The fight for universal education – a diary from Ghana


George Watts and Emily Pemberton, both 15, from Ysgol Gyfun Plasmawr in Cardiff, are the 2015 Young Ambassadors for the Send My Friend to School campaign. They have just returned from Ghana, a country which has made good progress towards the goal of universal primary education – 87 per cent of children are now enrolled in primary school, compared to just 60 per cent in 2004. Here are some extracts from the diary of their trip...


Day 1: Arriving in Accra

Emily: I was slightly apprehensive arriving in Africa for the first time, but also felt a rush of empathy because even in the capital city, people were begging on the streets. I could smell sweat, dirt, dust and mostly sweet food.

George: One of the first things that struck me about Accra was the concoction of languages I could hear all around me. There are 11 “official” Ghanaian languages. The smiling attitude and positive outlook on all situations is something that made me feel so welcome.

Meeting the Ghanaian National Coalition Campaign (GNECC)

Emily: We met Bright Appiah from the GNECC, part of the Global Campaign for Education, who told us about the lack of trained teachers, students dropping out of school due to farming, or helping at home, lack of accommodation for teachers, and a bucket load of other issues. Nevertheless, Bright regards the Ghanaian education system as a “model” for other African countries – enrolment has risen and gender equality has improved.

George: Although basic education is “free and compulsory” we learnt that there are still 440,000 children out of education in Ghana and one of the main barriers is the cost of uniform.

Going north: From Accra to Bawku

George: We then began a long journey with the charity ActionAid to the upper east region of Ghana. A flight to Tamale and then a five-hour car ride to Bawku, which was both thrilling and frightening, swerving to avoid animals, people and potholes.

Day 2: Visiting children in Bansi community

Emily: We travelled to a village where the mud huts were small, round, and infested with flies and other insects. Most people survive from farming soya beans, maize, and onions from the dry and dusty earth. There were failing crops and bony animals further than my eyes could see. We visited Lariba, an 11-year-old girl whose widowed mother of four struggles to feed the family. The costs of school uniform and shoes are out of her reach. 

Lariba accompanies her mother every morning to collect cow dung to be sold as fertiliser. Her mother realises the importance of education as a vital way out of poverty, but she just can’t afford to send her children to school. Lariba told me: “I don’t feel happy when my friends Grace and Mafia leave for school and I am left all alone.”

I helped her sweep her front yard with a broom made of sticks. It was hard work and put a strain on my back and Lariba’s. She said: “I don’t know what I want to do in the future, but I know I don’t want to do what I’m doing now.”

George: We also spent time with 13-year-old Ayabil who has also never been to school. His older sister Cecilia goes to school, because she works to pay for the fees, but Ayabil is needed to work on his father’s farm. It is simply a catastrophe, yet we found that these stories are common. He would like to join his friends at school and it was moving to hear how he admires them: “I like seeing them neat in their uniform and know they will have a good future”.

We had the chance to help him water his onion garden, which he does in the early morning and in the evening. His onion garden was across the White Volta River, so we accompanied him across the waters, to be told on the other side that we were now in Burkina Faso – I have now visited two African countries! That encapsulates the sheer craziness of this country, and the desperate lengths people go to in order to survive.

Day 3: Visit to Ninkogo Primary School and Junior High School (JHS)

George: We were told this was an average school, which would give us a glimpse into what upper east region education is like.

Our first task was to interview Madame Musah, the headteacher of the primary school. We were shocked to hear she has 888 pupils to only five teachers and only three are professionally qualified. Even the paid teachers can’t survive on their salaries and take up second jobs such as farming on the weekends. The delayed arrival of funding was also concerning – Ninkogo still hadn’t received its government grant for the previous year.

The teacher-to-pupil ratio makes it hard for the pupils to learn and for the teachers to carry out assessments. Only 75 per cent of enrolled children regularly attend the school, and only 70 per cent complete primary school. We heard of many pupils repeating years and ending up in classes with much younger children, resulting in being teased.

Despite these difficulties it is evident that every single child in that school wanted to be there, and knew it would benefit them whatever they decided to do – be that subsistence farming or medicine. 

We also met with the Parent Teacher Association, set up by ActionAid. It was great to chat with them and see these parents, who had been unable to have an education themselves, doing everything in their power to ensure that all children go to school. Among other things they act as “truancy inspectors” – they try and discover why children aren’t attending and help to alleviate that specific barrier.

Emily: In the classroom, alongside 100 children, it was easy to concentrate as everyone was silent. What struck me was the lack of posters on the walls and the ripped, dirty textbooks shared between at least three children. In my school, the bookshelves are stacked, and every square inch of the walls are covered in examples and tips. But in this school, it was read and repeat, read and repeat. 

In the afternoon we met the Girls Club, which I found particularly inspirational. This group, of 75 girls, set up by ActionAid, meet to discuss their rights as young women and how to tackle countless issues within their community, such as teenage pregnancy and child abuse. They actively go out and target parents who aren’t sending their child to school. 

Falila, 16, told us about a friend of theirs who became pregnant, and got pulled out of school. A few of their members visited her parents to stress how important it is for girls to attend school. Their friend is now back in school. Latifa said: “Most of the parents listen to us, they are interested and supportive.” These girls are totally going against the wind in this patriarchal society. It shows their endless passion for their fundamental human right to a basic education.

Day 4: Back to Accra

Emily and George: Good to be back in the vibrant city of Accra and off to an ActionAid project where 1,000 young women learn practical and vocational skills such as bead-making, as well as their rights as young women. This was one of the most successful projects we had visited.

The girls told us that the project has increased their self-worth, confidence and improved their communication skills. They also said they sometimes sell what they make at the project to help feed their family.

So, while I sat in the sun and threaded beads we realised these girls weren’t there because they had nothing else to do, they were there because a project like this is a lifeline to people struggling to make a living in developing countries.

Day 5: Meeting with the Ministry of Education

Emily and George: Our meeting with the Ministry of Education confirmed that the political will is there to get every child an education. They do not cover up the fact that there are still 440,000 children out of school, and that this figure isn’t going to disappear overnight. 

They are grateful for help from the UK’s Department for International Development which is funding a further 120,000 children to get to school by the end of 2018.

Ghanaian Teachers Union

We also had the pleasure of meeting with Thomas Baafi, at the Ghanaian National Association of Teachers. He confirmed that what we had seen in the upper east was a fair representation of education in rural areas.

Children cannot attend school because they are too far away, or cannot afford uniform. There aren’t enough qualified teachers for children to receive a quality education. Schools can’t attract teachers because salaries are low and there is no accommodation for them in remote areas because the government doesn’t have enough funding for infrastructure. It is a ferocious cycle that comes down to a lack of funds and the enormous challenges involved in implementing policy. 

He told us that the ideas are there – the Free School Uniform Scheme, LEAP (cash incentives for poor households) and grants – but the government isn’t reaching everywhere and therefore the children are the ones who suffer. But it also shows how a lack of a strong education system can affect everyone, pupils, families, adults. Everyone. Education affects us all. 

Arriving back home 

Emily: I will forever remember the children at Ninkogo Primary School and it is because of them that I am determined to work at my role as Young Ambassador and for every other child who hopes for a better education and a better future.

George: Ghana won’t reach the target of universal primary school by the end of the year but I feel passionately about putting my first-hand experiences into use. We must make sure world leaders know that despite this being the deadline year (for global governments’ Millennium pledge to achieve a universal primary education), it doesn’t mean that we should stop trying. This year is so important, not because it is an end – but because it is another beginning.

Further information

You can join Emily and George on the Send My Friend to School campaign by signing up for a free schools pack. Visit

CAPTION: Visiting Ghana: (from top) Emily takes part in a class at Ninkogo Junior High School; Emily helps Lariba to sweep outside her home; George waters onions with Ayabil; Ninkogo Primary School headteacher Madame Musah with pupils; Emily with girls on the ActionAid project in Accra (PHOTOS: Nana Kofi Acquah).


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