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How quality secondary and higher education can improve national leadership: lessons from Ghana

25 March 2014

Image: Student accommodation at the University of Ghana, Legon (Adam Cohn).

International leaders and experts have just gathered at the Global Education and Skills Forum to try to defuse the ‘ticking time-bomb’ of 57 million children not in primary school. But is this focus on the education crisis at primary level too narrow? Amir Jones reflects on new DLP research into education and developmental leadership in Ghana.

Our research team has had the privilege of interviewing 27 of Ghana’s key developmental leaders about their education.

Selected from a shortlist of more than 100 outstanding leaders, our interviewees helped orchestrate major democratic, economic and media reforms in Ghana over the last three decades.

What they told us is that quality senior secondary and higher education are important – many we interviewed would say vital – in developing leaders with the skills, values and networks they need to effect change.

At DLP’s Adrian Leftwich Memorial Conference I heard about Sarah Phillips’s fascinating work in Somaliland and was struck by the similarity of our findings. In Ghana as in Somaliland, everywhere you go people keep stressing the importance of one secondary school on the history of the country’s development. In Ghana’s case it is Achimota, a school founded by Ghanaian and colonial Christian progressives who were given the resources and the mandate to prepare the best young minds in Ghana for leadership.

Achimota built on a tradition of quality secondary education by British missionaries dating back to the foundation of Mfantsipim in 1876. These elite boarding schools largely operated in the coastal corridor but drew students from all over the country, as meritocratically as you could expect in a nascent state. The children of the richest families boarded with children whose parents were illiterate.

“It was my first exposure to people who were really poor – a defining thing for me”, we were told by journalist and former Minister of Information Elizabeth Ohene, a pupil at Achimota School in the 1960s.

Of the 22 leaders we asked about their social background, there was a roughly even split between agricultural poor, working class, lower middle class, professional class and the wealthy. For the generation of leaders we studied, where they went to secondary school, rather than who their parents were, seems to have been a better predictor of whether or not they would become part of the developmental elite.

Bringing young people from different ethnic and social backgrounds from all over the country to live together seems to have been a deliberate policy to encourage integration and a sense of national identity – one of Nkrumah‘s key tasks when he created Ghana in 1957. And although Ghana has seen its fair share of problems since, tension between different ethnicities and regions has not been the dominant issue it has in so many other post-colonial states.

Schools like Achimota not only gave their students a quality academic education, but they also placed great emphasis on ‘character training’, in particular developing strong moral values around leadership and service. And they provided opportunities for students to develop interests in diverse activities such as sports, drama and journalism, enabled by the fact that these institutions were almost exclusively residential, as much of Ghanaian secondary education still is.

Although around 20 schools followed this model, it was Achimota that for a long time took the lion’s share of the education budget and produced the most prominent leaders. Out of a list of 115 of the most important developmental leaders, 25% had studied at Achimota. Five of Ghana’s 12 heads of state have been educated there, including current leader John Mahama Dramani. There was clearly a deliberate strategy to invest heavily in a cadre of developmentally-minded elites.

Budding young leaders also accessed quality higher education, either at the University of Ghana in Legon, or overseas. At the University of Ghana, our leaders tended to specialise in the humanities and social sciences, in particular law and economics.

They were involved in student activism, debating political issues with fellow students and lecturers. They also had access to extensive extra-curricular activities, and describe these as important opportunities to develop leadership and technical skills.

An overseas education gave some leaders access to the leading academics (again, mainly in Law and Economics), but perhaps more importantly, exposed them to different political issues and struggles, those of both their host country and of their fellow international students. Bringing this knowledge and experience back to Ghana, they often changed the course of their own country’s development.

Education also laid the foundations of inclusive developmental networks. Investigation into the origin of relationships between our interviewees revealed that almost half were made at secondary school or university. What was particularly interesting to us was that these relationships crossed political divides, with many close relationships formed in education surviving the test of time despite huge professional differences.

The effects of all this investment in developmental education were decidedly mixed for a long time. From 1957 to 1992, Ghana alternated between short-lived democracies and military dictators, and many of the leaders we interviewed spent the 1970s and 1980s campaigning for democracy. Then, in the early 1990s, something remarkable happened. Under increasing domestic pressure, Jerry John Rawlings, Ghana’s military ruler of 11 years, transitioned the country back to democratic governance and by 2001 Ghana had its first peaceful transition of power.

This consensus on the ‘rules of the game’ amongst Ghana’s elites was hard won and, we believe, owed much to a shared experience of education at Legon and in Ghana’s best secondary schools. Leaders interviewed across the political spectrum shared common values and notions of public good that they report coming largely from those formative years in secondary school.

Since the 1980s, in Ghana as in much of Africa, there has been a massive diversion of resources from the secondary and higher sub-sectors towards basic education. The effect of this can be seen in the deterioration of the publicly-funded secondary and higher institutions – recent graduates describe sitting outside overcrowded lecture halls, receiving lectures by Chinese whispers. Whilst many are still accessing quality education, it tends to be at private institutions or through privately-funded overseas study, undermining the meritocracy that Ghana’s early educational leaders pursued.

Although the focus on basic education was justified in the interest of creating opportunity for all, it denies access to higher levels of quality education for the very people it claims to help. In trying to ensure Education for All, have we unintentionally stunted the emergence of future developmental leaders, particularly those coming from less privileged backgrounds?

As the world reflects on the experience of the Millennium Development Goals and sets out the development and global education agendas for the next 15 years, I hope our research in Ghana and Sarah’s in Somaliland provides a timely reminder of why many of us are in this game: education can be a truly transformative investment, capable of producing leaders who can build nations.

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