In September 2017, the Government of Ghana under the leadership of His Excellency Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo commenced the implementation of its flagship free SHS policy, giving some four hundred thousand (400,000) Senior High School (SHS) students in selected schools free education and thus lifting that burden off parents and guardians.
The policy, anchored on Article 25 1b of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Ghana and Goal 4, Target 1 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, seeks to provide free, equitable and quality secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes for all boys and girls by 2030.
The policy also seeks to make SHS education generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means.
In print, free SHS is designed to provide all Senior High School students free admission, free tuition, free textbooks, free access to library facilities, free access to science resource centres, free Information Communications Technology training, free examination, free utility, free boarding and free meals.
The government through the Ghana Education Service has demonstrated its commitment to these components of the policy by interdicting and dismissing some secondary school headmasters and headmistresses for charging parents and guardians unapproved fees, partly quenching a fireball of opposition concerns about government’s commitment toward the policy implementation.
In spite of the hue and cry and groundswell of complaints about the need to bridge the infrastructure gap of education at both basic and secondary school levels before implementing the policy, government opted for Michael Fullan’s Change Management principle of “do, plan and do”. Government did not want to be held back by long, laborious and impractical planning sessions in the boardrooms of the Ministry of Education and the Presidency while Senior High School potentials waste away at home for want of financial wherewithal by their parents and guardians. They opted to face the practicality of issues as they emerge.
Government ought to be commended for that.
At present, the Free SHS policy covers some 1.3 million students at an estimated cost of 2.8 billion Ghana Cedis. Free SHS is indeed resource hungry.
For 2019 alone, government has set aside 1.7 billion Ghana Cedis for Free SHS with the figure expected to rise in the next academic year as enrolment increases.
Conservative figures from government put SHS enrolment at 787,861 in the 2015/16 academic year as against 393,995 students in 2007/08. That exponential jump in enrolment occurred in eras where education at the secondary school level was not universally free.
But with the advent of Free SHS, the numbers are expectedly galloping as many parents and guardians take due advantage of the window of opportunity availed to them. After all, it is our tax money that is being put to accountable use.
For most parents therefore, Free SHS is a saviour that will forever alter the fortunes of their families.
This is why government and all stakeholders must not relent in their efforts to make the policy work effectively.
While the benefits of the policy may not be obvious to many in the short term, generations after ours will point to September 2017 as the period the future of this nation was fashioned for the many benefits accruing to them.
From the foregoing, one would have the impression that Free SHS is having a smooth sailing without teething challenges. On the contrary, there are a great deal of issues about the way and manner the lofty policy is being implemented.
From my perspective, government is being carried away by the little gains being made while major challenges that can violently shake up the foundations of the policy are being ignored.
Notable is the issue of infrastructure.
Adequate and progressively improved infrastructure is core to the success of every blueprint. Education is unwholesome if students are compelled to study in makeshift structures. The situation where classrooms are filled to the brim where there is little space for comfort of mind and body is unacceptable and thus distractive to peaceful, effective learning.
On Saturday, 19th October, 2019, I joined a host of former and current students of St. Margaret Mary Senior High School, Dansoman to celebrate our homecoming. The programme was organised by the school’s old students association, Association of Margaret Mary Old Students (ASMMOS), to raise funds for the school to meet some of its needs that the GES and government have neglected.
During my time at the school, I took a tour of the entire campus to see the state of infrastructure and learning centres. They were an eyesore. I was teary-eyed and choked with emotions about the level of deterioration the school has suffered in sharp contract to what pertained in my days when I was a student — 1997-2000.
In my days, the school had freshly been established by the St. Margaret Mary Parish, Dansoman under the visionary leadership of Rev. Fr. John Straathof, SVD, who was then the parish priest.
The church was hugely involved in the running of the school and gave it all the first-class attention and care a responsible mother would give her child.
Even then, we lacked nothing. We had the best of desks to sit on, teaching boards were well fitted and in good conditions, the ICT centre which we shared with pupils of St. Bernadette Soubirous School, also owned by the parish, was well resourced for effective learning.
It was my memorable experience with the school in the ‘90s and early ‘00s that made me cringe when the news of government taking over the school was shared with me. I feared that the school would be left to rot as government is already overburdened with ever-growing financial demands by most of its poorly managed investments.
Alas, 2019 is here to prove my fear founded!
During my tour of the school, I realised that most of the desks in the classrooms were broken, the teaching boards (white boards) were in bad shapes with the white formica boards peeling off, open entrances with broken doors, unpainted school buildings (mostly faded paintings), and a couple of uncompleted and forgotten building projects.
Few of the current students I spoke to shed tears as they narrated the deplorable conditions under which they study. I tried reaching the headmistress for comments but she reserved her comments, apparently for fear of being victimised by the powers that be.
At the end of the day, one thing came out clearly: the school’s administration, teaching staff and the students have been left in a state of hopelessness as far as a government engineered turnaround is concerned.
In their silence, they all seem to be speaking one language to old students of the school: If you guys don’t support us with funds to change the face of the school, you will come back here next time to meet it in worse conditions.
The unfortunate thing is that, the old students of the school are relatively young (under 40 years), as the school produced its first batch of SSSCE candidates in 1999.
As a matter of fact, most of us are now finding our feet in our chosen careers. As such, we cannot be relied on to make significant changes in the fortunes of the school as the likes of PRESEC Boys, Accra Academy, Saint Augustine’s and Prempeh College can.
The good news is that we are making efforts to help the situation with our widow’s mite. ASSMOS has initiated a project dubbed “Operation Replace Your Desk” which it projects should generate funds to procure a few hundreds of desks to replace the decrepit ones in the school. Additionally, it is raising funds to paint the disfigured school blocks.
But that’s how far we can go for now.
Government ought to turn its attention to the school by commissioning a comprehensive audit of the infrastructure of the school and establish a clear case for funding and other forms of support.
Free SHS does not mean that the infrastructure needs of the school must be shirked. It is a primary responsibility of government to fix the issues facing the school even as old students and benevolent persons and groups of persons volunteer their supports.
As per its own modest estimates, government has done well with its Free SHS implementation so far. However, it needs to widen its scope to ensure that marginalised secondary schools under the scheme are given the needed attentions they ought to be given.
The two resource needs are not mutually exclusive. They have to be paired at all times to ensure effective and quality education for all.
I hope to return next year to share the good story of government as far as the infrastructure needs of my beloved Senior High School and many its kind in the country are concerned.
I end it here with this quote from Dan Strutzel: “History books tend to be kinder to those who stood by their convictions, especially when the perspective of time can shed light on the positive results that those convictions fostered.”
Long live Free SHS!
Long live St. Margaret Mary Senior High School!
Stephen Kwame Agbai
(Old Student, St. Margaret Mary Senior High School)