The provision of free primary and secondary education (FPSE) to the people of northern Ghana sometimes elicits emotional outbursts and misconception of equity among some Ghanaian intellectuals. These intellectuals question the economic and moral justification for providing FPSE to northern children while other Ghanaian children in similar socio-economic circumstances are denied the same opportunity. Other Ghanaian intellectuals also argue that FPSE program for northerners has outlived its historical and moral significance and that all Ghanaian pupils must be treated equally. However, the ways these intellectuals construct their argument against FPSE for northerners bear a close resemblance to the way conservative Whites in North America oppose equity programs for women, disabled, and racial minorities such as affirmative action in employment and professional school admission quotas.
Recently, Mr. Ben Opoku Agyapong in his article titled Towards Achieving the Education for All (EFA), published on the web on May 17, 2005, reiterated some of these arguments. He wrote…”Local small-scale interventions are not the most efficient way of using resources for quality education system: successful interventions need to have a long-term focus and resource allocation must emphasize the production of results to justify the expenditure. This is why I often question the success of the long-standing free education in northern Ghana whiles some parents in South and the middle belt struggle to fund their children's education in the face of increasing poverty”. First, it should be noted that every educational intervention program is targeted to solve a specific problem and is grounded in one or more equity principles. The provision of FPSE for Northerners initiated by Nkrumah's leadership was based on the equity principle of caring ethic. As applied to the situation in Ghana, this principle implies that the welfare of all Ghanaians is inextricably linked and that equity of access to educational opportunity should be ensured for all citizens. This does not suggest that all citizens of Ghana should be treated equally in relation to access to the developmental opportunity of education. The three regions in northern Ghana face formidable economic and social barriers in accessing educational opportunity relative to other regions in the country. Consequently, in the name of social justice (or fairness) the caring ethic must focus on those three regions most disadvantaged and that is why FPSE is provided to the people of northern extraction. By this reasoning, Mr. Ben Opoku Agyapong glaringly contradicted himself by endorsing a similar intervention designed specifically to address problem of access for girls, street children and the rural poor. Are the people of northern Ghana not poor enough to deserve FPSE?
There is, yet, another powerful economic reason northerners deserve FPSE more than any other groups in Ghana. A significant majority of labourers who work in mining, cocoa, coffee, and cotton farms are of northern extraction. Arguably, these are the industries that produce the lion portion of the real wealth of Ghana, not southern compradors who out of their selfish pecuniary motive import anything into the country. Needless to say, the indiscreet importation of consumption goods from Euro-America and Asian-economic- tiger countries into Ghana are responsible for the collapse of many strategic local industries, including the rice, tanning and peanut industries in northern Ghana. In addition, people of northern descent form the largest proportion of labourers who do denial jobs in the country. This very well explains why northerners deserve FPSE in order to create an equitable society.
Further, Mr. Ben Opoku Agyapong is under the erroneous impression that resources allocated to provide free-education for northerners do not give satisfactory results, meaning that the resources so allocated are wasted without producing any tangible results. In fact, over the years FPSE provided for Northerners has allowed them to produce scholars and professionals with undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees who are making great contributions to Ghana. Moreover, in June 18, 1999, The Ghanaian Times published the results of the 1997 Ministry of Education performance monitoring tests in English (E) and mathematics (M) for a random sample of primary school pupils. The mastery score for English was set at 60% and mathematics at 55%. The tests assessed primary pupils' knowledge for these subjects. The comparative mastery scores for pupils in the three regions in northern Ghana are as follows: Northern region (E= 3% and M=1%), Upper East (E=6% and M=4%), and Upper West (E=12% and M=5%). Apart from Central region and Greater Accra Region, these three northern regions did better or equal to the other regions in the tests. This simple statistics suggests that the government is getting maximum return on its investment in education in these regions. Though I used statistics to support my argument that investment of resources in education in the three regions produces better results, an educational equity program such as FPSE in northern Ghana can not be defended on utilitarian view of justice alone. This is because we can not calculate fairness in terms of financial returns. Fairness is a matter of human value and those who subscribe to this value make sure that it is applied regardless of the economic return.
Furthermore, Mr. Ben Opoku Agyapong contends in the same article that FPSE in northern Ghana gives the pupils there a greater advantage over those in Southern Ghana. This is the way he states it, “How can we justify watching other children's future jeopardized while we encourage others to study for better future. It is out of political expediency or outright tribalism or social ineptitude?'' Contrary to popular belief, FPSE for Northerners has not given them more educational advantages relative to Southerners; though it has motivated them considerably to go to school than before. For example, I had my secondary education in Tamale, Northern region, in the mid 80's, and during that time a few Northerners accessed secondary education. Now enrolment has improved modestly in most northern schools but not retention rate. The ministry of education primary school retention rate for 1996/97 indicates that the regions of Northern (48%), Upper East (51%), and Upper West (53%) have the lowest rates. Retention rate is calculated as the number of pupils who continue schooling up to the end of a specific academic year expressed as a percent of total enrolment. This rate does not take into consideration the rate of truancy, and the situation is much worse if we look at girls' retention rate in the three the northern regions. So the point I want to assert is that although FPSE has provided an incentive for northerners to access education, improvement in both enrolment and retention rates has been insignificant. Using my sociological imagination and statistical insight, I can predict that the removal of FPSE for northerners would reduce school enrolment and retention drastically in three regions. And both primary and secondary School graduation rate would also be affected severely. The net consequence would be a much wider disparity in education attainment between northern and southern Ghana.
Finally, as I have stated the primary motivation of FPSE for Northern pupils is rooted in equity, not in political expediency, tribalism or social ineptitude. If it is for political expediency, why didn't Nkrumah government extend the same program to Volta region that was created much later? If Nkrumah from Akan ethnicity had designed that equity program only for Akan regions (Asante, Central, Eastern, and Western regions), then we would be justified in accusing him of tribalism. Nkrumah can not be guilty of social ineptitude either, because he was the only leader in the history of Ghana who established a truly representative government made up of every ethnic group in the country. Having lived and educated in racialized, gendered, and ethnicized United States, Nkrumah had a primary observation of racial segregation and whites' insatiable obsession with skin pigmentology and its use as an objective criterion in distributing public goods. In America, Nkrumah witnessed the social disadvantages of African-Americans, and he knew so well that it would be unfair to ask Northerners in Ghana to lift up themselves through their own bootstraps!
I understand that there are some parents in other parts of the country who, due to increasing poverty, are having difficulties in financing the education of their children. However, this does not mean that FPSE program for northerners should be scraped or removed. Indeed, fairness dictates that the FPSE for northern Ghana is not negotiable. Perhaps the government should design another equity program to address the difficulties some families are encountering in funding their children's education. The free, compulsory and universal basic education (FCUBE) entrenched in the constitution when implemented would ease those difficulties facing families in Southern regions. Y. Fredua-Kwarteng Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Toronto, Ontario Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.