EDUCATIONAL REFORM IN GHANA:

THE SENIOR SECONDARY SCHOOL

by Nancy W. Keteku

In 1987, Ghana’s Ministry of Education introduced a restructured educational system that gradually replaced the British-based O-level and A-level system. The transition was completed in June, 1996, when the last class took A-level exams. The last O-level exams were administered in June 1994, although remedial exams will be offered through 1999. Educational reform affects all Ghanaian schools, public and private, except for three non-Ghanaian schools that offer the American high school, London O/A level and the IGCSE/IB curricula. The Senior Secondary School curriculum, including syllabi, schedules, exams, marking systems, and to some extent textbooks, is determined by the Ministry of Education and is identical in all 500 Ghanaian secondary schools.

As Ghana’s educational reforms are implemented, review and curriculum adjustment are frequent. The list of required subjects, the grading system, and some subject syllabi may be different for each successive class. Admission officials are encouraged to contact the USIS Educational Advising Center in Accra for clarification and evaluation of applicants’ transcripts and to confirm all secondary school examination results from the West African Examinations Council, WAEC.

Primary School

Ghanaian children enter Class One (first grade) during the calendar year in which they reach their sixth birthdays. For the first three years, teaching may be entirely in English or may integrate English and local languages. The majority of teachers are certified, having graduated from three-year Teacher Training Colleges. Children are taught to read in English, and all textbooks are in English.

Junior Secondary School

Junior Secondary School, or JSS, comprises Forms I through III (grades seven through nine). Admission is open to any student who has completed primary class six; there are no entrance exams, and junior secondary schools are part of the country’s nine-year Basic Education scheme to which all Ghanaian children are entitled. Junior secondary schools are usually sited on the same compounds as primary schools, and the school year for both systems runs for forty weeks, from October to August, six hours per day. The majority of JSS teachers are certified; in urban private schools, university graduates are found on teaching staffs.

At the end of JSS Form III (ninth grade, fifteen years of age), two hundred thousand students take the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). In 1998, the number of subjects examined was reduced from eleven or twelve to nine or ten, French being the optional subject. The BECE is administered and graded by WAEC; grading is on a descending 1-9 scale and consists of Continuous Assessment grades submitted by the student’s school (30%) and the BECE national exam (70%). Nationwide, about four percent of the grades in any one exam are 1’s.

Admission to the Senior Secondary School is based exclusively on BECE results. At the most competitive senior secondary schools in Ghana, students may need nine or ten grades of ‘1’ on their BECE exams to gain admission.

Senior Secondary School

Senior Secondary School (SSS) consists of Forms 1 through 3, equivalent to the American grades ten through twelve. An announcement from Ghana’s Ministry of Education states, “The new Senior Secondary School reform has been developed in response to criticism that, in the past, this level of education has been overly academic and removed from the country’s development and manpower trends. The reform will include a core curriculum to be followed by all Senior Secondary students, along with five specialized programs, two or more of which will be offered in each school. Students will select one specialized program, within which they will follow one option consisting of a package of three subjects.”

The core curriculum originally consisted of seven subjects studied throughout the three year senior secondary period: English, Science, Mathematics, Agricultural and Environmental Studies, Ghanaian Language (9 different languages offered), Life Skills (renamed Social Studies in 1999) and Physical Education. Beginning with the class of 1998, the core curriculum was reduced to six subjects: English, Integrated Science, Mathematics, Social Studies, Physical Education, Religious and Moral Education. Students are examined only in the first four of these subjects.

In addition to the above core curriculum, each student entering Senior Secondary School first chooses one of the programs and then selects a group of Elective subjects from that program, as below. Through the class of 1998, each student took three Electives; beginning with the class of 1999, students may choose to take four Electives.

General Arts: Literature in English, French, Ghanaian Languages (11), Economics, Geography, History, Government, Christian or Islamic Religious Studies, Music. The elective English Language course was discontinued after 1998.

General Science: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics (advanced)

Agriculture: General Agriculture (soil science, crop science, animal science, farm management), Farm Mechanization, Horticulture, Agricult0ural Economics & Extension.

Business: Introduction to Business Management, Accounting, Typing, Clerical Office Duties, Business Math & Principles of Costing.

Technical: Technical Drawing & Engineering Science, Building Construction, Woodwork, Metalwork, Applied Electricity, Electronics, Auto Mechanics.

Vocational:

Home Science: Management in Living, Clothing & Textiles, Foods & Nutrition.

Visual Arts: General Knowledge in Art, Basketry, Leatherwork, Graphic Design, Picture Making, Ceramics, Sculpture, Textiles

Beginning with the class of 1999, subject combinations were greatly liberalized, permitting combinations that had been impossible: elective subjects from the general arts and general science programs can now be taken in combination with the other programs, giving these vocational programs a higher academic content. Examples are Economics added to Business; Biology and Chemistry added to Agriculture; Physics and Math added to Technical. Students from the general arts and sciences programs – those most likely to be applying to U.S. colleges – can also now take French or Literature regardless of their area of concentration. In 1996, the Ministry of Education established computer centers serving schools in each of 110 districts; access is gradually expanding.

The Senior Secondary School year runs from January to December, three terms and a total of forty weeks per year. SSS teachers of academic subjects are university graduates; in the vocational and technical subjects they have five years of post-secondary teacher training.

At the end of SSS Form 3 (twelfth grade), all students take the Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations (SSSCE). The exams are held in November-December and results are released the following May. The SSSCE is graded on a descending scale of A through F, with A-E as passing grades. Each student’s aggregate is calculated by awarding one point for each A, two for each B, and so on down to six points for an F. The points awarded for the three Elective subjects plus the points for the three main Core subjects (Core English, Core Math, and Core Science) are added to calculate the aggregate. Thus a straight-A student would earn the best possible aggregate of 6, while a student who failed all six subjects would get aggregate 36.

The Ministry of Education considers any SSS graduate with aggregate 24 (a ‘D’ average) or better to be a successful school-leaver, equivalent to an American high school graduate. It is generally accepted that students who fail Core Science can substitute a passing grade in Agriculture and still be considered a successful high school graduate, but no other substitutions are accepted. Students who do not attain aggregate 24 often retake some or all of their exams the next year in order to improve their records.

For entrance to Ghana’s five public universities, priority consideration is given to students who have completed the general arts and sciences programs. The universities hold a separate University Entrance Exam (UEE) emphasizing verbal and quantitative reasoning skills and somewhat analogous to the SAT I, to identify SSS graduates with aptitude for university study. Last year the universities admitted all SSS graduates with aggregate 18 (a ‘C’ average) plus a score above the 50th percentile on the UEE. Students who cannot get the limited places in universities can apply to polytechnics, teacher and nurses’ training colleges, and a host of other non-degree college-level training programs.

The SSSCE grading system is more stringent than anything ever witnessed in the United States: over fifty percent of students fail any given academic subject. The mass failures dishearten students and engender national finger-pointing, but both the Ministry of Education and WAEC defend uncompromising grading practices that will establish the SSS on a firm, internationally-recognizable footing. SSSCE grades began to improve in 1995, indicating adjustment to the new system by students, teachers, and examiners.

Assessment of Senior Secondary School Graduates for U.S. Admission Purposes

Given the similar 12-year time frame and the broader range of subjects studied, Ghana’s new educational structure is more analogous to that of the United States than to Britain. It is therefore recommended that U.S. college admission offices admit Ghanaian SSS graduates as the equivalent of U.S. high school graduates. The content of some of the academic elective subjects is more advanced than U.S. high school level, closer to AP courses.

For academic purposes, USIS Educational Advising recommends that U.S. colleges define Ghanaian high school equivalency as:

    1. Completion of Senior Secondary School, with
    2. Passes in the six major subjects (Core English, Core Math, Core Science or Agriculture, plus the three electives), and
    3. Aggregate 24 (D average) or better on the Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination.
    4. The General Arts and Sciences academic program produces students who are better prepared for academic college work. However, appropriate admission may be offered to students with good grades who have taken other programs (business, visual arts, home science, technology, agriculture) relevant to their planned major. Their Core subjects ensure an adequate foundation.

The most competitive U.S. colleges will focus on SSS graduates who have attained top grades (at least a B average), with SAT/TOEFL scores comparable to their applicant pool. In 1998-99, students with more A’s than B’s can no longer be counted on one hand as was the case before 1996, but still, anyone with A’s and B’s on the SSSCE ranks well within the top 1% nationwide. Ghana’s SSS graduates are world-class competitive at the highest levels. Their transition has been smooth: they are performing as well as their A-level peers in institutions such as Caltech, MIT, Dartmouth, Cornell, Swarthmore, Vassar, Smith, Oberlin, Middlebury and Vanderbilt.

The SSS calendar posts problems in the timing of applications. Senior Secondary students take their final exams in December and the results are not released until May, after admissions deadlines for most U.S. colleges. Seniors in the midst of preparing for national SSSCE exams find it hard to work on college applications simultaneously, so most wait until the following year to apply to college. Ghanaian universities are running a year behind in admissions, meaning that December 1998 SSS graduates cannot enter university at home until September 2000. This is an important factor in attracting Ghanaian students to U.S. education.

Although SSSCE performance is improving steadily, U.S. admission officers should note that the grading system is very stringent, and grade inflation is unknown in Ghana. A’s and B’s constitute less than 10% of the grade distribution in any academic subject. The table below summarizes SSSCE grades of first-time examinees in 1996, 1997, and 1998:

Subject Group

# of Candidates

% A’s

%A-B’s

% Passes A-E

Core English

172,321

0.5%

4.2%

46%

Core Science

170,534

2.8%

8.4%

41%

Core Math

171,908

3.6%

9.5%

40%

Elective Sciences

91,062

1.8%

9.8%

56%

Elective Arts

139,189

2.0%

7.7%

46%

 

Documentation

Because the final examinations, the SSSCE, are the only consistent, national assessment of a student’s performance, U.S. colleges should require that students submit official confirmation of SSSCE results (reliable only if mailed directly to you in an envelope with WAEC’s postmark). Obtaining WAEC Confirmation of Results should be the applicant’s responsibility, but college admissions offices may reconfirm by faxing the applicant’s stated SSSCE results, including the student’s name, name of school, date of exam, and index number, to WAEC at (233-21) 223002.

Ghanaian applicants must submit photocopies of their Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination Statement of Results, signed and stamped by their Head of School. No application is complete without it. The Statement of Results is computer-generated and bears the name of school, school number, name of candidate, index number (9 digits), the date of exam, the names of subjects taken, grades, and interpretation. If you have any reason to doubt the authenticity of this document (and we have seen laser-printed forgeries), contact WAEC for confirmation. You should not demand original SSSCE Statements of Results, because students are given only one copy, and duplicates are not issued. You may demand either photocopies bearing the Head of School’s original stamp and signature, or preferably WAEC Confirmation of Results.

In cases where the applicant has taken the SSSCE in December but will not receive results until after admissions decisions have been made, U.S. colleges may base admissions on transcripts alone, but only if backed by competitive SAT and/or TOEFL scores and combined with essays, recommendations, sample work, etc. We see a number of altered or fictitious transcripts, which is why we do not advocate admission based on transcripts alone.

SSS transcripts report a student’s term-by-term performance. Because the Ghanaian grading system is extremely strict, rank in class becomes as important as raw grades. Ghanaian schools calculate class rank for each subject and enter it on the student’s report card each term, but these rankings are rarely compiled for all subjects in the class as a whole, and the overall ‘position in class’ is rarely entered on the transcript. A student’s rank in class can be calculated from the school’s SSSCE results, but this is more often calculated informally than as part of the student’s official record. Although the GPA is calculated on Ghanaian university transcripts, this term is unknown at the secondary level.

Junior Secondary School (BECE) exam results may form part of a Ghanaian applicant’s academic record, but should have no bearing on the admissions assessment.

Now in its thirteenth year, the road to reform has been challenging for educators, parents, and students. Hundreds of new schools were built to increase access to education for Ghanaians; there are now 500 Senior Secondary Schools in the country, as compared to 300 O-level and 90 A-level schools under the old system. The number of secondary school graduates has doubled to 57,000 per year. Ghanaians are gaining confidence in the new educational system as the first Senior Secondary School graduates move successfully through university and prove themselves capable.

Nancy W. Keteku
Educational Advisor
Regional Educational Advising Coordinator for Africa
Public Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy
P.O. Box 2288
Accra, Ghana
Tel: (233-21)235098
Fax: (233-21)229882
E-mail: keteku@africaonline.com.gh

November, 1999