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Feature Article of Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Columnist: Ayaric, Ghanatta

Free Education Reloaded

By Ghanatta Ayaric

Talking about the deplorable state of schools in his district, the immediate past District Director of Education for the Krachi District, Mr. Bernard Akara, is quoted in a Ghanaweb special report (The Price of Education, 30.12.2012) by Ghana Journalist of the Year 2011, Manasseh Azure Awuni, as follows: “Sometimes you wonder whether they are hencoops or classrooms.”

The frustration of the director of education, which I guess is felt also by many concerned Ghanaians, is heightened by his lamentable observation that “such deplorable infrastructure coupled with the non-availability of teachers accounted for the poor performance of students in the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE).” In the report, the ace journalist stresses the importance of education for our children and society, and cautions politicians against seeing the subject largely as an item to be considered only in election campaign programmes. This is what he says, “Education was the major issue for political parties in the just-ended parliamentary and presidential elections. But matching promises on education against concrete achievements of elected governments, it doesn’t seem much will change until politicians stop focusing on the next election and spare a thought for the next generation.”

I hasten to add that given the high emotional discussions that characterize electoral campaigns and the untamed fury they unleash, we would be doing ourselves some good if important topics like education, free education for that matter, are not always shelved only to be brought back when elections are around the corner. It is disturbing to observe the negative way some people have taken the issue out of context and are inciting one section of our hitherto peaceful population against the others.

In another development, a Ghana News Agency (GNA) source quotes the Assistant Director of Finance and Administration of the Ghana Education Service (GES) for Mamprusi West District, Mr. Charles B. Midzira, in these words, “113 classrooms in West Mamprusi are without teachers……when we consider the ratio with the trained teachers against the total enrolment, the district has 90:1”, (Ghanaweb, 30.12.2012: 113 Classrooms in West Mamprusi without Teachers).

From the foregoing, it is clear that our system of education has daunting challenges which are yet to be overcome. Tackling these challenges goes beyond wild promises of free education with immediate effect. Discussion on the matter will not benefit from sentimentality either.

I don’t think there is a single Ghanaian who, in principle, is against free SHS education for ALL Ghanaian children. But I’m sure there are many who are against a hasty implementation of it, being fully aware of the high demands of the policy; money, solid infrastructure, well-trained, well-paid and motivated teachers among others. Do we have the money? Do we have the needed infrastructure? Do we have enough trained and motivated teachers to staff our schools? Can we afford to channel huge chunks of our limited financial resources into free education when there is also the urgent need to improve the quality of other infrastructures which, by their very nature, will help the effective implementation of the policy – roads, bridges, transportation, electricity, water, to mention just some of the basic ones?

We risk stifling our national development efforts if we rush to implement free education without careful planning first, without really knowing from which sources it will be financed (we are yet to start benefitting fully from our oil earnings, that is, if economic exploitation by foreign companies and the hydra-headed cancer of corruption in high and low places allow us). Devoid of careful planning and sufficient funding, failure is a well-programmed consequence - standards of teaching and learning are bound to fall, defeating the very purpose of the policy – quality education to enable us cope with the exigencies of the global economy, and in the same vein foster economic and social development as cornerstones for nation building.

Those claiming that one part of Ghana is enjoying free education, and yet, that same part is against its extension to the rest of the country only seek to distract attention from the real issue and situation. They are being destructively polemical and unfair, at best ill-formed on the subject. The crux of the matter isn’t who is benefitting from free education and who not - if there is free education for anyone at all, except at the basic level. I can’t imagine any president who would want poor children to pay school fees if the coffers of his or her country are overflowing with surplus trade earnings, unless that president is particularly stupid, insensitive and uncaring. Even in rich countries like Germany where education up to senior high school, and in most cases through university, is free, parents are called upon to make the one or other contribution to the education of their children. It is important for Ghanaians to look at the possibility of free education from various angles, without the lens of the one or other political party, and without sowing and nurturing the seeds of inter-sectional discord.

Starting free education at a time when a less complex programme like the free school feeding programme introduced by the Kufour administration is still struggling to find its way to the runway, not to mention taking off and flying, is suicidal. Do we want a situation whereby our people become disillusioned with a failing free education policy and are forced to send their children to expensive private schools? How many Ghanaians can afford the fees charged by private schools? Can our subsistence farmers, fishermen, petty traders, workers, or the unemployed afford them? I doubt it very much. If they can afford it at all, not more than one child in a family can be supported, and even then, it would be under very hard circumstances. And given the tendency on the part of Ghanaian parents to have as many children as they can produce, your guess as to what may happen to those children who cannot continue their education after basic school, or drop out from SHS, is as good as mine – they are most likely to end up deeply frustrated, destitute, turn to crime or sell dog chains on the streets, or, for those who manage to buy plane tickets to leave Ghana, find themselves (so-called hustlers) cleaning toilets in Europe and elsewhere.

Are we incapable of a careful appraisal of our education system, a system that has been screaming out loudly and begging for innovative impetus over the years, like the case is in almost all areas of our national life? Is it that difficult? Do we lack the brains for such a purpose? Or is it just the will that eludes us? I’m tempted to think that the latter is correct. And this is not only unfortunate, but completely outrageous in this age of technological advancement in which we no longer have just pens and papers as the needed tools but the additional support of the computer and the almighty internet.

And what is wrong with taking time to learn from countries already implementing the policy, both in and outside Africa? The Germans are learning how to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their schools from less rich countries like Sweden and Finland, after ranking far behind these in a survey report first published by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in autumn 2001. Conducted every three years under the umbrella of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the PISA survey tests 15-year old pupils’ performance in mathematics, science and reading. As the results of the survey reveal, Germany, despite free education and good infrastructure to prop it, on top of being Europe’s richest economy, still faces challenges in its education system. Better teacher training and improved methods of teaching and learning have been a priority in education in Germany from time immemorial. These factors are given even more emphasis after each PISA survey, with view to updating education to meet the standards and requirements of the changing times. It is sad that those propagating free SHS education in Ghana have always chosen the wrong timing and platform, elections time, to market a great idea and an engine for boosting economic and social development. It is not unusual for most political parties to jam their campaign manifestos with all sorts of outlandish intentions and promises (the sun, moon and stars) to the electorate only to leave it sitting in darkness after getting what they want – votes and power. If we really want free education (not just wishing it), we should pursue the matter in a completely new context, inter alia, strong and sincere will on the part of our policy makers, non-partisan debate using the mass media to examine and promote the policy vigorously and extensively, laying bare its logistics – concrete details of funding, planning and implementation in the first years and beyond - and finding acceptance for it within the populace at large. Engaging Ghanaians in a sober and unbiased national debate on the issue involving parents, teachers, pupils, students, education and finance professionals, and reaching a consensus, come across as serious and convincing. A fraction of the time and energy we expend vilifying one another on our airwaves, television screens, Facebook and other internet forums can take care of such a national debate. We would be positively surprised by the many good ideas that would come up, even from people with little or no formal education at all, exclusive of the pathetic semi-literates spitting venom as comments on our websites.

Just chanting “we have oil” or “it can be done by our party”, coupled with vague figures regarding funding, is simply too adventurist and amateurish to be taken seriously. “It is not possible” is also defeatist. Sisyphus saw hope in an apparent hopeless situation, not giving up on his determination to roll the rock up to the top of the hill each time it came rolling downhill again just when he was about to reach the summit. Of course, it can be done, but only through a cool-headed approach, and above all, with adequate money at our disposal for the needed school infrastructure and training of teachers (to be paid good salaries), as well as constant assessment and updating after implementation. Using free education as bait for votes in elections is dishonest. Whining incessantly that one part of our population enjoys so-called free education whilst the rest of it is denied access is one-sided and sentimentalist. It will get us nowhere. Now that free education has caught the attention of the public, it is time to look the task in the eye, weigh the pros and cons within the context of our financial possibilities and relevant human resources, and then determine what to do. I wish you a HAPPY NEW YEAR. May The Most High continue to guide us to guard and protect our PEACE, and make our nation great and strong. ONE GHANA, and ONE LOVE, as The Rt. Hon. Robert Nesta Marley of blessed memory, would say!

Ghanatta Ayaric

Hamburg, Germany

Email: ghanattaa@gmail.com

http://www.facebook.com/ghanatta.ayaric/

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