The Informal Learning System in Ghana


It is widely accepted that during the colonization of most parts of Africa, including Ghana, there were many importations of European education systems that alienated indigenous persons from central government mechanisms.

During precolonial times, the formal education system did not exist and growing children as part of the socialization process, served as domestic house-helps within their extended family settings and apprentices in same settings where they learn important skills, language and traditional knowledge from their hosts. In those times, this culminated in the progressive development of the youth and their integration into the social and business environments (Lord, 2011).

Informal education is a type of vocational and technical education. It is learning that goes on outside of the formal learning environment of a classroom/lecture theatre, such as a school, a college or a university. However, more can be said by way of providing a definition of the term. Informal education can be seen as “learning that goes on in daily life”, and/or “learning projects that we undertake for ourselves” (Smith, 2009).

Formal education can be very expensive for may poor households. And small-scale enterprise owners, apprentices, wage-earners, kiosk operators, house-helpers and artisans may not have attended school while they began their ‘daily life’ journey in small ventures. In doing so, they attached themselves to enterprises in order to earn a living and remain there all their life.  

With continued limited or hindered pathways back into the formal education and training systems, they face serious skills gaps that impact their income potential and lower their social mobility. This, in turn, negatively impacts national economy. These people constitute the informal sector. They operate on the margins of formal or mainstream activities. Their activities are normally outside the conventional scope of government regulation and assistance and are typically youthful and burdened with unhealthy or unsafe working conditions, lack of social protection arrangements and health facilities at work and little or no formal training.

In this paradign, informal learning plays a significant role in educating most of these people. However, the knowledge they acquire through their practical work is often relegated from development rather than factored into the mainstream systems.

This paper analyses the education system in Ghana within the 2019 year, its relations to the informal sector outcome, challenges and opportunities, and the situation of the informal system of education.


This section provides a general assessment of both the informal and education sectors.


In its 2016 Regional Spatial Business Report, the Ghana Statistical Service defines as informal: an establishment that does not have professionals keeping its accounting records. None of the regions of Ghana has up to 20 percent of businesses or “non-household establishments” as formal establishments.

The report establishes that out of 638,000 non-household (commercial) establishments in the country, 395,977 of them are in the informal sector, representing 62 percent. Greater Accra is the only region which comes close to registering up to 20 percent of businesses. Out of a total of 177,152 non-household establishments in the region, 147,543 are informal establishments, representing 83.3 percent.

In the Ashanti Region, 103,961 businesses or 92.9 percent are in the informal sector, out of a total of 111,947 business establishments and in the Western Region, 58,638 or 92.4 percent of its business establishments are informal. Although it recorded the least number of establishments in general, informal businesses make up as much as 93.7 percent in Upper West Region. The region has a total of 13,728 commercial establishments, with 12,867 of them in the informal sector. On average, figures from all ten regions show that the informal sector makes up 62 percent of all commercial businesses in the country.

Despite the large numbers of businesses in the informal sector, their contribution to the economy in the terms of taxes is low. A major a chunk of the country’s tax revenue comes from the formal sector, which has more than 56,800 establishments.

A survey commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in 2016 found that ‘understanding the urban informal economy in Ghana’ has shown that over 80 percent of people in the country’s largely informal economy agree they must pay taxes once they earn an income. The study reveals that while about 35 percent of employers in the sector pay value-added tax through purchases they make from formal enterprises, less than a quarter (23.6 percent) pay personal income tax. The report adds that although self-employed persons are required to pay income tax at graduated rates in four equal installments, it is mainly people who have formalized their businesses or are in formal employment that pay – letting over 80% of the workforce off the hook.

Another finding by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) indicates that only about 7 percent of informal economy workers have a written employment contract, with many of them underpaid.  According to the TUC, “in 2012/13, the monthly average earnings among informal economy workers was GH101.01 or 27.9 percent lower than the national average earnings of GH463.30.”

The situation has long hurt the country’s economy and many calls have been made for successive governments to broaden the tax net to include the informal sector. The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung report advocates attention for the sector since it is key to transforming the economy and further driving growth. The report states that, “the number of jobs in the sector are key to transformational growth and poverty reduction, and the consequent improvements in standards of living. The sector cannot and should no longer be considered as a temporary and a fleeting phenomenon. It is here to stay.”

The Ghana Living Standards Survey indicates that the informal sector is predominantly made up of small to medium-scale businesses, consisting of producers, wholesale and retail traders and service providers, and comprises contributing family workers, casual wage workers, home-based workers and street vendors, among others. Most of them, it says, are largely self-employed persons, such as farmers, artisans and craft-workers, traders, food processors, etc.


Education in Ghana was mainly informal and based on apprenticeship before the arrival of European settlers, who introduced a formal education system addressed to the elites. Pre-independent Ghana was known as the Gold Coast (Lord, 2011). The economy of the pre-colonial Gold Coast was mainly dependent on subsistence farming where farm produce was shared within households and members of each household specialized in providing their household with other necessities such as: cooking utilities, shelter, home, clothing and furniture (Hymer, 2018). Trade with other households was therefore practiced on a very small scale (Hymer, 2018). This has made economic activities in the pre-colonial Gold Coast centered on family institution/customs, and are thus family-owned and family-controlled (Hymer, 2018). As such, there was no need for employment outside the household that would have otherwise called for discipline(s), value(s) and skill(s) through a formal education system (Kwabena-Parry, 2002). The pre-colonial Gold Cost therefore used informal education (apprenticeship) until it was colonized and its economy became a hybrid of a subsistence and formal economy (Kwabena-Parry, 2002).

After Independence in 1957, Ghana’s first prime minister, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, led the country into rapid industrialization, which led to reduced emphasis on agriculture and other subsistence economic activities (William, 1972). The rapid industrialization was, however, in the southern part of Ghana (Accra, Takoradi, Tema), therefore centering most of the manufacturing and service activities in southern Ghana (William, 1972) (Keith, 1973). The rapid industrialization saw high waves of migration of people from rural areas that used to be actively engaged in agriculture to cities in the southern part of Ghana in search of service and manufacturing industrial employment (Keith, 1973). Ghana’s urban population increased by 23% between 1960 to 2005, with a rate of urbanization between 2005 to 2010 of 3.6%, making Ghana’s urban population (51.5%) 3% higher than Ghana’s rural population (48.5%) (Franklin 2010). Between 1974 and 1982, agricultural output dropped drastically with reductions in maize production dropped by 54%, rice by 80%, yam by 55% and cassava by 50% (Franklin 2010).

Ghana’s rapid shift from an informal economy to formal economy made education an important political objective (Hymer, 2018). The magnitude of the task, as well as economic difficulties and political instabilities, has slowed attempted reforms. The Education Act of 1987, followed by the Constitution of 1992, gave a new impetus to educational policies in the country. In 2011, the primary school net enrollment rate was 84%, described by UNICEF as “far ahead” of the Sub-Saharan average. In its 2013–14 report, the World Economic Forum ranked Ghana 46th out of 148 countries for education system quality. In 2010, Ghana’s literacy rate was 71.5%, with a notable gap between men (78.3%) and women (65.3%). The Guardian newspaper disclosed in April 2015 that 90% of children in Ghana were enrolled in school, ahead of countries like Pakistan and Nigeria at 72% and 64%, respectively (Susanna, 2015).

Education indicators in Ghana ( 2016) reflect a gender gap and disparities between rural and urban areas, as well as between southern and northern parts of the country. Those disparities drive public action against illiteracy and inequities in access to education. Eliminating illiteracy has been a constant objective of Ghanaian education policies for the last 40 years. The difficulties around ensuring equitable access to education is likewise acknowledged by the authorities. Public action in both domains has yielded results judged significant but not sufficient by national experts and international organizations. Increasing the place of vocational education and training and of ICT (information and communications technology) within the education system are other clear objectives of Ghanaian policies in education.

The Ministry of Education is responsible for the administration and the coordination of public action regarding education. Its multiple agencies handle the concrete implementation of policies, in cooperation with the local authorities. The state also manages the training of teachers. Many private and public colleges prepare applicants to pass the teacher certification exam to teach at the primary level. Two universities offer special curricula leading to secondary education teacher certification. Education represented 23% of state expenditure in 2010 and international donor support to the sector has steadily declined as the state has taken on the bulk of education funding.

Education in Ghana is divided into three phases: basic education (kindergarten, primary school and lower secondary school), secondary education (upper secondary school, technical and vocational education) and tertiary education (universities, polytechnics and colleges). Education is compulsory between the ages of four and 15 (basic education). The language of instruction is mainly English. The academic year usually runs from August to May, inclusive (NUFFIC 2013)

Graduate Unemployment#

Graduate unemployment has been a major issue for socioeconomic development in Africa. According to data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the youth unemployment rate hovers around 12 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Ghana, only a small fraction of graduates from the country’s tertiary institutions enter the world of work within two years after graduation. In 2018, a total of 106,000 graduates were deployed by the National Service Secretariat. This year a list of over 150,000 final year students has been submitted to the secretariat and these students/NSS candidates are expected to be deployed to institutions and organizations for their national service. Authorities at the secretariat describe the numbers as alarming.

Several governments along the line have tried solving this problem using the issues of graduate unemployment. The current government has rolled out initiatives, such as the Youth Employment Program (YEP), Youth Enterprise Support (YES), now rebranded National Entrepreneurship and Innovation Plan (NEIP), and a newly introduced initiative known as the Nation Builders Corps (NABCO). Programmes such as Planting for Foods and Jobs, among other initiatives, are also targeted at reducing unemployment, even though their breakthrough numbers appear minimal compared to the enormity of the problem.

Exploring New Avenues

Ghana has now come to appreciate the role of TVET in national development and is rolling out strategies to develop the practical talents of young people to support economic growth and industrialisation. In Ghana, the Council for TVET (COTVET) is mandated by law to oversee, coordinate and harmonize skills development at all levels in the country.  

Council Technical and Vocational Education, (COTVET), an agency under the Ministry of Education and governed by a 15-member Board, was established  by the  Council for Technical and Vocational Education Act of 2006, (Act 718) and Legislative Instrument (L.I.)  2195 of 2012, with a mandate to co-ordinate all aspects of Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET).

However, acknowledging the importance of TVET and the formulation of policies and strategies is not enough to unleash the full potential of TVET for sustainable socio-economic development.


Ghana has a long history of technical and vocational education and training. Within formal education settings in Ghana, ‘vocational’ relates principally to visual arts and home economics subjects, including leatherwork, basketry, sculpture, graphic design and nutrition; ‘technical’ relates to trade, industrial and engineering subjects (Akyeampong, 2002).

Over the years, three different systems of TVET have evolved. These comprise the formal system, the non-formal system and the informal system

Formal System

Learning that occurs in an organised and structured environment (such as in an education or training institution or on the job) and is explicitly designated as learning (in terms of objectives, time or resources) is considered formal system learning. Formal system education is intentional from the learner’s point of view. It typically leads to certification.

Formal system education is an organized education model which is structured and systematic. This model presents rather a rigid curriculum that corresponds to laws and norms. It is a presentational education that involves students, teachers and institutions. Schools and universities use this method to teach their students. Formal system education institutions are administratively, physically and curricularly organized and require that students maintain a minimum classroom attendance. In formal system education, teachers and students have to observe and this involves intermediate and final assessments in order to advance students to the next learning stage.

In formal system education students receive a degree or diploma at the end and there are desired behavioural objectives, too. These objectives are rarely operationally established. Assessments have a punitive, obeying and mono-directional methodology. This often fails to stimulate the students and fails to provide for their active participation throughout this progress. There’s also another cause to this failure: the students’ standards, values and attitudes are not considered in this education model. In this type of education, teachers pretend to teach, students pretend to learn and the institutions pretend to cater to the interests of students and the society. In short, this means that formal education fails to fulfil the real needs of students and the community.

The formal system education in Ghana is offered by institutions such as the NVTI (National Vocational Training Institute), Ghana Education Service (GES), youth training institutions and a variety of private vocational training schools.

Informal System

Informal-system-education is one of the system types of Vocational and Technical Education. It is learning that goes on outside of the formal learning environment of a classroom/lecture theatre, such as a school, a college or a university. More can be said by way of providing a definition of the term. Informal system education can be seen as “learning that goes on in daily life”, and/or “learning projects that we undertake for ourselves” (Smith, 2009). This is the system of particular interest to this paper, as it represents the most prevalent system for promoting formalisation in the informal sector

The informal education system includes a wide range of flexible programmes and processes by which individuals acquire skills and knowledge from designated training venues outside of the home and, in some cases, at home. Traditional apprenticeships make up the majority of the informal sector. Indeed, Ghana has a long tradition of informal apprenticeships, particularly in the following trades: carpentry, masonry, auto mechanics, welding and fabrication, foundry and casting, photography, tailoring, dressmaking and beauty, food processing and other agro-based industries, shoe making and repair and electrical wiring and repairs.

Non-Formal System

Learning resulting from daily activities related to work, family or leisure is considered non-formal. It is not organised or structured in terms of objectives, time or learning support. Informal TVET is in most cases unintentional from the learner’s perspective.

All three systems are important to meet the diverse needs of learners at different times in their leaning cycle.


In Ghana, the sector most affected by income poverty as a result of unemployment and under-employment is the informal sector. According to the Human Development Report 2007, poverty is particularly present in this sector, with the agriculture the worst affected. Next to agriculture, 29 percent of those in micro and small enterprises live below the poverty line.  

Since the middle of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, the informal sector has received increasing attention in the development discourse of Ghana. It continues, in effect, to be the target of policy initiatives and activities by certain governmental and non-governmental institutions and organizations, including trade unions. The present and past governments of Ghana, like their peers in rest of Africa, have always known that part of the answer to the questions of unemployment, extreme poverty and other socio-economic challenges lie in making financial services available to the informal economy, particularly microfinance and credit. By making finance accessible to these informal sector operators, the country is able to provide the fuel needed to turn around their means of livelihood and take them out of poverty, whilst bringing them into the formal setting.

Ghana’s neglect of the traditional learning system, often running separate and parallel to the formal system as well as the failings of the formal education system itself, are issues that cannot be ignored. While a number of financial interventions are being provided by government and private institutions, the scenario of these financial experts working to drive the change in poor communities within an “environment of ignorance” gives cause for skepticism.

Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in Ghana can provides better opportunities for the informal sector, however, it is facing a number of challenges. The problems range from quality of training, lack of facilities and materials for training students and difficulty in career progression, to negative public attitudes and perceptions. In this section, the challenges confronting TVET and the pertinent issues are discussed with the aim of recommending ways of addressing them.


In Ghana, as in other developing countries, productivity (and likely, training ability) varies greatly across businesses. Providers of on-the-job training may focus on firm-specific, rather than general, skills. Firms may also seek to retain apprentices at a skill level that is profitable for the business but makes them less than employable elsewhere. Some apprentices are also exploited, and in some cases abused, by unscrupulous masters who treat apprentices like servants rather than trainees. In many cases, bad professional practices and unethical behaviour have been passed on from master to trainee.

Many master craftspersons have also been unable to upgrade their skills and have found themselves overtaken by technological innovation, leading to the undesirable situation where outdated methods are passed on to trainees. The quality of training passed on to apprentices often depends on the skill set of the master craftsperson and their willingness to pass on the knowledge. Apprentices who trained with the most experienced trainers or the most profitable firms had higher earnings, suggesting that training programs can be made more effective through better recruitment of trainers (IPA, 2017).

Nevertheless, apprenticeship training with private-sector firms has the potential to cost-effectively expand labor market opportunities for young people by providing them with relevant on-the-job experience and market-ready skills. Training of apprentices should be designed to meet industry standards, changing needs of productivity and work safety. The Council for Technical and Vocational Education Training (COTVET) in collaboration with Ghana Skills Development Initiative (GSDI) is implementing a project on apprenticeship training programmes. The project approach to improve the quality of apprenticeships maintains the traditional training with the Master Craftsperson, but complement this with structured courses for apprentices at training institutions based on competency-based testing standards.

The project is assisted by the German Government and should enhance COTVET’s capacity to sustainably implement it nationwide to enable apprentices to gain the appropriate skills needed. This would curtail the reoccurrence of apprentices’ engagement in trading in the markets or streets of Ghana.


The Informal Education System in Ghana has long suffered from low levels of esteem and negative stereotyping. This is despite the prominent role that informal learning has played in the development of human capital throughout the economy. There remains a belief that those possessing the requisite academic ability will go on to pursue higher education and only those that either can’t achieve academically, or simply cannot afford the costs of senior high school, will enter into vocational education and training. These negative perceptions of the technical and vocational education and training sector in general are limiting the career opportunities available to Ghanaian youth (Aryeetey & Doh & Andoh, 2011).

The notion that apprenticeship training is only for students who have low grades or are unintelligent has to be discarded. This is because it takes intelligence, dedication, focus and hard work for an apprentice to complete his or her apprenticeship training successfully.


In spite of the critical role the traditional apprenticeship system plays in the economy through the training of skilled labour and the provision of employment and valuable goods and services, it is a largely neglected and unregulated sector of the economy.

In the formal TVET sector, the total number of technical institutes (TI) available in Ghana is woefully inadequate and statistics by Ministry of Education indicate that currently there are about 21 technical institutes. The regional breakdown of technical institutes is very worrying compared to the number of senior high schools (SHS) available in the regions. For example, Greater Accra and Volta regions can only boast of four (4) and five (5) public technical institutes, against 54 and 75 senior high schools, respectively. The existing technical institutes lack facilities and materials for training students in various vocations.

Allocation of resources in national education and training budgets is generally low. Financial allocations to the TVET sub-sector, as a percentage of the national education budget in Ghana, is only 3.7% of the education budget in 2014, compared with 22% for the senior secondary education subsector.


The skills of the workforce can be continually upgraded within the context of lifelong learning, where employees are able to sharpen or develop their skills in tandem with changes in technology at the workplace. Also, lifelong learning opportunities allow learners who have had limited access to training in the past to have a second chance to build on their skills and competencies, or have their previously acquired skills certified through recognition of prior learning.

Promoting lifelong learning opportunities without limitations to the informal sector requires well-equipped libraries, accessible TVET institutions and ICT centers. The recognition/portability of qualifications should also be streamlined. In addition to low numbers of TVET institutions, Ghana has only 61 public libraries, according to the Ghana Library Authority.

A TVET National Qualifications Framework was instituted as the tool that helps to promote training flexibility and coherence, lifelong learning and recognition of prior learning within the TVET system. However, the progression of students from one level to another vis-à-vis their counterparts from the senior high schools is perceived to be problematic. After three years in the technical institute, one has to pursue an advanced craft course or technicians part 1 & 2 or 3 in the polytechnic to obtain the Higher National Diploma (HND) in the same polytechnic, whilst their colleagues from the senior high or secondary schools proceed to offer the HND. For a technical student acquiring a degree in Ghana, one has to add a pass in English language and Mathematics from “O” level, SSCE or WASSCE, in addition to the polytechnic qualifications before qualifying to do a degree course in a University.


Many Ghanaians, often poorly skilled, leave the school system every year in search of jobs in local employment markets, which are not expanding fast enough to create jobs. Many of these job seekers lack the requisite skills employers want. Without employment-related skills, school leavers cannot benefit from even the minimal employment opportunities that may be available to job seekers.

Young people without jobs or hope for a better future live a daily life of frustration. Such frustration, co-mingled with desperation and loss of self-confidence, may push some of them into a life of violence and crime. Others, as we have seen in the recent past, may embark on the often perilous journey of illegal migration across the Mediterranean to Europe. Much worse is the possibility of unemployed youth becoming victims of religious and political manipulation to be used as instruments of politico-religious violence or combatants in armed conflicts.

Unemployment poses a threat to political stability, national security and social cohesion. Supporting the informal sector to acquire job-related skills through a robust national vocational training and education programme is therefore a key development issue which must engage the attention of national leaders.

The gravitation of Ghanaians towards the formal education system, due to challenges within the informal learning system, must be reduced. A country’s total development depends on both formal and informal education. Informal learners deserve more attention to help them achieved their full potential.


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