the former British West African countries and Liberia.
The reforms of 1987 reduced the first circle of education to nine years, with the seventh through ninth grades designated as Junior Secondary School (JSS). Successful candidates are admitted to a four-year Senior Secondary School (SSS) system. The rational for reform was originally stated in the Dzobo Committee Report of the mid-1970s, which called for a new type of education that was consistent with national development. Similar to the observations of the Phelps-Stokes Report of 1923, the Dzobo Committee argued for the introduction of more vocational, science, and agricultural courses at the JSS level. Thus, while a general education was provided during the first six years of primary education, it was argued that students attending the JSS should be given the chance to test a variety of practical courses. Those who showed propensity for practical education were to be encouraged to enter vocational and technical institutions, while the others continued with the curriculum associated with the traditional secondary school system. The four-year SSS curriculum is tested in the standardized Senior Secondary School Examination, also conducted by the WAEC. Successful candidates are considered for admission to tertiary institutions for further education in specialized fields.
While some have praised the government's courage to implement reform policies, the new system has also been criticized. The main problem was that the national government called on local governments to provide for the workshop and labs anticipated for the JSS system. Critics feared the increased financial burden on the communities, and it was argued that children in well-to-do communities would fare better than those in the least endowed areas. The reality of the past 10 years, however, has been that many well-to-do parents have sent their wards to the private JSS institutions that opened in the wealthy communities. The rational was that the betterendowed private schools would better prepare children to gain admission to the prestigious secondary schools now designated as part of the new SSS system. On the one hand, it has been observed that the increased establishment of the private JSS was consistent with the privatization of the national economy that characterized the 1980s. On the other hand, critics see the trend in education as favoring the wealthy and widening the gap between haves and the have-nots, since in the end, better preparatory secondary education makes it easier to gain admission into the nation's universities. Ironically, it has also been argued in some quarters that those with influence have coveted the few government scholarships that are to go only to the very bright students.
There continue to be opportunities, however, for education expansion in Ghana. Advanced vocational and technical education is available through various polytechnic institutes. Nursing and teacher training are now offered exclusively to postsecondary candidates. Professional training in accounting and management courses can also be obtained outside the universities. In fact, the compression of the second circle of education resulting from the reforms has tremendously swollen the university application pool. In the past decade, it was typical for SSS graduates to wait for two years before gaining admission to university programs. The universities responded to the severe bottleneck by admitting more students than they normally would. With limited space available in the old facilities, larger classes and overcrowding in student residence halls occurred, thus creating tension between students, university administrators, and the government. The Ghana University Teachers' Association has also complained about salaries and work conditions. Given the gravity of the problems, it is not surprising that periodic disruptions in the academic year occurred as a result of strikes. These concerns, notwithstanding, Ghana has made great progress in the provision of schools in the past half century. This reality is reflected in the significant reduction in the national adult illiteracy rate—it was 75 percent in 1960, approximately 60 percent in 1970, nearly 57 percent in 1980, about 43 percent in 1990, and almost 30 percent in 2000.
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