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Learning and Livelihoods

Children’s Education in North-Eastern Ghana
Apprentissage et moyens de subsistance. L’éducation des enfants dans le nord-est du Ghana
Iman Hashim
p. 107-126


À partir des données de terrain collectées auprès d’enfants et de leurs familles dans un village agricole situé au Nord-Est du Ghana, cet article explore les rapports locaux à l’apprentissage, et leur impact sur la scolarisation des garçons et des filles. Il montre tout d’abord comment, en contraste avec les normes dominantes selon lesquelles les meilleures occupations pour les enfants se trouvent dans le jeu et l’école, les représentations locales de l’enfance considèrent le travail comme une activité adaptée à l’âge des enfants, alors que la scolarisation n’est pas perçue comme une composante normale de l’enfance. Est ensuite examiné comment les rapports à l’école changent sous l’effet des transformations des expériences individuelles vécues par les villageois, afin d’exposer l’argument central de l’article, à savoir que l’on ne peut comprendre la participation, ou non, des enfants à l’éducation formelle et les transformations qu’elle enregistre, si l’on n’accorde pas suffisamment d’attention et d’importance à l’ensemble des idées et des pratiques qui sont constitutives de l’enfance dans des contextes spécifiques.

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Notes de l’auteur

This research would not have been possible without the financial support of the United Kingdom’s Economic & Social Research Council. I am grateful, too, for the comments from anonymous reviewers of the article.

Texte intégral


  • 1 Education in its broadest sense refers to any process of teaching, training or improving. However, (...)

1Historians and “archaeologists” of childhood have pointed out how economic, social and political transformations occurring in the industrialised world during the 19th century, especially technological advances, reduced the demand for children in factories and led to the introduction of compulsory schooling in response to the need for “educated”1 wage-labourers (Cunningham & Viazzo, 1996; Davin, 1996 ; Minge-Kalman, 1978). These transformations resulted in the institutionalisation of “modern childhood” as a category separate from adulthood and childhood coming to be viewed as a period of « becoming » (Schildkrout, 1981: 93), schooling being one of the key concepts implicated in the provision for “average” or “normal” childhood (Boyden, 1997 : 200). Children’s expulsion from paid employment, moreover, resulted in a new view of the child as a purely emotional and affective asset, rather than an economic one (Zelizer, 1994). Notions of childhood, thus, became infused with powerful, normative ideals regarding what “proper” childhood entails – namely a period of innocence and vulnerability, dominated by play and schooling, the nuclear family or school being the only legitimate places in which to grow up (Boyden, 1997 ; Nieuwenhuys, 1996 : 242 ; Robson 2004 : 241).

2Processes of colonisation and subsequently the aid industry have resulted in the globalization of this particular construction of childhood (Abebe, 2007; Hashim, 2004 ; Nieuwenhuys, 1999), with the result that there is a tendency to regard childhood as a universal category (Jenks, 2004). Even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, what dominates is a view of “proper” childhood as a « playful, work-free, dependent, vulnerable and care-receiving phase of the life » (Abebe, 2007: 78). As a consequence schooling, as a positive force for child development and well-being, has become juxtaposed with work, as mainly a potential or actual threat (Myers & Boyden, 1998 : 10) and work « becomes a “pathology” when associated with childhood » (White, 1999 : 134). Consequently, when confronted with a child who is working, and by implication (often inaccurate) not in school, two assumptions often arise. Firstly, it is assumed either that parents are too ignorant of the value of schooling to send their children to school, or too poor to afford either the direct costs of schooling, such as school fees, or the indirect costs, such as the loss of a child’s labour or income (Hashim, 2004). Alternatively, the lack of children’s participation in schooling is viewed as a pragmatic response to a context where formal education is of little use or value such that an alternative means of learning – « learning by doing » – is required (Grootaert & Kanbur, 1995 : 193).

3For the most part, then, it has tended to be assumed to be parents’ decision to fund children’s schooling, that those parents who can do so and who appreciate the value of schooling then do, and that the children of these parents then go to school (Hashim, 2007 : 918). Rarely taken into account are localised conceptualisations of the role and meaning of education. Even less considered is children’s own agency in their school participation. It is to these issues that this article will address itself, by drawing on fieldwork carried out in 2000-1 with children and their families in a village in Ghana. After providing some contextual information about the village and how children are situated in this, the article will explore indigenous attitudes to work and learning, and the impact of these on boys’ and girls’ engagement in schooling. Following this, I will detail the history of formal education in the village and the more recent transformations in the meanings of education. This is in order to elaborate the central argument of the article. This is that one cannot understand the participation, or not, of children in formal education without a consideration of the opportunities for pursuing and utilizing formal education in the local economy, as well as the framework of local interpretation about childhood and how this interpretation of childhood manifests itself in relation to the issues of work and learning.

The Village of Tempane Natinga

  • 2 This of course does not necessarily mean that children would necessarily speak “freely”, and there (...)

4The article is based on a study that was carried out in the village of Tempane Natinga in Ghana in 2000-1. It involved an extended period of fieldwork and sought to examine how children spend their time, the work that they do and their experiences of formal, informal and non-formal education. An ethnographic approach was adopted to explore these issues in the belief that it was the most likely methodology to provide the textured evidence necessary to understand the reality of children’s life-worlds, especially given the inaccessibility of children’s lives and views. As well as utilizing standard ethnographic methods, such as participant observation, I collected data using a range of other techniques, including social surveys, detailed questionnaires, and structured and semi-structured interviews. The research adopted a child-centred perspective, seeking specifically to explore children’s views and experiences, wherever possible interviewing children without the presence of their parents and/or other significant adults, in order to enable them to speak as freely as possible2.

5The village of Tempane Natinga is located in the Upper East Region in northeast Ghana. The region is one that historically has been extremely and chronically poor, and suffers from a legacy of neglect and under-development (Whitehead, 1996: 32). A World Bank report recently identified it as the poorest region in Ghana and one where poverty has worsened (Canagarajah & Pörtner, 2002: 22). All ninety-six households in the community farmed but, as will be discussed later, the extent to which they farmed and/or relied on farming as their major source of income varied. The farming system is characterised by a rain-fed system of self-provisioning and cash crop farming. Fertility has been in decline for twenty-five years (Awumbila, 1997), while cash cropping has greatly increased over the period and often food is bought from the income realised from the sale of cash crops (Whitehead, 1996). Getting a living from farming and securing the well-being of households is a difficult and anxious task. Whitehead’s longitudinal study of the village demonstrates that there is significant socio-economic differences between households, with about 10-12 % of households being « poor, but secure », while the vast majority of households are destitute and vulnerable (Whitehead, 1996; 2006). More secure households are able to withstand various community level and individual shocks. In general, however, as with other communities in the Upper East Region, households in the village are poor in very, many ways. There is very little local work and farming productivity is very constrained. People go hungry and basic food supplies are insufficient and insecure. Incomes are uncertain and low. Individuals have few clothes and few possessions. The quality of their houses is very poor and they lack access to basic services and amenities. Finally, as shall be discussed shortly, the quality and opportunity for formal and non-formal education is very low.

6The difficulty in securing subsistence has resulted in the rural economy becoming subject to increasing diversification with significant changes occurring over the period 1975 to 2001 in the part played by off-farm incomes in domestic economies, as well as in the kinds of off-farm incomes (Hashim & Whitehead, 2008). Households and individuals have long had petty sources of income, such as weaving and potting, during the long dry season when no farming takes place, and there have been individuals who specialise in yearlong but not full-time activities, such as millet-beer brewing (women) or carpentry (men). Some of these off-farm incomes are earned in the nearby market village of Garu. Although only a village too, Garu is the most important service area for the households in Tempane Natinga. This is principally due to its recent electrification and its location on an important route for the export of produce and livestock. As a result, Garu was a rapidly urbanising village with a range of services, including a rural bank, a petrol station, an agricultural station, various churches, a health post and a private health clinic, a police station, a number of establishments selling food and drink, and a variety of permanent shops and stores. It also had a number of primary, secondary and vocational schools, as well as a rehabilitation centre for the blind offering vocational skills courses. It is relatively accessible, being in walking distance to the village and serviced regularly by various forms of transport from the district capital, Bawku, particularly on market days when Garu turns into a bustling and noisy village. Garu is also where many of the teachers of the schools in Tempane Natinga who were not indigenous to the village preferred to live, rather than school-provided housing in the village.

  • 3 This does not mean that children are formally adults at this age, as unlike in the universalising c (...)

7There were ninety-six households in the village and they tended to be on average quite large, the mean being nine individuals in a household, although the largest numbered fifty-four. This is because households consist often of two or more agnatically related men, either because groups of sons remain living with their fathers once they marry or because married brothers remain living together. Households, thus, may have several adults living in them and these adults include closely related married and single men, as well as polygamously married wives and the elderly widows of former male household members. Children are valued ; consequently, the child population too was large and constituted just over 50 % of the village, with children present in almost all households (eighty-nine of ninety-six). Household size and organization reflects the labour-intensive nature of both production and reproduction in this context. Normatively household heads have a heavy responsibility for ensuring household members’ welfare, including securing sufficient food for all household members and for managing the livestock that serve multiple purposes, including for fertilising, animal traction, the fulfilling of social obligations such as for bride-wealth and funeral rites, and as a form of savings. To do this, heads use the labour of all household members, who are obliged to work under the direction of the household head in the “compound farm” to produce the millet and maize necessary for domestic consumption for the year, as well as in any other work necessary to the household’s subsistence. All household members also farm privately, where they organise the work and control the disposal of the produce or any income realised. Male labour in particular is central to agricultural production (Whitehead, 1996). Children too though are essential and they are expected and encouraged to contribute to their households’ subsistence. From the age of four or five, they are helping with tasks such as caring for younger siblings, guarding crops and running errands. Between seven and thirteen, they gradually begin engaging in almost all the tasks that adults of their gender carry out, although in a more limited sense in terms of time and capability. By the age of about fourteen, they are carrying out all those tasks expected of men or women3. From about the age of ten, sometimes earlier, children also begin to farm their own small farm, starting with rice and have autonomy over the proceeds of the sale of the crops produced.

8Work in this context, thus, is an age-appropriate behaviour for children and I have argued elsewhere that this is not merely related to the necessity of children’s labour for domestic production, nor for teaching children the skills required to secure their livelihoods as adults. Rather, it is a process of enculturation into their roles in the domestic economy and wider community. Central to this is the understanding of their responsibilities in the production of the households’ food and cash crops, and their roles in the reproductive labour necessary to secure the household’s subsistence. However, because the domestic economy includes the pursuit of private endeavours, it also involves children learning a sense of self-reliance (Hashim, 2004).

Schooling in Tempane Natinga

  • 4 This research benefits greatly from both the guidance Ann Whitehead provided me as my doctoral supe (...)
  • 5 At the time of the fieldwork, the education system in Ghana consisted of nine years of free, compul (...)

9The literacy rates for Ghana’s Upper East Region historically have been very low, with about one in eleven adults being literate when Ann Whitehead4 carried out her research in same village in 1975. At that time, only a small number of children attended school and the situation was only somewhat better in 1989 when she carried out further research in the village (Whitehead, 1996). By 2000-1 more adults had attended school, with only 54 % of men but 81 % of women having had no formal schooling, reflecting adult literacy rates in the whole of the Upper East, which still are amongst the lowest in Ghana at just 78 % (Ghana Statistical Service (GSS, 2002 : 24). By this time, though the enrolment rate for school-aged children was 61.5 %. That is, of the 278 children between the ages of 6 and 18 in the village, 171 were enrolled in school, and a further seven males and two females over the age of 18 also were enrolled. Many other children had started school but dropped out so that at the time of the fieldwork only twenty-four boys and twenty-five girls had never been enrolled in school while 142 boys and 102 girls were enrolled or had been in the past. Most enrolled children though, were concentrated in the early stages of the school system, with 47 % being enrolled in primary school, 10 % in junior secondary (JSS) and 5 % in senior secondary school (SSS)5 (Hashim, 2004 : 136-9).

  • 6 A Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) national study found that it was in the Upper East that the highe (...)

10The village had a primary, junior secondary and a senior secondary school located within it, consequently physical accessibility was not an issue. According to the villagers though, cost was. In principle, the first nine years of schooling in Ghana are both compulsory and free. However, in keeping with others’ findings in West Africa (c.f. Thorsen 2007) I found that a whole series of levies were required by schools, which it was often difficult for students and their families to cover6 ; as indicated by one father who himself was not formally educated, « We are poor. If we send them all to school we won’t be able to care for them so some attend and some don’t ».

  • 7 It is important to point out that I use the term parent here to refer not simply to birth parents, (...)

11In general, though, parents7 had a positive attitude towards schooling, regardless of whether or not they themselves had received any formal schooling. The following quotes from a range of adults in the village illustrate the sorts of benefits they perceived schooling would bring about : « This way nobody can cheat you and you can read a letter » ; « The world is changing and that is why it is important so that the children can live in it » ; « The way the land is they won’t be able to farm like I do. This way they can go anywhere to live » ; « There are many benefits. It can get you a job to earn a salary. It can enlighten you » ; « The farms are not the way they used to be, so if they complete and get jobs they can care for themselves and me » ; « If they do well they can get jobs. By the time they finish I will be old and they can feed the younger children » ; « If they cannot get a job, your money is wasted but if they do then your name will be mentioned and they can do something in the house ».

12These comments also make clear that successful formal education was linked largely to getting non-farming jobs that would benefit all the family. Thus, formal education tended not to be valued for education’s sake, but rather for the possibilities of diversifying household income, which was seen to be especially important in light of the declining soil fertility.

13Although, some children did not go to school because of the costs involved, parents also expressed a need to balance different activities that contributed to the well being of household members and were clear that adult labour alone on the farm was not enough to care for all their children : « If you have four boys, you send two to school and two will stay to care for animals and help you on the farm. That way you can care for those in school. If you have girls you give them vocational training such as sewing or hairdressing » ; « If you have fiv children, you have to choose one not to send based on the child’s performance ».

14Indeed, according to parents, children’s own contribution to farming enabled them or their siblings to attend school : « If they didn’t help, I wouldn’t be able to pay their school fees or buy their clothes ».

  • 8 Jacquemin, too, makes reference to children who refuse to go to school in her work in Côte d’Ivoire (...)

15Parents also suggested that some of their children went to school and some did not as an outcome of children’s own choices and aptitudes and few if any parents thought it was appropriate or realistic to compel children to go to school8 : « Only two attend. The others refuse so we may as well let them care for the animals » ; « The school fees or uniforms are not a problem ; it’s the children who won’t go » ; « Some children are just not academically gifted and if they keep repeating, they will eventually drop out ».

16Children confirmed this attitude to school with some doubting the value of school, especially as their chief ways of earning incomes locally did not require formal education : « School has no benefit » ; « School itself is not anything now. We need money not school ».

17This reflects others’ findings that the Upper East has the highest number of children who found school « useless or uninteresting » (GSS & World Bank, 1998 : 30), although more valued vocational training (GSS, 2003 : 43). Equally, however, the children I spoke to stressed how their work played a role in their learning and the importance of that to their sense of self-identity : « The work is important because it shows I’m a girl » ; « It’s important to me because it helps me know how to do things ».

18As the following quotes make clear, this reflects adults’ view that formal schooling is not the only way through which children learn ; nor necessarily the best nor the most important : « The others are grown and it is from this work they learnt how to grow the rice they are farming now » ; « If they grow and don’t do well, this is because the parents haven’t trained them well ».

19Children also recognised the necessity of their work to their households and the potential conflicts involved in fulfilling work expectations and attending school : « I think [I don’t go to school] because if I go to school I won’t be able to finish all the work I have to do ».

20Like adults, the ability to get non-farming jobs was the criteria by which children evaluated formal education. Consequently, some children had dropped out of school when circumstances not only forced them to take more central economic roles in the family, but also because they could see that they would not be able to complete all years, graduate and receive the completion certificate that was necessary for securing most non-farming jobs. Adamu, a 15-year-old primary school dropout, was one such example. His father was alive but in his seventies and barely farming himself any longer. Adamu, though, was heavily engaged in dry-season onion farming, the primary dry season cash crop : « It was my decision to stop attending [school]. The problem was that there was no one in the house to look after me. [...] You have to like onions [...] because that’s where I will get money ».

21Another reason for low enrolment, attendance and dropping out was that schooling in this context was not always a pleasurable experience. School facilities were poor in all three schools, with ramshackle classrooms, little furniture, equipment and textbooks, no electricity and de-motivated, poorly paid and often absent teachers (Hashim 2004 : 132). While younger children rarely complained of this, those in secondary school had frequent complaints. Girls tended to complain about sexual and verbal harassment by teachers, parents expecting them to work hard to compensate for the costs of schooling and to be fair to siblings who did not attend school, and teachers making them work on their farms. Boys, on the other hand, although they too complained that work sometimes prevented them from studying, were more critical of the school’s facilities (ibid. 133).

22Despite this, all the students I spoke with, particularly the older ones were very happy and indeed proud to be in school. In fact, some could go to extraordinary lengths to continue their formal education. My translator, for example, told me that his father removed him from primary school to herd the household’s animals. Peter, though, struck a deal with some other herders to take it in turns caring for the animals so he could attend school on some days until, eventually, his father was convinced. Another interesting example was a young teenager called David who was the son of the household head in a large and complex household of eighteen members. David’s father had received no formal education. He was a farmer and a well digger. He was very poor and produced rather little from his farms, with well-digging only providing sporadic and low extra income. Also living in the household was David’s uncle with his wife and children. The uncle completed technical school and earned his income mainly as a carpenter and house-builder, although he also had some farms. Relatively speaking, he had a secure and quite large income. The apparent success of his uncle by comparison to his father appeared to be encouraging David to pursue a range of income-generating activities to cover his junior secondary school expenses as his parents struggled to do so. These included contracting himself out along with a couple of friends to work on people’s farms during the rainy season, and to build mud walls around onion farms in the dry season, as well as to sell water and push a donkey-cart in the district capital during school holidays. As mentioned earlier, children in this context had the opportunity to farm privately, and David was farming quite extensively compared to other boys of his age to help cover his school costs.

  • 9 For a detailed discussion of this, see Hashim 2005; 2007.
  • 10 As the school had not yet been open three years, there was no SSS3 the year the research was undert (...)

23A number of other children in the village who were students also told me that they used the proceeds of the sale of their crops to cover school costs. Children also reported migrating over the school holidays, or even for longer periods, to work to earn the income to cover the costs of their schooling or vocational training9. This reflects how children accept that their parents are not in a position to pay everything needed to go to school and a child’s commitment to schooling partially was assessed by a student’s willingness to work to cover some of the costs. As they grew older, children were expected to do so by utilizing the income realized from their private farming or other sources. For girls though this was difficult as although they too are engaged in private farming, they are far less able to do this extensively. Consequently, girls are less able to take responsibility for their own formal educational costs and therefore appeared more likely to drop out. In particular, girls’ ability to earn an independent income acted as an obstacle to their entering senior secondary school as it is at this stage that fees become payable. The fact that the time of entry into senior secondary schooling coincides with the age at which it is expected that children be to some degree self-reliant is also relevant here (Hashim, 2005 : 30). This partly accounts for why so many more boys than girls were attending senior secondary school, with forty-nine girls compared to eighty-six boys in year one of SSS and only twelve girls compared to sixty-seven boys registered in SSS210. Other significant factors in girls’ ability to pursue formal education was the commonly held view that vocational training was more appropriate for girls, as expressed in the earlier quote from one parent. Another disadvantage that girls experience relates to the patrilocal and exogamous nature of relations in the area. This means that girls almost invariably move to their husbands’ households in another village, and according to both female and male students I spoke with, since the benefits of girls’ formal education would accrue to their husbands and husbands’ households, fathers were reluctant to spend their limited resources on girls’ schooling. On the other hand, however, boys’ labour is more highly valued and more economically productive. Thus, while theoretically they are more able to cover their own school-costs there also is more incentive, for both them and their seniors, for boys to drop out to pursue economic alternatives.

  • 11 In thirteen households, no children were enrolled in school.

24Clearly then, there is some degree of appreciation of formal education in the village, as reflected in the initial enrolment into primary school of most children, even though, for a variety of reasons, this rarely ends with the completion of primary much less junior secondary schooling, and very rarely senior secondary schooling. This accounts for why in those households that had children (89), in the majority some (55) or all the children were enrolled (21)11. In the following section, I will explore why there may be an appreciation of formal education in the village by considering both the history of formal education in the village and the implications of this contemporaneously.

The History of Formal Education in Tempane Natinga and its Contemporaneous Repercussions

25The history of formal education in Tempane Natinga is both interesting and unique. Under the colonial administration, formal education was imposed by fiat, when the chief at the time was informed that he had to send some children to school. Understandably, given what has been said about the labour-intensive nature of farming in the area, as well as the irrelevance of formal schooling for livelihoods, instead of sending his own sons the chief chose to send the sons of other villagers. According to a number of individuals in the village, the contemporary repercussion has been the continuing devaluation of formal education by the descendants of this particular chief, who believe that those sent to school were the poor and lazy. It cannot be claimed that this is absolutely the case since some of the children of these families were in school, and because the individuals who were sent during the colonial period were the sons of those close to the chief (p.c. A. Whitehead 30/12/2003). However, this story is obviously of some significance in the “folklore” of the community, since villagers told it to me on several occasions. It indicates how some in the village view formal education and the reasons for the lack of enrolment of some children. However, also told to me was that the descendents of those boys who had received schooling were the ones who are now educated and well to do, and this indeed was the case for some. One of the teachers who recounted this story to me was one such descendant, as were the district psychiatric nurse, a judge in the regional capital and a nurse who subsequently became Member of Parliament for the area for one parliamentary term.

  • 12 The education system changed in 1987 from a seventeen-year pre-tertiary system, to the twelve-year (...)

26Another historical factor that is of significance is the close connections the chief at the time of independence had with the Nkrumah government. This had the direct result of a middle12 school being built in the village. This historical feature is of some importance since, in addition to placing one of the first middle schools in the north of the country in the village, much of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) and academic activities in the area are the heirs of that political connection and clientalism right at independence. This includes an NGO’s intervention, starting in 1997, which significantly increased school enrolment by providing incentives for girls to attend primary school, as well as by supplying sorghum for students’ meals at the primary school and at the day nursery the NGO also set up.

27This then, in brief, is the history of formal education in Tempane Natinga that gives us an insight into the manner in which inhabitants of the village historically have apprehended it. Equally significant is the manner in which formal education provides opportunities in Tempane Natinga. One way of exploring this in the village is to consider how “educated” adults in Tempane Natinga are able to use this to improve their life-chances and what livelihood possibilities formal education provides.

  • 13 Two worked as teachers and one was the pastor of the Assemblies of God church.
  • 14 The only other salaried position held by a woman in the village was that of the school cook, howeve (...)

28In total, of the 194 men and 246 women living in the village, there were eight men who had completed tertiary education and a further forty-four men and eighteen women who had received some form of secondary education. Three of the men with tertiary education had recently moved to the village13, but of those indigenous to the village, three were teachers, one was retired but had been the head of the primary school and one, who had begun but not completed a teacher-training course, appeared not to be using his schooling in any formal sense. Of those with secondary education, ten were still in formal education or hoping to continue, while four of them had dropped out before completing and consequently did not have any formal qualifications. There also were three who had gone on to take vocational training following secondary schooling and were working to varying degrees of success as carpenters and masons or their assistants in the village and surrounding areas. Eleven men had salaried positions, including running a bar, driving for the agricultural station and working in a pharmacy, all in Garu. The remainder were not regularly employed in the same way, although a number reported regular but not full-time work that only literate individuals could perform, such selling lottery tickets, or acting as facilitators for NGOs. Formal education also provided the possibility of participating in often well-compensated, more sporadic work, such as child immunisation campaigns. It was mainly the men though, who could capitalise on these as opportunities appeared more limited for women with any secondary education. With the exception of one who began working at the local nursery school during my stay in the village and one who worked as a facilitator for the tree nursery (which paid a regular, albeit small, monthly stipend) none had a regular income14. Three had gone on to vocational school and worked as seamstresses, one having an apparently thriving tailoring business in Garu, but the majority reported that they were not using their formal education.

29Overall, the number of individuals with some form of secondary or tertiary education able to utilise it was comparatively low. However, when compared to the period Whitehead was working in the village in 1975 it was much higher. At that time only a thin layer of waged or salaried work had been added to the local economy with a small number of men (6) holding these jobs, usually farming as well. By 2001, the number of salaried employees and waged workers was much higher (22). A further, important development was that for a number of individuals from the village farming was no longer their primary livelihood. The teachers indigenous to the village are an especially good example and they illustrate a number of important points relevant to the discussion.

The Teachers of Tempane Natinga

30As discussed earlier, one of the stories recounted to me was how the descendants of those first boys who went to school were those who are now “educated” and wealthy. One of the difficulties of making such a claim, though, is that with historical layering one cannot compare those in their fifties who also went to school and tried but failed to make similar livelihood strategies work or, equally, why precisely some chose not to pursue schooling. Two things were observable however. Firstly, a minority of households (22 %) had enrolled all their children. Often these households contained some adult members who had been educated through to secondary school. Although not all of these adults had salaried jobs, these households were different in several ways. They were ones in which demonstrably investment in schooling had brought benefits in terms of the kind of waged work available and in the security and level of incomes. One teacher was an example of such a household, and he recounted to me how his parents had sold many assets to put him through school. They were not able to pay for him beyond the sixth form so he went instead to teacher training college, since this provided him an allowance. He then shared his allowance with his younger brother, so he too was able to complete school and go on to teacher training college. The household had managed to recoup their wealth in the five years since he had been working, and my own household survey demonstrated that they were among the most secure households in the village (Hashim, 2004 : 117).

31The second observable outcome of formal schooling was that for some people who had made this form of education work, it became a significant part of their livelihood strategy and it led them to move into a different occupational niche and away from farming, except as an occasion for investment. Again, the teachers are a good example as they relied on their jobs as their main source of income. This did not result in them giving up farming altogether, but it did mean that the ways in which they secured the labour for farming differed from those households who continued to rely on farming as their main livelihood strategy. As Whitehead has noted, the communal labour system by which households secure additional labour during times of peak labour demand « is not very suited to some diversifications of income sources. Men who were able to invest time in non-farming work, especially trading or wage/salaried employment, were not free to enter into the highly collective system of daily exchange labours during the farming season » (Whitehead,1996 : 384). Being unable to participate in work-parties because they were working, the teachers also were unable to call on these sorts of social relations to secure additional labour. Instead they had to rely on the market, for instance by utilising their salaries to pay for casual day labour or, as in the case of one senior secondary teacher, supplying the money for the inputs to another, who planted and tended the crops, the proceeds then being split between the two of them once harvested. The teachers also drew on the labour of their students to carry out work on their farms. The teachers also were unusual in that they had built out from their original households and so they were farming separately from their fathers, senior brothers or uncles, despite being comparatively young.

32The teachers also did not subscribe to other types of social relations and customs. For example, the sorts of assets they invested in were different. Rather than keeping large livestock, as did every other household who could afford to, they preferred not to. As one teacher explained, keeping larger livestock was too troublesome unless one had a child to look after them, which they did not since the teachers were among those households whose children all were in school. Another had angered his father by paying for the building of his house, rather than building it himself with the help of friends and neighbours, and for not consulting the tandana or the keeper of the earth shrine, who is responsible for the blessing of land prior to any building.

33These individuals, then, appeared to be following a different livelihood strategy. Instead of farming, they were pursuing a profession and using their salaries and positions of status to acquire their subsistence in terms of both their food and the other activities associated with the maintenance of their households, as well as for the labour to earn additional income from cash cropping. Being unable to devote the same time to farming, they were unable to fulfil their obligations to their household head and, thus, become household heads at a younger age. They were distinct in the village, being always formally dressed, and associated a lot amongst themselves and other educated individuals, often in Garu. However, these individuals were not merely different because of the livelihood strategy they were pursuing, but also because of the transformations in attitudes that went along with this as illustrated, among others, by their complaints about the fact that their students had to water the onions before and after school so they were tired and often hungry. According to one senior secondary school teacher, they are there physically, but not mentally. However, they also had no difficulty in utilising their students’ labour on their farm, even during school hours. Utilizing their students’ labour makes sense, as this is a context where labour debt and hierarchy is intrinsic to the culture and bedrock of social relations. It is a reflection of the dependency of juniors on their seniors, emerging from their roles as students and teachers. Consequently, while the teachers perceive the education provided by schooling as critically important, this does not mean that they subscribe to a version of childhood that would view such behaviour as inappropriate (even though, as we saw earlier, the older students expressed resentment to the practice).

Concluding Discussion

34Having presented the empirical material, in this concluding section I wish to discuss what we may learn from the history of education in Tempane Natinga and its contemporary manifestation. The first issue the evidence points to is how important it is to explore the meaning of education and its relationship to childhood empirically. In other words, we need to give proper weight and attention to the set of ideas and practices that constitute childhood in specific contexts, including whether education is viewed as a part of childhood, rather than assuming that it is. The tendency to do so have been instrumental to the commonly held view that children’s inability to access schooling is an opportunity denied (Hashim, 2007). Low enrolment and retention rates in the formal educational system come to be blamed on parents’ ignorance or poverty. As likely to be the reason for children dropping out or not being enrolled in the first place are teacher absenteeism, poor school facilities and limited opportunities in the labour market (Grootaert & Kanbur, 1995 ; Hashim, 2005, 2007 ; Punch, 2002b ; Thorsen, 2007). However, my own research finds also that children, frequently, are responding realistically to the local work income and occupational opportunities, as for many types of occupation and work the qualifications brought by formal education are not needed. Consequently, it is not simply that by working children are “learning by doing” and that work is replacing schooling in the face of poor opportunities, but that schooling itself represents a new form of learning (Hashim 2004). In other words, for the majority of children with whom I worked, work was an age-appropriate behaviour, while schooling was not. This is not to say that education was not seen as giving some value. As part of the risk-management strategies theorists have pointed out the rural poor adopt (c.f. Whitehead 2000), most households usually selected some children to go to school, leaving a gap between those children selected, thereby spreading the costs of formal schooling (Hashim 2004).

  • 15 This view is supported by Canagarajah’s and Pörtner’s analysis of the Ghana Living Standards Survey (...)

35Thus, adults see formal education as one among a range of means of securing their and their children’s long-term welfare. Parents to some extent aspire to educate their children. However, the ability and desire to educate all their children is tempered by the child’s perceived interest and ability, by an individual’s assessment of formal education as a viable livelihood strategy, and by the need to secure and protect the household’s immediate well-being. This might require a reduction in expenditure, such as those associated with educating a child, or a need for labour to ensure subsistence. Especially important was the commonly held view that one had to complete schooling for it to be of any use15, as illustrated by one elderly farmer and part-time postal worker who himself had completed middle-school and had a son who was hoping to go on to further education. He told me he had the advantage of attending school at a time when, as he put it to me, « someone could go to Primary Six and have a job as an educated person. If you went to Middle School, Form 4, you have done something great. Now you can go to university and have no job ». What this also illustrates is the uncertainty of this strategy even if one did complete and even achieve tertiary education.

36As a result, whilst most children initially are sent to primary school, as they grow older, and therefore become both more “productive” and more responsible for maintaining themselves, conflicts arise around which children should continue to go to school and how costs will be met. Children become increasingly likely to drop out. Also clear is that children’s own attitude to schooling and the possibilities for their livelihoods was a significant factor in whether they completed formal education. Adolescent children begin to make conscious decisions around whether the pursuit of formal education is in their own long-term interests. Thus, children’s own aptitudes and commitment to formal education are a big factor in which children continued to attend school, especially beyond the primary level. In an important sense the aspiration to go to school, to continue schooling and to get through school is an individual commitment by the child and children demonstrate this commitment by contributing to the costs of their formal education, especially when many parents simply cannot meet them.

37Moreover, and the second important point to be stressed, is that what constitutes childhood in specific contexts is not static. Transformations are occurring in the meaning of education because of the changes in the lived experiences of individuals in Tempane Natinga. Whitehead has documented how the rural economy has changed, particularly because of decreasing soil fertility. My own research, suggests that these transformations in the rural economy are both continuing and intensifying. The changing nature of agricultural production (particularly land infertility) has resulted in the intensification of the movement into maize and away from millet, along with a heavy focus on cash cropping, and the significance of onions, in particular, as a source of cash. Similarly, there is a diversification in terms of labour time outside of farming into income-generating activities that are non-farming, such as trading, milling, brewing, and so on. Finally, and significant to this discussion is the diversification in terms of modern economy services, as illustrated in the earlier discussion of the increasing number of individuals in waged employment. This is not merely a diversification of income as it is another sector of the economy that is more highly rewarding and, importantly, that requires education. As we have seen, the teachers in particular are clear examples in the village of this.

  • 16 Within the limits of this paper it is not possible to detail these complex arguments here. However (...)

38Moreover, in the example of the teachers we see how those children who come from families with an historical accumulation of human capital based on formal education appear more likely to succeed in pursuing this same strategy. Thus, as one might expect, the incidence of a formally educated individual frequently coincides with high enrolment rates of children. However, it is more complex than the standard correlation regarding formally educated parents, particularly mothers, resulting in a higher rate of enrolment, because this also is about the types of livelihoods these households are pursuing. In other words, the likelihood of children’s enrolment in school is related not simply to an appreciation of education on the one hand, or to the ability to cover the indirect or direct costs of children’s schooling on the other. Rather it is an outcome of the different ways in which households are organised, the manner in which members’ time is occupied and the types of assets they invest in (including human capital), which in turn impacts on the manner in which individuals view education, and vice versa16 (Hashim, 2004 : 168).

39In sum, there were a small number of households for whom diversification meant that they no longer relied on farming as their main income source. For many though, this meant deepening poverty and vulnerability. Thus, at the time of Whitehead’s work there was a small stratum of more economically secure households and it was from these households that children went to school and wore clothes. However, as we have seen, at the time of my own research, an appreciably larger number of children were attending school and these were not necessarily from the more secure households. This suggests that education had become a significantly more important strategy in pursuing livelihoods. As Whitehead and Kabeer remind us, “the value of a livelihoods perspective is that it takes account of the fact that farm households engage in a portfolio of activities to meet multiple objectives which include immediate well-being as well as the capacity to maintain this over time” (Whitehead & Kabeer 2001 : 10). It would seem, therefore, that in the face of increasing difficulties around farming as a livelihood, households are increasingly “investing” some resources into education as a potential for diversifying income sources. However, because education is not yet a guarantee of security, it remains, for most households, just one of a range of activities.

40Thus, formal schooling is not fully implicated in the construction of childhood in this context. Transformations are occurring in the meaning of education because of the changes in the lived experiences of individuals in Tempane Natinga, in particular due to the manner in which the labour market has changed, as made readily apparent by the teachers. However, this is not to say that formal schooling is now fully implicated in the construction of childhood in this context. Nonetheless, the meaning of education has changed. Schooling is not yet a normal part of childhood, but it is seen to be a new form of recruitment to work, representing, as it does, possibilities for alternative livelihoods.

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1 Education in its broadest sense refers to any process of teaching, training or improving. However, because of these transformations, it has come to be seen as commensurate to schooling. For the purposes of this article, the term education is used in the broadest sense; that is as learning, while schooling or formal education is used to refer to the institutionalisation of learning, including vocational training. Apprenticeship are regarded as non-formal education, although it is important to note that those in the village did not always differentiate between formal vocational training provided by private or state institutions, and more informal apprenticeship opportunities.

2 This of course does not necessarily mean that children would necessarily speak “freely”, and there are a number of methodological and ethical issues associated with adopting such an approach when it comes to researching with children. Within the limits of this paper, it is not possible to go into these here, but see Punch (2002a) for a more detailed discussion of the complexities of researching with children.

3 This does not mean that children are formally adults at this age, as unlike in the universalising conceptualization of children; it is not the taking on a working role that is seen as an indicator of the end of childhood and/or completion of the formal learning cycle (see Hashim & Thorsen, 2011 for a further discussion of this).

4 This research benefits greatly from both the guidance Ann Whitehead provided me as my doctoral supervisor and from the fact that in 1975 and in 1989 she conducted research in the same village in which my own fieldwork was carried out, with the result that I had baseline data to draw upon in analysing my own findings.

5 At the time of the fieldwork, the education system in Ghana consisted of nine years of free, compulsory schooling; six years of primary school and three years of JSS. Following this, students who qualified could proceed into SSS. Students, who passed the SSS Certificate Examination at the end of three years, (theoretically) could then pursue a degree course at university, or a diploma course at some other tertiary institution (Ghana Ministry of Education,< >, accessed 4 August 2003). Demand for tertiary education places as well as cost do affect the ability to do so. N.B In 2007, the education system was reformed again.

6 A Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) national study found that it was in the Upper East that the highest percentage (63.7 %) of children did not attend school because their parents could not afford for them to do so (GSS, 2003: 38).

7 It is important to point out that I use the term parent here to refer not simply to birth parents, as a range of classificatory parents may cover the costs of a child’s schooling (c.f. Hashim and Thorsen, 2011).

8 Jacquemin, too, makes reference to children who refuse to go to school in her work in Côte d’Ivoire (Jacquemin, 2006 : 393) ; however this was exceptional and she finds that the primary reason for children not attending school is its costs (Jacquemin, 2004: 389).

9 For a detailed discussion of this, see Hashim 2005; 2007.

10 As the school had not yet been open three years, there was no SSS3 the year the research was undertaken.

11 In thirteen households, no children were enrolled in school.

12 The education system changed in 1987 from a seventeen-year pre-tertiary system, to the twelve-year one described earlier. The former system involved ten years of elementary education, followed by five years of secondary schooling (known locally as middle school). Students considered suitable then proceeded to a two-year six-form course, potentially followed by university or a training college.

13 Two worked as teachers and one was the pastor of the Assemblies of God church.

14 The only other salaried position held by a woman in the village was that of the school cook, however, she had had no formal education or training for this position.

15 This view is supported by Canagarajah’s and Pörtner’s analysis of the Ghana Living Standards Survey that, “the effect from having some middle school education is not that large” (Canagarajah & Pörtner, 2002: 59).

16 Within the limits of this paper it is not possible to detail these complex arguments here. However elsewhere (Hashim, 2004) I have used Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and the change from doxa to discourse to elaborate this argument, on the basis that as social structures and cognitive structures are recursively linked, shifts in meaning can arise from a reordering of practical activities (Bourdieu, 1990).

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Iman Hashim

Visiting fellow, Migration, Globalization and Poverty DRC, University of Sussex, UK.

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