Moving Beyond Aid in Education: The Case of the Complementary Basic Education Programme in Ghana


Image of Ricardo Sabates

Ricardo Sabates

RISE Ethiopia

Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge

On the 12th of September 2018, I had the pleasure of presenting the final research results on the Complementary Basic Education programme to the Ministry of Education in Ghana.  With financial support from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), since 2014 this programme has reached almost 250,000 children, and trained more than 9,600 community facilitators across 50 districts and 5 regions of Ghana. Most children reached by the programme had previously been unable to go to school due to poverty, distance to schools or household demands, and therefore lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills.  

At the event, the Minister of Education announced the government’s commitment to allocate funding from the basic education budget to support the continuation of the Complementary Basic Education programme with the aim of reaching out-of-school children in the poorest areas of the country. This is a significant pledge on behalf of the Government of Ghana, which is committed to moving beyond aid, by taking responsibility for some of the nearly 450,000 vulnerable children who are still out of school. In the context of the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme, the adoption of complementary basic education could provide important lessons for other countries whose national governments are seeking to find ways to support children who otherwise don’t have the opportunity to go to school.

The principles behind the model of Complementary Basic Education are simple. Firstly, the programme reaches children who have never been to school, or who have dropped out. Secondly, the programme requires community engagement for the selection of local facilitators, who use the local language for instruction and contextualised materials. More importantly, prior to transitioning to school, children are taught mostly in the afternoon to enable them to fit in household and farming chores. Another critical element of the programme is that children are equipped with literacy, numeracy, and life skills over a period of nine months. They are then supported in their transition into the closest public school to continue with their education. Most children are placed into primary level, mainly at Grades 2 to 4. 

For the past two years, I have been working with a team to undertake research to provide the Government of Ghana with evidence to support the crucial decision about the continuation of the Complementary Basic Education programme. Our research design utilised longitudinal quantitative and qualitative methods, focusing on children’s learning during the Complementary Basic Education programme; their transition into formal school; and their achievements once they made the transition into public primary school. We studied the pedagogy behind Complementary Basic Education and captured the experiences of children, parents, and community leaders, as children engaged with learning during their transition into public schools. 

In nine months of accelerated learning, the Complementary Basic Education programme produced significant improvements in local language literacy and numeracy. For instance, only 30 percent of children enrolled in the 2016/17 year were able to identify letters in the local language at the beginning of the programme. At the end of the programme, 57 percent of children were able to identify letters, an improvement of 26 percentage points. Single number identification improved from 50 percent to 70 percent during the nine-month period. These gains are partially attributable to the programme’s methodology which uses questions to elicit student participation, and where students are given ample opportunities to demonstrate reading skills. The programme uses a combination of structured and learner-centred instructional approaches; but most importantly, it uses a functional literacy curriculum, which makes learning applicable and relevant to the local context: children enjoy literacy lessons because the reading materials draw on local stories and familiar events. 

After one year in public school, those who completed the Complementary Basic Education programme achieved similar performance to those already in these schools in the local language, but significantly more progress in English literacy. Additionally, amongst children enrolled in lower primary grades, those who completed the programme achieved significantly higher progress in numeracy, relative to children in public schools during the same academic year. These encouraging results are likely to be explained by three main factors: (i) the positive learning experience the children had during the programme; (ii) the learning skills and attitudes the children gained from the programme that could be applied to other educational settings; (iii) enhanced family and community support and interest in learning as stimulated by the programme. All of these are critical factors that influence children’s ability to remain in education. 

The way that the programme has been implemented, managed, and monitored over the last five years has proven to be a success. The Complementary Basic Education programme is now moving forward under the leadership of the Government of Ghana. For the programme to continue to be successful, the key elements that contributed to its current achievement need to be maintained. These are: community engagement, use of local facilitators, local language for instruction, flexible hours, small class sizes and, importantly, accountability for improving the learning of all boys and girls, which requires measuring learning.   

As the late Kofi Annan said, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society.” Hopefully the Government of Ghana’s support for the Complementary Basic Education programme will provide this bridge for reaching the most vulnerable children in the country, and offer an opportunity for those interested in RISE to follow this adoption closely and draw further lessons. 


The research project team: The author, Dr Ricardo Sabates was the lead academic for the quantitative work of the research project, with the support of Dr Emma Carter.  Professor Kwame Akyeampong from the University of Sussex was the team leader, supported by Dr Sean Higgins for the qualitative research. Other key collaborators were Professor Pauline Rose (University of Cambridge and RISE Ethiopia Country Research Team), Dr Jonathan Stern (RTI International) and Dr Jennifer Pressley (RTI International). Data collection was supported by Jeavco Associates & PAB Development Consultants in Ghana. The overall management of the project was supported by IMC International.  Funding for the research was granted by DFID.

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