Bridging Gaps in Education: How Constructive Engagement Revitalized School Communities in Ghana

Teachers participating in the project test the use of the mobile app. 

The use of innovative approaches and constructive engagement resulted in demonstrable improvements to education service delivery in the Upper West Region of Ghana within the context of a social accountability project, according to the project managers.

“The project…revitalized active collaboration between school administration and village structures Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) and School Management Committees (SMCs) to help improve primary education,” said Sule Dintie, executive director of SAVE-Ghana and project manager. By focusing project activities on improving communication and engagement across various stakeholders in primary education, the project laid the groundwork for a whole-of-society approach that will continue to ensure transparency and integrity in education structures. In addition, said Pietronella van den Oever, a Partnership for Transparency (PTF) board member and adviser working on the project, “the intervention logic used a (winning) combination of traditional and non-confrontational multistakeholder discussions…and ultra-modern resources such as a cutting-edge mobile app, to get the desired results of decreasing teacher absenteeism and getting more children, especially girls, in school.”

The project, called BRIDGE-GAP: Reduction of the Gender-Specific and Regional Education Gaps in Northern Ghana, was implemented by SAVE-Ghana and the Partnership for Transparency Europe (PTF-Europe) from 2020-2021 and funded by the Schmitz Foundations. Working in collaboration with Regional, Municipal, and District Directorates of the Ministry of Education, the project contributed to strengthening basic education governance structures such as the SMCs, PTAs, and District Education Oversight Committees (DEOCs) to facilitate effective planning, monitoring, and supervision of primary education and promoting parental and community participation in school governance to ensure that resources are effectively utilized.

Notably, this project targeted the same seven pilot schools as the very first SAVE-Ghana project to improve primary education governance, conducted with the Partnership for Transparency during the 2010–2011 school year. The intentional return to the same project locations allowed for detailed documentation of observed changes over ten years.

To achieve the project’s objectives, primary activities included the development of a mobile app to track teacher attendance, the introduction of community scorecards, and the facilitation of a variety of different stakeholder engagements. According to DintIe and van den Oever, this combination of activities, supplemented by the capacity building where needed, resulted in the overall success of the project.

The project managers joined PTF’s Rachel Ansley for an interview about the project’s outcomes, successes, and lessons learned. Read their views below:

Q: How does this project fit into the overall framework of anti-corruption efforts in Ghana’s education sector?

SD: The project is in fit perfectly with an overall anti-corruption framework in that its strategy is to work on the demand side, causing a shift in the power relations by empowering and enhancing the voices of parents, pupils, and communities to advocate and demand quality basic education, hence striking on transparency and accountability as the key pillars of an anti-corruption framework. On the supply side, the project improved the monitoring functions of the education service providers through the use of the mobile application developed thereby.

PVDO: Teachers’ absenteeism used to be a crucial problem in northern Ghana. The mobile app, combined with enhanced, non-confrontational monitoring of teachers’ presence in the classroom by communities, has shown that on average 85 percent of all teachers are present in schools, up about 10 percent from a year earlier in the latest school year (’20-‘21). When SAVE-Ghana implemented the first Education Governance project, one finding from the baseline survey was, that teachers were absent on average more than 50 percent of the time they were supposed to teach. The mobile app to monitor teacher attendance was recently introduced in these seven target schools that were the target audience of the very first PTF-supported Education Governance project (2010-2011). This mobile app was developed and introduced by SAVE-Ghana five years ago and field tested in other districts. During the 2020-2021 school year the original app was enhanced by adding a feature to develop lesson plans, and to allow parents and community members to make an occasional “virtual visit.” By September 2021 around 50 percent of teachers in the seven schools were consistently using the app in their daily teaching activities.

Q: What was the most innovative activity incorporated into the project?

SD: The project logic and results are anchored on the innovative application of a web-based technology platform to monitor teacher absenteeism in basic schools, boost contact hours, and improve learning outcomes. The information generated by the platform, among other sources, will enhance community voices through the use of a community scorecard tool to assess the various policy components of education service delivery to promote education delivery in basic schools.

PVDO: The intervention logic used a (winning) combination of traditional and non-confrontational multistakeholder discussions to come to an agreement, and ultra-modern resources such as a cutting-edge mobile app, to get the required results of decreasing teacher absenteeism and getting more children, especially girls, in school and keeping the children in school until completion of the entire primary education cycle.

Q: What was the greatest success story from this project?

SD: The project results have shown progressive improvements in the capacity of community-level governance structures (PTAs and SMCs). Hitherto, most of the schools’ PTAs and SMCs did not have executives, and the few that did were seemingly dormant. New governance structures (PTAs and SMCs) have been formed in schools that did not have them and reconstituted where those structures were dormant. Additionally, the newly formed and reconstituted structures have been empowered to be able to perform their functions effectively. This is largely a result of the training and capacity building sessions received by these structures under the project. For instance, on average three unannounced visits have been conducted by executive members of SMCs and PTAs as part of their monitoring functions in all 88 schools over the past ten years. This has been recorded in the visitors’ registers of the schools in question within the reporting periods. School Performance Improvement Plans are also progressively participatory (involving the relevant community stakeholders).

Evidence points to improved relationships and interactions between school authorities (Heads of Schools, District Directorate of Education and DEOCs); and PTAs and SMCs; and communities and parents. PTAs and SMCs now have direct access to the district and regional directorates of education to express their concerns or give feedback, especially regarding matters that have not been taken up by head teachers at the school levels. Head teachers are also increasingly open to suggestions and constructive criticisms. This has solved numerous petty issues at the school level. Traditional authorities have also begun discussions with the district authorities on the need to enact by-laws to prevent child marriages, elopement, and other customary practices that hinder girls’ education. Given this openness, mutual suspicion between community members and headteachers is beginning to erode.

PVDO: The project contributed significantly to increasing the transparency and accountability in the delivery of primary education to the rural population in northern Ghana. Concretely, this had led to a significant decrease in irregular behavior patterns of teachers and other school personnel. For instance, the solicitation by teachers for unauthorized monetary contributions from parents has virtually ceased to occur. The same is true for teachers taking pupils out of the classroom to work on their agricultural fields, which has become very rare. Here again, cell phones come to the rescue, because parents who encounter such an instance can take a picture as proof of the case.

Q: What were the major lessons learned?

SD: When engaging in activities to improve primary education governance, aggressive or confrontational approaches to engaging duty bearers in social accountability projects rarely, if ever, yields positive results. A diplomatic approach is essential to achieve progress. Nevertheless, all different stakeholder groups need to be keenly aware that they will be held accountable by their rights and responsibilities. SAVE-Ghana’s motto has consistently been that “collaboration always works better than confrontation.”

The team also learned that there seems to be a pent-up desire and a strong commitment among remote populations to improve their children’s prospects and share in the advantages of modern institutions like formal education.

It is crucial to continuously monitor implementation and progress while implementing new technology or a web-based platform. It is a time-consuming and challenging process, especially in places with unreliable electricity supply and scarce technology resources.

PVDO: PTF has learned positive and not-so-positive lessons over 10 years of engagement with successive SAVE-Ghana-led education governance projects. The main positive lessons are that the proportion of children who currently attend primary school in the target region, and the proportion of these pupils who finish the entire primary cycle have both significantly increased. This is a result of three factors: 1) SAVE-Ghana’s rigorous tackling of teacher absenteeism by active engagement of the village communities, 2) use of a mobile app to track teachers’ presence in the classroom, and 3) stepped-up efforts of the Government of Ghana’s Ministry of Education. The latter can be partially attributed as well to the significant investment of time and resources by SAVE-Ghana staff who implemented a carefully crafted program of interviewing and sensitizing teachers, other school personnel, and duty bearers at various levels of the Ministry of Education.

As a not-so-positive point, we still lack precise data on the relative proportions of boys and girls who currently attend primary education in the northern region. This is due to the recent change of government, and the ensuing gap between the departure of the “old” government-appointed Ministry of Education officials and the installation of “new” ones appointed by the new Government. Thus SAVE-Ghana has “lost a generation” of officials with whom they had cultivated outstanding relationships over time.

Q: What major challenges were faced, and how were they overcome?

SD: The project encountered various challenges both expected and unexpected. Unexpected challenges included bureaucracy, low ICT knowledge, the process involved in developing a mobile application. Expected challenges were posed by unreliable mobile networks and erratic electricity.

Engaging with issues that involve multiple duty-bearers who are at different hierarchical levels of authority and function can be challenging. This is where SAVE Ghana and related civil society actors complement the efforts of lower-level service providers. SAVE Ghana’s advocacy work involving media engagement and publicizing the failures of government has been working. As this is often embarrassing, the national-level authorities are often compelled to act and release the needed resources to lower-level education service providers for work to progress. By the final stage of the project, the government released funds in due course for the smooth running of schools.

A key challenge that has also been confronted had to do with the application of innovative technology in a largely non-literate environment. The challenge posed here appeared at two levels: a) The project took place in communities and with parents who have no educational background and cannot speak, read, or understand the English language, yet their input to the innovation and the whole project logic is critical since it concerns the education of their children or wards. To sidestep this challenge, SAVE-Ghana had to translate the processes and functions of the app while at the same time introducing training in basic technological literacy. Fortunately, most community members and parents own mobile phones or have already experienced mobile telephony. This made it easier for SAVE-Ghana and its technology partner to introduce and operationalize the mobile app. b). Second, teachers, school heads, and directors involved in the project were well educated, but not ICT literate. SAVE Ghana, supported by the technology consultants, provided basic ICT literacy to enable them to input and access information through the app. Weaving through this maze of complex project stakeholders can be challenging, but rewarding in terms of learning. It also poses a test to the assumption that web-based applications can enhance citizens’ voices for effective participation and engagement.

PVDO: For PTF, it was sometimes difficult to maintain regular communication with SAVE-Ghana because of the erratic nature of telephone and internet connection. Yet, we have managed to accommodate this deficiency, since it does not affect the motivation and quality of the work. SAVE-Ghana has sometimes struggled with these challenges. For instance, in the latest project, SAVE-Ghana was requested to send all detailed original receipts to the donor agency (Schmitz Foundation) via PTF Europe, with the final report. But since there is no DHL service in Tumu, where SAVE-Ghana has its headquarters, the accountant had to make an overnight trip in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to deliver the (large) package to the DHL office in Tamale.

Q: What are the most sustainable components of this project?

SD: The GES has access to the app and will continue to use it to reduce teacher absenteeism through monitoring. The project also revitalized active collaboration between school administration and village structures (PTAs and SMCs) to help improve primary education.

PVDO: First, SAVE-Ghana is strongly rooted in its native region, and they have the trust of the local population. As a result, they have been able to rely on the continued active participation of local communities, while gaining the trust of outside donors and other players in development efforts, and the trust of regional duty bearers. This bodes well for SAVE-Ghana’s future endeavors. Second, SAVE-Ghana took the opportunity of a series of subsequent projects in Education Governance to build up a larger regional network of smaller, more dispersed CSOs operating at the local level in certain communities. Thus, SAVE-Ghana has now become a regional umbrella organization, able to mobilize and strengthen this larger network of like-minded organizations

Q: How can SAVE Ghana and other local civil society groups continue to build on the work done?

SD: SAVE-Ghana and implementing local NGOs will continue to monitor the intervention from their limited resources. Sustaining the project and maintaining the current outcomes is a priority of SAVE-Ghana, and is very important to the educational development of the region and Ghana as a whole. SAVE-Ghana has had talks with the Ghana education office, the government of Ghana through the minister for education, and other donors who are interested in sustaining the gains of the project for consideration and scaling up.

PVDO: I think that in a subsequent project SAVE-Ghana should move to the more difficult task of addressing questions on how families in far outlying areas can be reached. Two phenomena occur in these families: 1) Some of these families do not have enough food to feed all their children. Therefore, they sometimes allow their little girls to be “married off” as child brides to reduce the number of mouths to feed. 2) Families do not have the required natural resources (land and water, agricultural implements, training and credit) to earn a living in agriculture and herding. Therefore, some young boys are lured to join a rebel group in Burkina Faso, just across the border. These two phenomena could be reduced or abolished if more village oversight of school resources such as school lunches and government financial contributions for school supplies etc. would occur, and additional resources would be invested to get these children in school, and being fed, clothed, and housed properly. This would greatly enhance their prospects of finding work and increase their standard of living once they become adults.

In the meantime, SAVE-Ghana prepared a follow-up proposal, intended to build further on work initiated in the target schools, and scale up activities in these schools, while reaching out to additional schools.


The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the official views of PTF. 

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