So You Want to Build a School In Africa?

Well, it turns out that you have plenty of opportunities to do so:

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But, are you absolutely sure that it’s what you want to do? What are your motivations? What impact do you hope to have? If it were me, the driving force behind taking part in such an activity would be to provide education to those who don’t currently have access. I would hope to change the lives of those people by giving them an opportunity at a better future.

It’s amazing how easy it is to link the physical structure which houses the process of education with good education and, by extension, a chance at a better future. I think that sometimes the process which goes into producing such a structure in Canada is taken for granted. It’s not as simple as erecting a building with classrooms, then filling the place with students and watching their bright minds blossom. Will there be resources for those students? Will there be staff? Who will manage the school? What funding sources will it draw from? Will there be access to running water and electricity? These are just some questions that must be addressed before choosing a place for a school.

Generally, the information to answer such questions is readily available in Canada and it’s probably safe to assume that, barring any politicization, the school will be built in an area where students will be able to access it. Keep in mind that “access” is a complex thing; it doesn’t just mean physical access to a building. In fact, I like to think of access as a lack of barriers. When it’s thought of in this way, access becomes an idea that encompasses staffing, resources, facilities, location, transportation, management, and community sensitization.

Aside from all of the questions that I’ve been throwing out, there’s one big one that must be answered: is the school needed?

As leading as it may be, this question is one with a complex answer. When is a school needed? When there are students to learn in it? When a community requests it? When there is money to build one? Integrating all of these factors (and plenty more) into one decision is a tough task faced by District and Regional offices in Ghana. It’s one that involves a certain level of risk, as well: place a school in a low-access area and children in the area won’t be able to get the education that ought to be provided at the school; place it in a high access area and it is likely to be faced with overstaffing or crowding issues that will require management in the future.

There’s something else to consider: Africa is diverse. There are 54 countries on this continent and not all are in need. Truthfully, I can only speak for the Northern Region (NR) of Ghana when I say that I don’t think building a school is the best option in which to invest your money if improving education access is what you’re looking to do. Okay, I’ve got to give something to back that statement, so here it is:

Enrolment and Students Per Classroom in JHS in Northern Ghana, 2007-2010

Please note that this data is only for Junior High Schools (JHSs) in the Northern Region of Ghana for the last four years. It comes from a mix of EMIS data (I talked of the collection method previously) and data collected directly from districts by the REO. I’ve done my best to verify that the two sources are within 5-10% of each other.

You can see that enrolment is increasing in the NR. In fact, on average, it increased by 8000 students/year (R = 0.97) over the 2007-2010 period. However, the pace at which new schools is built has been more than adequate to meet this increase in enrolment. Over the same period, the ratio of students per classroom dropped by 1.3 students/year (R = 0.82). It looks to me like the NR has enough JHSs and is managing to keep up with the demand of enrolment in constructing new ones.

What’s more alarming in my opinion are the BECE results for the same time period:

BECE Results in Northern Ghana, 2007-2010

The Basic Education Certificate Exam (BECE) is a standardized test for all of West Africa that tests JHS students’ basic ability in Maths, English, and Integrated Science. If a student doesn’t pass the BECE, s/he will not go to Senior High School (SHS) and will not be eligible for university.

For the last four years, there has been little change in the BECE pass rate in the NR. The boys sit at an average of 47% passing and the girls sit at about 33% passing. That averages out to a pass rate of about 40% over the last four years and translates to about 51 000 students (29 000 boys, 22 000 girls) who have not had the opportunity to go to SHS. For those 51 000 students, JHS3 is the exit point from education for the rest of their lives. To me, this leaky pipeline is a more serious issue than the need for new schools right now in the NR.

But, you know what? It’s not really my place to identify the education issues that the NR is facing right now. It’s not my job. I’m here to help my office to create a process to do that themselves. As it turns out, Alhassan was the one who wanted to investigate this trend; the above analysis is all his own. He also wants to ensure that it continues to be observed in the coming years so that the planning office here can understand what’s going on in the NR in order to make effective plans.

So, you want to build a school in Africa? Well, alright. But, please stop and ask for the data and make sure that it will indeed be a place to sustainably house the complex process of education first. You wouldn’t build one without ensuring this in Canada, so why wouldn’t you do the same in an African country?


This is the original article that I had written. A smart person told me that blogs are a good space for controversy, though, so I decided to push out of my comfort zone yesterday. Isn’t it interesting that a blatantly controversial post gets me 100 views and 4 comments in 2 hours, but one that comes from my heart and headspace gets 12 views and 1 comment in an entire day? Why is it that controversy is required to get a discussion flowing? If you have a minute to let me know, or if you just have something to say about this article, drop me a comment. Much love.


7 responses to “So You Want to Build a School In Africa?

  1. Because a comment for this post would be:

    Mmm. Yes. Reasonable.

    • But why? Why is it that the tone of writing is the aspect that makes people want to say something and not the content? To give my opinion, I think that the data sovereignty issue actually has a larger negative impact on education in the NR than do-gooding schoolbuilding and I indirectly said that in the EMIS post. So why should my sarcasm override the content?
      I’m asking a bunch of questions to which you probably don’t have answers, but these questions are open to anyone.

  2. Hahaha, hat-tip Bailey.

    I feel like I get your question though. Writing from a place of passion can often make your entries really powerful, but controversy tends to tap into the heart-and-headspace of OTHERS–which means it stirs passions, gets discussed, is shared, and then rediscussed, ad nauseam. Like it or not, publishing (especially web-based publishing) makes writing a performance art–and if it’s not snappy, trendy, or easy to engage with, many people…well, don’t engage.

    (Also, putting “data” and “sovereignty” in conjunction with each other gets MY attention, but I can definitely understand it being a little intimidating to many folks.)

    It’s the same struggle we slog through every day: the stuff we’re passionate about isn’t always sexy, but we’re passionate about it because it works. Aaaand as per usual, our challenge is conveying the sexiness of effectiveness.

    I can only hope for the day that our average plebian’s priorities and understanding shifts so your EMIS post causes the same response and uproar that your schools one does.

    ONE DAY, good sir.

  3. Saundra wrote a really neat post about ‘why aid bloggers get snarky’: ( which basically boils down to ‘because we get frustrated’ and ‘because people pay attention,’ which is part of the reason why certain aid blogs are more popular than others (Pavlov works in mysterious ways). I kind of get the tone argument, because it can be alienating or less persuasive, but on the other hand bad aid is FRUSTRATING and keeps HAPPENING, and the I’M IN A RAAAAAGE (first person to get that reference gets a cookie) impulse is really, really high so it’s understandable. (I feel like you’re probably in the know about tone arguments in anti-oppresion tho; not precisely the same situation here, but there are parallels.)

    I think more controversial posts tend to get a higher sharing rate because there’s something for people to either go “YES, UGH FINALLY, THIS THIS THIS!” or “WHY DO YOU HATE AFRICAN CHILDREN CHRIS DON’T YOU WANT THEM TO HAVE A SCHOOL” as opposed to a smart, heart-and-head driven post like this one or the Data one which, as Bailey said, would get a “Huh. Yeah that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that but it makes sense, cool.”

    (This is also why media outlets like to flail instead of doing Proper Journalism.)

    Also, I would like to add a big “THIS’ to Ash’s comment.

    Good post tho. Me likee 😉 Reminds me of Mina’s “Perspectives” piece on systems as opposed to schools.

  4. Chris! Yes! THIS THIS THIS!

    But seriously, I’m going to comment from simply an arguement-approach perspective rather than on the content: I read this post before reading your previous post and thought “Wow! Finally, somebody has provided some reasonable evidence on why stuctures aren’t a substitute for systems without getting all ‘RAR NOBODY UNDERSTANDS AFRICAAAA, NGOS ARE DUMB!’ ”

    Go with this. It is far more engaging than the snark. Clare, I’m also a big fan of that NotEnough Snark post – I remember reading it during the great “1 million shirts” debacle and feeling conflicted. Irreverence has its place in the great debate, but being harsh and mean can also alienate when it doesn’t have to.

    It’s not that we need to eliminate passion and critical discussion from the arguement – BUT I think what Chris skillfully recognized here is that he’s not the first dude to write about why building schools isn’t a substitute for education, and he won’t be the last. What he is is thoughtful, critical, well-researched, locally-informed and passionate, and that made me listen with an openness that I don’t always have when reading rants and raves and over-dramatic criticisms.

  5. I’ve thought about this question a fair bit since we talked yesterday, and i have a couple of things to say.

    I consider myself to be of above-average intelligence, and definitely have above-average reading comprehension, but I got mired down in your post on data sovereignty. Although it may have come from your heart, it was incredibly difficult for me to get through, as much as i wanted to. Contrast that to your post of sarcastic excellence, where I had a much easier time getting through it, because of the almost-humour and because of the tone.

    A lot of the time, readership isn’t based on content so much as style, and snark is much mroe enjoyable to read than just straight factual prose (Why do you think i spend so much time on tumblr?!?!)

    Even comparing these two articles I believe that your snark post will get everyone’s attention, while presenting the same facts.

    Or, conversely, it may just impact me more since sarcasm comes out of my pores.

  6. Haha! Nicely done…I was back in here looking for another post that Alex recommended, and got a bit confused reading this one…it seemed to be saying the same thing! I was trying to figure out why you would post the same thing twice. I get it! I actually like this one a bit better, but the pure entertainment value of the snark version could easily override my better judgement here. This one is cool because you talk about Alhassan being more of the instigator here, which is really awesome to hear! And the sharing aspect does play a big part in it…I saw the first one because it was shared on facebook! It’s way more fun to have loudly stated opinions that people are more likely to respond to. They’re different, in a world where it seems like we’re supposed to be politically correct and nice nice to everyone, seeing some strong criticism is exciting.
    Thanks for having this second one to come down to. I think I took in the information a lot better in this second read (not as distracted being entertained?).

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