Free SHS Education: Should the Debate only be about Feasibility? – (2)
In Part one of this article, it was observed that the debate about feasibility of the free universal SHS education policy proposed by the NPP will only be meaningful if the necessity for the policy and its timing are also considered. It was argued that adoption of such a policy was a necessity for Ghana. This second part addresses the timing and feasibility strands of the debate.
According to the NDC and some commentators, now is not the time to introduce a free SHS policy. But if we do not make a start now, when is the right time since the return from investing in education is realised in the medium to long-term? Every year, 3 in 4 BECE candidates do not make the transition into senior high school. For how long shall we continue to waste this vast amount of our human resource? Given the urgency of the situation, we do not have the luxury of waiting for a so-called right time – there is no such time but only our will.
The current growth of the Ghanaian economy is not due to any extraordinary policies that the government is introducing. It is mainly a result of a confluence of favourable external factors and the discovery of oil. The forgiveness of debts in the last two decades and increasing aid from external donors contributed. The main factor, though, is high commodity prices on the world market partly due to the recession in the developed economies (which has pushed investors to move their money into commodities) and partly due to the strong Chinese demand as they embark on rapid industrialisation. Of course the start of oil production has also ensured that we are earning more from commodity exports.
There is no guarantee that these favourable external factors would remain in the medium to long term. We therefore have to take advantage of the current climate to change the structure of our economy - from one based on raw material production to one based on industrialisation. We cannot do this without a predominantly educated workforce, which the present elitist secondary school system cannot deliver. There is no better time to start implementing the policy of free post-JSS education than now. We may never see such a meeting of favourable factors again for a long time. If we fail to grasp the nettle now, we may live to rue the lost opportunity.
Certainly the introduction of free universal SHS education in Ghana would not be an easy proposition. The nation would be confronted with a number of challenges on how to provide infrastructure and other inputs to expand access; and how to improve and maintain quality. The challenges, however, should be seen as offering us the opportunity to innovate. Hence the best way to answer the feasibility question is that: where there is a will, there should be a way. What the country needs is the political will and leadership to identify the way. It is in this vein that the intention of the NPP and the PPP should be welcomed, even though they still have a lot of work to do to flesh out and develop the policy to convince Ghanaians. They do not, however, have to shy away from discussing the challenges, for a policy of such nature will no doubt be fraught with difficulties.
Over the last few weeks Imani Ghana has worked itself to frenzy over what free SHS education means. To them, it can only mean the abolition of the BECE whilst no politician has said that. To them it can only mean the absorption of boarding fees and PTA dues and paying for extra classes; yet no political party has said that. They have based their claims on the fact that tuition fee is already borne by the state. What they have not asked is why PTA dues have become mainstream income for schools. Could it be that government subsidies to schools are maybe not adequate? In developed countries, contributing to PTA activities is purely voluntary. Another question to ask is: why is there a need to pay for extra classes? Could it be that either the syllabus is overloaded or that the duration of the SHS is short? Finding solutions to these problems such that these informal payments are no longer necessary would all help to make SHS education more accessible.
Free SHS needs not necessarily translate into abolition of the BECE or the absorption of boarding fees. Rather free SHS should mean the free availability of a school place for all who are qualified and willing to take up such a place. The extra school places could be created through expansion and resourcing of community day schools to rival the so-called big and established schools. Then it becomes just a matter of choice whether to attend a boarding school (at your own cost for the boarding facilities) or a free community day school. Imani claims that parents prefer to send their wards to boarding schools because they offer environments conducive to learning. That is not the reason. Rather parents prefer boarding schools because their children have to travel miles before they can find a good secondary school and also the fact that most boarding schools happen to have superior teaching and learning facilities. The effort of government should therefore be directed to providing adequately-resourced day schools closer to communities.
The time is really up for all Ghanaians who want to see a transformation of the country to contribute by way of discussions and ideas on how to expand secondary school access to all children. The debate ought to be about the pace and the form in which the policy could be introduced to make it affordable within our resource constraints. We do not have to introduce the policy at one go and in a wholesale manner. It can be phased in incrementally over the medium term starting with all who would pass the BECE following the year of implementation. Based on the historical BECE pass rate, the number of student beneficiaries would not exceed 250,000 in the first year. However, for the policy to be successful in its aims of enhancing equity of opportunities and producing an educated workforce, it cannot be a standalone one divorced from developments in other parts of the education system. Introduction of free post-JHS education should therefore be accompanied by reforms and additional investment to improve the quality of Basic school education whilst also expanding access to tertiary institutions. With these, eventually the BECE could be replaced by national assessments (conducted by WAEC but without issuing certificates) to be able to measure quality improvements at the basic level. Such assessments could also be used to measure equity in opportunities by monitoring performance in all regions of the country (both rural and urban) and amongst girls and boys and to stream children into the different types of post-JHS institutions.
Even with phased implementation we would still need extra funds to provide more school places, more facilities, and more teachers, to name some. These should come from economic growth, exploration of public-private partnerships, contracting of loans and support from our external development partners. These should not be all; we should also pursue efficiency gains in the use of existing resources; and we should make changes to the structure of the secondary school delivery system and teacher qualification and training.
In the pursuit of efficiency gains, some ineffective programmes (such as the NYEP and LESDEP), which are just tinkering at the edges, may have to be discontinued for the resources to be diverted into education. Teacher workload may also have to be streamlined so that teachers who do not have full workloads could be assigned to more than one school. There are quite a number of unemployed graduates in the country leading, for the first time, to the formation of the Unemployed Graduates Association. We could also look into the possibility of accelerating the professional training of those amongst them who want to be teachers. The policy to make teacher qualification a tertiary one has not only pushed up the teacher wage bill, but also, it is gradually depriving the rural areas of teachers as these highly-qualified individuals refuse postings to such places. The training of junior grade teachers, akin to the old 'Cert A', should be re-introduced (after the JHS) to provide teachers for Primary schools.
As the quality of basic education improves and the numbers qualifying for senior high school increase, the current predominantly boarding secondary school system should not be expanded further but rather emphasis should be placed on expanding and resourcing community day schools. This will cut down the cost of senior high school education. Further, to limit the cost of providing infrastructure, the older senior high schools, which already have well-equipped science laboratories and workshops, should be allowed to specialise as Science Senior High Schools. The relatively new community day schools should then be developed as Arts, Business and Information Technology specialist schools. To get on top of the pressures that would be placed on the existing school infrastructure in the short term, it may be necessary for the government to form partnerships with churches, missions, private individuals and NGOs to augment its own efforts. The private sector can be encouraged by: giving vouchers to students to attend private high schools; the state underwriting loans that private schools need to set up and expand; and by making private schools beneficiaries of the GETFund.
Fortunately national income is increasing due to the start of oil production and high commodity prices. This ought to allow us to allocate increasing amounts to education to meet the increased recurrent expenditure and to provide some infrastructure. In the long-term, though, the nation has to view the making of secondary education affoardable as part of the investment it has to make in its development. We should therefore be prepared to contract loans, complemented by support of external development partners, to provide the needed educational infrastructure. Of all the investments we can make, education is the one with the most direct returns. If the policy succeeds, it can pay for itself in the long-term.
To conclude, it is a necessity for Ghana to pursue the policy of free post-JHS education. Free does not have to be defined in absurd and unrealistic terms. It rather means re-modelling the SHS such that the share of the cost that parents bear reduces drastically to almost insignificance. The current situation where large numbers of children leave school at 15 with no skills or qualifications will, in the long run, not augur well for social cohesion. Besides we need a threshold stock of educated workforce to be able to change the structure of our economy from one based on raw material production to one based on industrialisation. Given the low base from which we are starting, only a radical secondary education policy would enable the country make the required transition. There is no better time than now to introduce such a policy – our national income is growing. There would be feasibility and implementation challenges but these are not insurmountable. If the policy is pursued as part of an integrated national development plan, where the school curriculum is reformed to make it relevant to a modernising agenda, we should see even more 'unprecedented' economic expansion in the future!
Dr Yaw Ohemeng
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