The Free Senior High School policy commonly referred to as Free SHS is a popular Ghanaian secondary education policy that has made headlines since 2008 when the then Presidential candidate of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, made it a major campaign promise for the first time in the run-up to 2008 general elections.
It gained an instant popularity among the masses. One thing was clear; the campaign promise was so sweet in the ears of the people. Its popularity raged on across the country like bushfire in harmattan, catching on fast with both the young and the old, men and women, the rich and the poor. Not even the fierce opposition mounted by political opponents against Free SHS especially in the form of adverts could stop it from getting endeared to the hearts of the people. It was like the more Free SHS was opposed the more the people fell in love with it.
With the huge popularity and traction gained by the Free SHS campaign promise during the 2008 general elections the NPP repeated it in both the 2012 and 2016 general elections. Candidate Nana Akufo-Addo was eventually elected albeit overwhelmingly and convincingly as the President of Ghana in 2016 to a very large extent courtesy Free SHS.
On assuming office as the President of the Republic of Ghana in 2017 one of the very first major policies initiated and implemented by President Akufo-Addo was Free SHS which had remained only a campaign promise in the manifesto of the NPP in the preceding 8 years and in 3 consecutive general elections 2008, 2012 and 2016.
The Free SHS campaign promise was finally delivered in the 2017/2018 academic year in the very first year of the first term of President Akufo-Addo's presidency demonstrating a clear and an unalloyed commitment towards the policy on the part of the President. It is therefore not surprising that President Akufo-Addo has been widely applauded both locally and internationally for the bold and audacious implementation of Free SHS, a pro poor policy which seeks mainly to bridge the yawning gap between the rich and the poor in terms of equity and access to free quality Senior High School (SHS) education in Ghana regardless of creed, ethnicity, religion, gender etc.
The components of Free SHS include; admission fees, library fees, science resource centre fees, computer laboratory fees, examinations fees, utility fees, boarding facility user fees, and also meals which now come at no cost to all SHS students (boarding). In addition, all-day students are now entitled to a free meal at school a day. This is arguably the single most important and comprehensive pro-poor educational policy ever implemented by any government in the history of this country and we cannot take it for granted.
In the first year of the implementation of the Free SHS policy in 2017, over 358,000 students enrolled an improvement of 15% from the 2016 enrollment. Then in September 2018/2019 academic year enrollment increased to 472,730 students.
So far over 1.2 million Ghanaian children have benefited (those completed and those in school) from the Free SHS policy. With the over 100,000 increase in enrolment between the 2017/2018 and the 2018/2019 academic year, I dare ask that had it not been Free SHS what would have been the fate of these young ones? It is very obvious that many of them mainly from less privileged homes would not have made it to the senior high school as has always been the case.
All sorts of vicious claims are being made against Free SHS including the fact that Free SHS has diluted and watered down the quality of SHS education in Ghana and that anything free is of low quality. It is a well known fact that all three students who picked all the top 2020 West African Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE) awards are Ghanaians and beneficiaries of Free SHS. Also, a total of 411 out of the 465 candidates who scored grade A in all subjects at the 2020 WASSCE examinations were students from Ghana and that alone is no fluke. This was an examination written by over 2 million candidates in five West African countries. Indeed 2020 is the only year in the past 6 years that more than 50% of WASSCE candidates obtained A1-C6 in all core subject areas.
From the foregoing, it would be the height of egregious dishonesty for anyone to describe Free SHS as a useless policy. A policy that has churned out some of the best performing students of an international and standardized examination like WASSCE cannot by any stretch of imagination be said to be a flawed policy. Engaging in such commentary would be extremely disingenuous.
However, the hard truth is that the implementation of the Free SHS policy has not been without challenges. Free SHS is in no doubt bedeviled and riddled with serious and gaping challenges across all SHSs in the country. The high enrollment occasioned by Free SHS alone has overwhelmed the system to the extent that government has introduced the double track system in SHSs as an interim measure to be able to contain the high numbers.
It is however instructive to note that most of the challenges facing our SHSs predates Free SHS. What Free SHS has done is that it has rather highlighted and exacerbated the already existing situation in our SHSs. For instance High enrollment means inadequate infrastructure and inadequate teaching and learning materials among other challenges but that notwithstanding all we have been assured time and again that all challenges are being addressed expeditiously and systematically.
The Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Ghana Education Service (GES) have assured all stakeholders time and again of working around the clock to fix all the challenges facing our SHSs with utmost despatch to engender a conducive atmosphere and environment for teaching and learning.
To this end, almost all SHSs across the country have had the benefit of new infrastructure springing up be it classroom blocks, dormitories, science and computer laboratories, dining halls, assembly halls etc depending on the specific needs of each and every school. Many teaching and non-teaching staff most of who were hitherto unemployed have also been employed to boost the numbers to aid teaching and learning. All these numerous initiatives and interventions borne out of Free SHS cannot be glossed over.
But the teething challenges facing Free SHS is not the reason why it should be scrapped. The big question is whose child should attend SHS and benefit from the Free SHS policy and whose child should stay at home? Each and every Ghanaian child has the right to quality basic education as enshrined in the 1992 constitution and for that matter every child must be catered for regardless of the challenges facing Free SHS. Free SHS has therefore ensured that no child is left behind. This is slowly but surely curing a national malady of which a chunk of our young men and women used to be left out of SHS each year due largely to the poverty of their parents..
When I attended Ghana Secondary Technical School (GSTS) in the late 1990s, it was one of the top flight senior high schools in Takoradi, western region and indeed the country as a whole and it still is. I was admitted with distinction from the Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE) because GSTS is a grade A school by GES standards. When I got to the school I realized quite quickly that GSTS was not an 'extraordinary' school after all as I thought it was.The only difference between GSTS and the other schools was that GSTS had very hardworking teaching and non teaching staff dedicated to duty as well as studious and hardworking students who were hungry for success. We as students challenged, prodded, and urged each other on academically.
We did a lot of peer review just so we could justify the confidence reposed in us by our parents and guardians so we put in all our best. Even though in those times SHS education was fee-paying textbooks were woefully inadequate and in short supply. I remember vividly almost all reference textbooks like GAST books for Physics, Chemistry and Biology as well as Abbot and Okeke for Physics KOVs Series for Chemistry, Aki Ola for Mathematics and Approachers series for Integrated Chemistry just to mention a few were all bought for us by our parents and guardians suffice it to say those books were very expensive but we bought them because we could not rely on government textbooks which were not in-depth in addressing the subjects exhaustively and at the same time were in short supply.
I remember in my class we used to consult each other on topics we deemed our colleagues to be very well versed in due to the exposure they had gotten from expensive vacation and or extra classes fully funded by our parents and guardians.
So the point I am making is, there was nothing so exceptional or extraordinary about GSTS as a school except the hunger on the part of students to succeed and the burning desire on the part of teachers to give off their best within their capacity to impart knowledge to their students and for me those are two of the most vital ingredients for delivering high quality education at any level.
So when people try frantically to discredit Free SHS by alluding to low quality I wonder what exactly they mean by that and so I keep asking myself is it that SHS teachers are no longer hardworking and dedicated to duty as it used to be during our time or students have stopped studying hard what they are taught by their teachers? If not then what exactly do they mean when they say Free SHS is of low quality.
Some of us are so passionate about Free SHS because we nearly missed the opportunity to attend SHS but for the sheer benevolence of others. If Free SHS was to be available at the time probably we would not have overburdened our parents with our high school bills. But for education some of us would not have known where we would be by now. That is why we need not toy with a right as inalienable as the right to education as well as a well thought through policy intervention like Free SHS.
"knowledge is power" so i always tell my friends, family and close acquaintances that wherever and whenever knowledge is being dispensed kindly take advantage of it, make the effort to acquire some at all cost and under any circumstance. I would rather sleep on a mattress on the floor to acquire knowledge than to sleep on a cozy bed without acquiring any knowledge.
That is not to say the problems bedeviling Free SHS must not be fixed far from that. Every single challenge facing Free SHS must be fixed and with some sense of purpose, urgency and dynamism. We have no other alternative than to fix it.
I have absolute confidence in the hardworking teachers of this country having taught biology at Tarkwa Senior High School (TARSCO) for my mandatory National Service I know the sacrifices SHS teachers and non teaching staff make on a daily basis to churn out good quality products for our universities. These highly professional staff of GES would never renege on their responsibilities, never! What is left is for government to continually review the conditions of service of these hardworking staff and give them packages that are motivating enough to keep them in the classrooms to deliver.
If we have students thirsty and hungry for knowledge as well as teaching and non-teaching staff ever ready and willing to give off their best to mould the students into responsible members of our society how can Free SHS fail?
Rather than expending our energies on a vicious campaign against Free SHS in its entirety let us endeavour to urge government to fix the bugs relating to Free SHS and make it better for us. Do not let us be too quick to throw away the baby with the bath waste as that would not inure to the benefit of anyone of us.
Kudos to the hardworking staff at the MoE and GES, headmasters/headmistresses, teaching and non-teaching staff as well as all those who toil day and night to ensure that Free SHS is a success. You guys are doing a great job, you have a special place in heaven.
May God continue to bless our homeland Ghana and make her great and strong.
Felix Kwame Quainoo
The writer is a freelancer from Aboso via Tarkwa in the Western region