Research in education around the world has found that students ’success and experience largely depend on what school they attend and on the resources available to support learning. Education policy largely determines the distribution of resources in schools, and student choice of school may be limited by this policy.

In Ghana, high schools are grouped into categories based on their performance in the West African High School Certification Exam. This is a final exam passed by 12th graders before entering higher education. Some schools have the best resources based on their history and the generosity of past students. They use networks to build infrastructure and provide key training resources that the government does not provide.

Students are included in the school category based on the results of exams at the end of 9th grade. Students with low scores are mostly enrolled in resource-poor schools (category C). Students with high scores are mostly placed in more affluent schools (A and B).

So if a person does poorly in 9th grade, he or she gets into a school that also tends to do poorly in 12th grade.

A Ghana education service report for 2020 found that in 76% of the high schools included in the report, less than half of the students had passed the final exam. This helps explain why only 8% of schools are in category A.

Categorization of students based on academic achievement has been documented as stimulating inequality. It encourages stereotypes, discrimination and marginalization.

This effect seems to be manifested in the fact that about 46% of students eligible for higher education in Ghana are among the top 20% of high schools. Only 8% of students from the last 20% of schools are eligible for higher education.

Against this background, we examined how the categorization of high school in Ghana shapes the learning and schooling experiences of students. Our study examined the experiences of students in different categories of high school seniors.

We found that students from less affluent schools had lower self-esteem than students from more affluent schools. Category C students felt less confident in their academic abilities. On the contrary, students of the most prestigious schools reported that they were more confident in their academic abilities. They believed that they had the best opportunities to succeed in their studies, and therefore felt more motivated to learn.

Grouping schools by category exacerbates inequality, and we believe this system should end.

Motivation of students

In total, we interviewed 20 students: nine men and 11 women aged 18 to 20 years. They attended state-funded high schools. Using in-depth unstructured interviews, we invited students to share their experiences of attending category A, B, or C schools, their motivation to learn, and how their experiences shaped their learning.

We found that students ’motivation to learn varied significantly depending on the category of school they attended.

All participants of the underrated schools noted low motivation to learn. They really wanted to change the school when they had the means to do so. A 2020 study found that wealthy parents used their financial influence to secure the placement of their wards in the best schools. Category C schools cited academic success, quality teaching and learning, available resources, and negative public perceptions of their school as reasons for wanting to relocate.

Conversely, all students in high-rated schools reported that they were motivated to learn and preferred to stay in their schools because of prestige, teacher quality, high academic ability of their peers and availability of educational resources that contributed to lifelong learning.

The central theme that emerged in the interview was the imbalances in teaching and learning resources. When participants were asked what affected their learning performance, all students in Category C schools hinted at deficiencies in instructional materials, physical infrastructure such as science resource centers, or access to laboratories and computers. Category A and B schools reported that their schools are well equipped with resources that promote learning.

Students in category C schools reported that most of their teachers found them less intelligent than students in valuable schools. Students in categories A and B responded that they believe their teachers entrust them with academic ability, and support them in their academic success.

All category C students said that their communities ’perceptions and beliefs about their schools were largely demotivating. People – including their parents – did not have high expectations of their success. They have already been labeled “not good enough”. Students of category A and B schools reported that the best and smartest students in the country are educated in elite schools.

Effects of the category system

In Ghana’s secondary school system, placing a student in a category C school is tantamount to putting the student on the path of academic and social failure because these schools have fewer resources and record worse academic performance on the final exam.

In fact, students who may need support to succeed in learning are placed in schools that lack resources. After three years of secondary education, these students, who face double marginalization, must take the same exams as students in better-equipped schools if they wish to continue their education after secondary education. Only a few C-category students are admitted to higher education institutions.