Evelyn Appiah-Donyina

In 1999 the Annual New Year Schools celebrated their 50th anniversary in Ghana. What kind of occasion are these events, which are organized each year by the Institute of Adult Education of the University of Ghana and have a tradition that is unique in Africa? – Evelyn Appiah-Donyina, who works for the IAE, provides a thorough overview of the aims, activities, participants and successes of this astounding tradition, while not ignoring its difficulties, and looks ahead to the future.

Ghana’s Annual New Year Schools: Five Decades of an Experiment in Adult Education

The New Year Schools, as they have now come to be called, were started at Komenda in the Central Region of Ghana in 1949 as a voluntary work camp by a group of students of the Department of Extra-mural Studies (now the Institute of Adult Education, University of Ghana). The objectives of the work camp were:

    "1. to enlist the co-operation of local people in practical, improvised self-help by means of a conspicuous voluntary example;

    2. to study the educational problems in getting a whole community so to understand their own needs that they are prepared to do something about them;

    3. to undertake a social survey as a useful outside means of discovering the facts as a basis for action; and,

    4. to encourage the idea of voluntary vacation work by students."

From these humble beginnings, the project has metamorphosed into an important adult education programme which has found a place on the calendar of national events.

What is a New Year School?

A New Year School is an annual residential programme of about a week’s duration organised by the Institute of Adult Education (IAE) of the University of Ghana, Legon, at which people from all walks of life meet to deliberate on topical issues of national and international interest. The School is usually held during the last few days of December and the first three or four days in January. The timing of the School is to enable workers who are potential participants to take advantage of the public holidays available during the Christmas and New Year festive season.

Aims of the School

It could be inferred from several years of uninterrupted running of the programme that the New Year School seeks, among other things:

  1. to provide a platform for the dispassionate discussion of matters affecting the overall development of the country
  2. to encourage consensus-building among people of diverse opinions and backgrounds
  3. to educate the general public on important and topical national and international issues
  4. to provide a forum for the initiation of public policy (as evidenced by follow-up actions on the recommendations of the School)
  5. to assess public opinion on pertinent issues in order to ensure good governance

Participation

The advertisements and fliers inviting the general public to attend the School do not set any age limit to participation. Neither does religion, educational background, gender nor other socio-economic, political, occupational status constitute a barrier to participation. It would seem that the ability to read and understand the English language, which is the main medium of communication at the School, is the only pre-requisite for participation.

Organisation of the New Year Schools

Over the years the New Year Schools which have continued to be organised by the Institute of Adult Education of the University of Ghana have followed a similar pattern in terms of administrative and academic preparations. The activities that are usually carried out in connection with the organisation of a New Year School can be categorised as follows:

  • Pre-School Activities
  • In-School Activities
  • Post-School Activities

Pre-School Activities

1. Selection of Theme for the School

Preparations for the organisation of each School begins with the selection of a theme for discussion during the week-long programme. Each year the organisers of the School select a theme which is relevant during a particular year. Thus, an overview of the themes that have been examined during the past 50 years of the New Year School’s existence indicates that the School has kept a tradition of discussing issues and subject matter that have a bearing on national aspirations. A kaleidoscopic view of Ghana’s political and socio-economic past during the period under review could be presented as follows:

  1. Post-World War era

  2. Pre-Independence era

  3. Period of attainment of Independence

  4. Ghana’s Independence vis-à-vis other countries in sub-Saharan Africa

  5. Military intervention

  6. Structural adjustment

  7. Return to democratic governance

Some of the themes considered at past New Year Schools include the following:

Year Theme

1952 -The Changing Gold Coast (now Ghana)

1956 – (Dec. 28 – Jan. 5, 1957) Knowledge and Independence

1962 – (Dec. 27 – Jan. 6, 1963) Nation-Building in Africa

1970 – (Dec. 28 – Jan. 6, 1971) National Aspirations Under the Second Republic

1975 – (Dec. 29 – Jan. 5, 1976) Man’s Habitat – Cities, Towns, Villages and Houses

1977 – (Dec. 29 – Jan. 4, 1978) Ghana In Search of a Stable Form of Government

1986 – (Dec. 29 – Jan. 5, 1987) Education and National Economic Recovery

1991 – (Dec. 27 – Jan. 4, 1992) Multi-Party Democracy in Ghana – Challenges and Prospects

1994 (Dec. 27 – Jan. 3, 1995) The Family and Sustainable Environment

1995 (Dec. 27 – Jan. 2, 1996) The 1996 Elections: Issues Before the Nation

1997 (Dec. 27 – Jan. 3, 1998) Harnessing Ghana’s Resources for Development

1998 (Dec. 28 – Jan. 4, 1999) Education for Development: Challenges for the 21st Century

The above list reveals a direct relationship between the themes of the Schools and the prevailing political and socio-economic conditions of the post-World War era, thus indicating that they are usually a reflection or a product of national aspirations. Furthermore, it will appear that virtually all aspects of national life have been dealt with at the School over the years.

2. Other Preparatory Activities Preceding a New Year School

Other pre-School activities include the selection of venue, usually one of the University campuses in the southern sector of the country. (The Northern sector has its own analogous programme, called the Northern Easter School). The programme of the School includes a formal opening ceremony, lectures, debates, panel discussions, and study group (seminar) meetings. There is also a line-up of social activities like film/video shows, cultural shows, dances, plays and field trips. These require extensive contacts with individuals, government departments and agencies, and other interest groups to locate speakers and resource persons. A request for funding is also made to the Ministry of Finance through the Ministry of Education.

Invitations to governmental and non-governmental agencies to sponsor participants at the School also need to be sent. A programme booklet for which advertisements from companies are solicited is also printed for use by participants, likewise a folder of study materials examining various aspects of the theme of the School. Arrangements for press coverage are also put in place to ensure that the rest of the country can follow up on the activities of the School.

In-School Activities

It is the responsibility of the staff of the Institute to make sure that the programme of activities lined up for a School is carried out efficiently. This calls for the mustering of all available material and human resources of the Institute.

A typical New Year School begins with registration of participants. Upon registration a participant receives a folder containing a selection of reading materials based on various aspects of the theme for the year as well as a programme booklet highlighting day-to-day activities for the School. The programme includes a formal opening ceremony usually performed by the Head of State or a member of government, a keynote address which sets the tone for subsequent discussions at the School, lectures, symposia, panel discussions, debates and field trips. Each participant is required to join one of 10 or more seminar groups, which meet two times a day to deliberate on a particular aspect of the theme of the school.

For example, the 50th Annual New Year School (1998/99) had as its theme, "Education for Development: Challenges for the 21st Century." Seminar Groups discussed the following topics:

  • Enhancing the Status of Women
  • Population and Family Life Education
  • The Mass Media and the Development of a Democratic Culture
  • Entrepreneurship Development in Ghana
  • Education for Participatory Democracy and Good Governance
  • Developing Self-help Spirit in Communities
  • Increasing Access to Education through Open and Distance Learning
  • Environmental and Public Health Education
  • Improving Agricultural Practices in Ghana
  • Enhancing the Tourism Potential of Ghana

On the last day, each study group is expected to present its findings and recommendations at a plenary session of the School.

Post-School Activities

The mopping up that has to be done after a New Year School includes public relations activities, which involve sending out letters of gratitude to individuals and organisations that assisted in one way or the other towards the running of a School. A communiqué which contains a summary of the findings and recommendations of each seminar group at the School, is presented to government through the Ministry of Education. Finally, a report of the School including a record of the speeches and seminar reports is published by the Institute of Adult Education for sale to participants at subsequent Schools and to the general public. Often, requests for these publications have been received from the United States Library of Congress and other institutions.

The People’s Educational Association (PEA) is the voluntary adult education organisation with which the IAE has worked closely to provide university-based adult education throughout the length and breadth of Ghana. Members of the PEA are encouraged to organise activities on specific aspects of the theme discussed at the New Year School. These PEA activities occur in the localities, districts and regions. In doing this, the PEA helps take the New Year School nearer home to the people.

Challenges Facing the School and Suggestions for Mitigating them

By all standards, the New Year School is a unique tradition. It is one of its kind on the African continent, and perhaps in the whole world. At the risk of being branded complacent, one could conjecture that the New Year School is one of the institutions that have contributed to the relative peace that Ghana enjoys in the West-Africa sub-region. It is often said that the New Year School is the only place where one can speak one’s mind without fear of any politically induced reprisal. Indeed, even though Ghana as a nation has passed through some phases of political turmoil, the New Year School has been insulated from excesses that have characterised the political landscape of Ghana in such times.

Even though both participants and organisers of the School are very proud of the School’s tradition of having been organised without a break for 50 years, in spite of the nation’s chequered political history, it has not been without its problems.

The above would suggest that the annual New Year Schools organised by the Institute of Adult Education have gained wide acceptance and that the tradition should thus be maintained. However, organisers are often confronted with many challenges in their endeavour to organise the School. The most notable are discussed below.

Funding the New Year School

The Government of Ghana subsidises the New Year School by paying about seventy per cent (70%) of the total cost of running the programme. Assistance has also been received from the Institute’s major foreign partner, the Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association (IIZ/DVV) on a regular basis. All indications are that government cannot continue to fund the School, considering the dwindling levels of subsidy available to the Institute of Adult Education. Sooner rather than later, participants may have to pay the economic cost of their participation at the School.

Delivering a lecture on "Fifty Years of University-based Adult Education" at the 50th Annual New School, Professor Miranda Greenstreet, former Director of the Institute of Adult Education, admonished us thus:

    "... I must stress that there is urgent need for the Institute to endeavour to become more financially self-reliant than is the case at the present. We would not want to see an end to the New Year School, which has become part of our tradition in this country, but it is clear that government alone can not be called upon to bear the annual expenditure for this programme. There should be more private sector involvement in underwriting the expenditure of this most important programme."

There is, therefore, an urgent need for the organisers of the School, the IAE, to come up with attractively packaged programmes that will draw participants who can afford to pay the economic fee of running the School. The Institute must also explore the possibility of collaborating with other organisations to implement the programme on a cost-sharing basis. The following organisations sponsor participants at the School on a regular basis:

  • the Trades Union Congress (TUC)
  • the Ghana National Association of Teachers (GNAT)
  • Government ministries and departments,
  • Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
  • District Assemblies (local councils)
  • Political parties and professional associations

A fairly small but faithful band of individuals come as self-sponsored participants and it is to these people that the government subsidy is very important. The IAE should consider the possibility of a two-tier fee structure for institutionally sponsored participants and self-sponsored participants. This could go a long way to facilitating the continued attendance of self-sponsored participants.

Other ways and means of raising funds to sustain the School could include self-paying Specialist Seminars, accessing funds from non-traditional sources such as sponsorship by companies and financial institutions, and sale of commemorative items. Already, the conference bags sold at the School are very popular with both participants and non-participants.

Certification

In recent times participants at the School have called for the presentation of certificates at the end of each programme. Some believe that they could serve as a record of their participation in New Year Schools. Others even believe that they could enhance their job résumés. Though it was not the original intention of the organisers of the School to turn it into a formal certificate-earning programme, a decision must now be taken by the organisers of the School. Perhaps a simple certificate of attendance indicating name of participant, theme of the School, study group and dates, could assist in satisfying this emerging need.

Lack of an Official Blueprint for Organising the New Year Schools

The design and implementation of the New Year School programme has not been without criticism. For example, there appears to be a lack of linkage between some of the seminar topics listed for discussion at the School, even though they should relate to the theme for a particular year. Similarly, participants often complain about the limited time available for presentation and discussion of seminar reports at the plenaries. It would also appear that the synopses which are prepared to guide seminar group discussions could do with a more problem-solving approach than what prevails now.

The above situation calls for the formulation of a blueprint to guide the planning and implementation of subsequent Schools. Research could be undertaken to look for answers to enable the IAE to adopt a best practices approach to the organisation of the School.

Some Participant Views from the 50th Annual New Year School

  • All the resource persons for the seminars, lectures, and symposia presented exhaustive and concise papers. Discussions have also been fruitful and healthy suggestions and contributions have been made, except that at times people bring in too much politics.
    District Education Officer
    National Commission on Civic Education
  • The programme for the School has been effectively planned and a variety of topics covered. The Resource Persons have effectively delivered the goods ... The School has enriched my knowledge to such an extent that I plan to attend the subsequent ones and even sponsor somebody.
    Teacher
    Aflao Border Junior Secondary School
  • For the dispassionate way issues are discussed at the New Year School and its relevance to the socio-economic development of the country, I will suggest that the period for the school should be extended to ten days so as to have much time to discuss issues in detail. The lectures, symposia and group discussions at the school, I hope, will enhance my work in future as an adult educator. I will continue to attend future schools.
    Student
    University of Ghana
  • It is difficult to remember all the New Year Schools I have attended but on the whole I have seen many. My greatest achievement in life is due to my association with the Institute and the People’s Educational Association (PEA). I owe a lot to liberal studies. At 69, I still want to continue my association with the New Year School because it has made me what I am today.
    Senior Citizen, Hohoe

Conclusion and Recommendations for Further Discussion

The University has been described as an ivory tower and its precincts have not been accessible to people without the requisite academic qualifications. The New Year School has debunked this view by allowing people from all shades of educational background to participate in its programmes. The opportunity thereby provided for others to have a feel of university life, albeit small, cannot be ignored.

Some questions need to be answered for which research must be undertaken. First, there is a need to delve into the commonly held view that participants at the School tend to take an active interest in local politics and community leadership initiatives. A possible way of drawing any meaningful inferences to support or disprove this hypothesis could be by conducting a survey of assemblymen (local councillors), parliamentarians and district chief executives (formerly called district secretaries) as well as individuals holding leadership positions in the community.

Secondly, it will be interesting to find out, considering the paucity of women in political and active public life, whether those who have attended the New Year School constitute the few who can be counted as being active in politics and public life. If it is found that attendance at the School and participation in national and political life are positively correlated, then there will be a need to organise programmes alongside the New Year School to help women become politically aware, self-assured and independent enough to take up political appointments so that they too can stand up and be counted as national figures.