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Feature Article of Thursday, 19 April 2012

Columnist: Thompson, Nii Moi

IMANI and the Great Education Debate: Separating Fact from Fiction

In recent years, the IMANI Center for Policy and Education has played a critical role in at least keeping the public aware of certain important national development issues.

The Center’s latest attempt at promoting public awareness on free secondary (second-cycle) education, however, has proven to be a disastrous exercise in disinformation and fabrication of facts.

They seemed to oppose the idea even before they had understood the issues. The result is a hasty series of sloppy analyses, statistical blunders, and an ever-shifting position that has ranged from an irrational obsession with cost to a perverse glorification of schools under trees to a mishmashof claims that are remarkable more for their internal contradictions than their contribution to policy education.

We need policy education, but it must be based on facts, not fiction. It's time to set the record straight.

IMANI’s written positions on the matter, besides public statements by its analysts, are contained in the following submissions between March and April 2012: (1) Does the NPP’s free Secondary Education Policy Add up?; (2) IMANI's Alternative Costing of the NPP's Free SHS Policy; (3) *Free*SHS: The *Precious*Facts and Figures; (4) *Free*SHS: The *Costly*Facts and Figures; and (5) Strategic Issues and Facts: Why Free SSS Wont Solve the Problems in our Educational System.

I will address each in turn:

‘Does the NPP’s free Secondary Education Policy Add up?’

Contrary to the claim in this article, the NPP never proposed free secondary education “sometime between 2007 and 2008”. Indeed, the Party’s 2008 manifesto had exactly two short sentences on its secondary education record and general plans for the sector; neither sentence mentions free education.

It was the CPP that proposed and expounded on the idea in its 2008manifesto, only for it to be lifted by the NPP’s Nana Akufo-Addo in 2011. And even then, the public ignored it for the election gimmick that it was until the BBC, in an interview with Nana Addo, forced the issue of financing. Nana Addo’s inability to address it convincingly only showed how tenuous his relationship to the idea was and remains.

A major weakness in the IMANI write-up is the use of two external data sources (UN Population Division and UNESCO) and the Fourth Ghana Living Standards Survey (based on 1998-1999 data), and then “extrapolating” (their word) from the data to get enrolment and other figures that proved to be wrong.

On the basis of this extrapolation, they concluded, for example, that there are 1.2 million persons of secondary school age enrolled in 415 public secondary schools and 100 private ones.

But government's 2012 budget statement(p.141) saysstudent enrolmentin both public and private secondary schools in 2010-2011 was728,076. That is 60.0% of the IMANI figure. That means the “average annual expenditure of $258 million at secondary school level” computed by IMANI was nearly 65.0% (or US$101.5 million) higher than it should be. The figure for the number of public and private secondaryschools in Ghana is no better. The Anamuah-Mensah report of 2002, which served as the basis for the 2007 education sector reforms, reported 474 public secondary schools as of 2000. The 2010 Education Sector Report lists 493public secondary schools and 71 private ones. Since the figures are based on GES surveys, the actual number of public secondary schools therefore is higher – and certainly not 415. Ditto private schools. This meansthatthe number of additional schools (and the associated cost)required for free secondaryeducationis less than implied in the IMANIanalysis.

It gets worse. IMANI uses average household expenditure on secondary education of US$175.00 from GLSS 4 to derive an “initial cost” of US$151 million, using what it calls “elementary arithmetic." This cost then “balloons” to US$1.1 billion “at a constant rate of recurrent expenditure” (whatever that means). No timelines are given.

But average household expenditure in any of the GLSS series applies to both public and private schools, which explains why “school and registration fees”, for instance, could be as high as 51.2% (GLSS 4) and 42.9% (GLSS 5). For public secondary schools, where “school fees” (or tuition) are free and registration fees are nominal, theirshare of overall expenditure isthereforemarginal.

IMANI’s government cost, therefore, is over-estimated by the share of household expenditures which goes to private school and will not be borne (in whole or in part)by the public fiscus. (GLSS does not publish the disaggregated figures, and the correct information can only be gleaned from administrative data).

Perhaps, the most preposterous claim in the article is the following: “From survey data, the additional amount of wages earned by senior secondary graduates over junior secondary graduates does not translate into enough tax-take to offset additional expenditures on secondary education over a 4-year horizon.”

Two questions arise: What in the world were they trying to say, and what is the empirical basis for such aconvoluted assertion?

The following research finding might better illuminate the relevance of secondary education toindividual andnation:

“…while increased education appears to have a positive effect on welfare, it thus seems that a primary education is not itself sufficient… The benefit gained from having some [JSS] education is not large…. The strong positive effect of post-JSS education, in contrast, suggest clearly that this is useful in the fight against poverty” (Source: Canagarajah and Portner, quoted in Thompson and Casely-Hayford 2008, “Financing and Outcomes of Education in Ghana” – available on the internet).

In response to IMANI, the Centre for National Affairs (CNA) on March 22, 2012provided alternative costing to free secondary education in Ghana, but it too had problems with the average household expenditure: It did not only fail to recognize that it comprises expenditures for both private and secondary schools, but it appeared to have used a 2012 exchange rate to dollarize the 2006 figure of GH¢244 reported in the GLSS 5, resulting in an artificially lower figure of US$148.

'IMANI's Alternative Costing of the NPP's Free SHS Policy'

In aresponse to CNA titled 'IMANI's Alternative Costing of the NPP's Free SHS Policy' IMANI conceded, if only grudgingly, that it should have used local and more recent data sources but took issue with the what it called “too many gaps in [CNA’s] analysis”. It disputed the US$148 figureand proceeded to rectify it (or so it thought), using what it proudlycalled“a truly robust treatment ... [that] would have projected to 2011 in Ghana Cedis before commencing the dollar conversion” (whatever that means). Alas, the figure of US$256.00 that this supposedly robust treatment produced was also wrong.

Throughout the GLSS 5 report, cedis were converted to US dollars using the exchange rate for June 2006, which was ¢9,176.48 or GH¢0.92.The GHc244 would thus beUS$265.2, not US$256.00(which was alsoused in subsequent IMANI reports, with wrong conclusions).

With such a basic error in computation – and householdexpenditure on secondary educationstill undifferentiatedbetween public and privateschools– all other calculations, including the billion-dollar cost scenarios, in the rejoinder were also necessarily wrong, despite valiant efforts by IMANI to dazzle the reader with all sorts of equations and formulations.

'Free SHS: The Precious Facts and Figures/ Free SHS: The Costly Facts and Figures'

In subsequent write-ups,IMANIshifted from miscalculations to outright misrepresentation of alternativeor opposingviews. On April 3, 2012itissued “*Free*SHS: The *Precious*Facts and Figures”, presented in a Q&A format where theIMANIostensibly had all the answers and only needed to retrofit imaginary questions to them.

When that failed to gain media traction, they edited and repackaged it as “*Free* SHS - The *Costly* Facts & Figures.” With a new heading and introduction,and a little bit of aggressive media marketing, this version gained some public attention.

Along the way, IMANI’svice president reportedlytold a round-table on free secondary education that “it is not a problem to go to school under a tree”. He offered the following justification: “If the teacher is sufficiently motivated, because many big people today - ministers, doctors etc - went to schools under trees, passed out and today are big people in society. The issue is not the tree. It is the quality of tuition that you are getting at that point. So for me the issue is really not quantity, its quality.”

In other words, a“sufficiently motivated”teacher standing in the rain, surrounded by stray animals, floating laboratoriesorlibraries(if they have any), and cold and presumably distractedstudents,is better than a purposeful government effort to modernize and expand educational facilities and opportunities for allGhanaian children. This is worse than cynical; it is devious.

The "Costly Facts" write up was heavy on bombast and thin on facts, with a style that was smug and shrill, often taking gratuitous pleasure in trivializing otherwise serious issues. We are told, for instance, that freesecondary education would notbefree after allbecause government will use "ourmoney"to fund it. That’s like saying the services of traffic wardens are not free because the government uses “our money” to pay them.

Using the straw man’s approach to argument, they ask the following bogus question, for example,in order to justify a flawed pre-existing view: “…didn’t Dr. Kwame Nkrumah provide free secondary education to Ghanaians?”

And then they answer: “This is another piece of disinformation making the rounds. The CPP NEVER introduced free post-middle education. What was implemented was free basic education....”

Fact is, nobody – certainly not the CPP – has claimed that Nkrumah provided free secondary education. The CPP's Seven-Year Development Plan, which was aborted by the 1966 coup,statesthat basic education became free in 1952 and compulsory in 1961, and then notes the following: “...by the end of the Seven-Year Development Plan [1970] secondary education will also have become free.”Teacher training and university education werealready free.

Clearly, if there is any “disinformation”, it is coming from IMANI and nowhere else. There’s more. IMANI claims that “we already spend a quarter of our money on education” and that with a “free SHS” we can “easily top 40%, and a 20% budget deficit”. This of course is false, a cynical misrepresentation of facts. Total government spending in 2012, as outlined in the government’s budget statement, is given as GH¢18,983,200,000.00, with GH¢2,871,680,218 (or 15.1%)going to education. Even if we double the amount for education, that would give us 30.2% (not 40.0%) of the total budget. With a projected budget deficit of only 4.8% in 2012, one also wondershowthat rises dramatically to“20%”. Wherethendid IMANI get its figures?

Besides such egregious fabrications, the write-up is filled with muddled arguments that alternate between demonizing the state as "clunky” and “leaking" while at the same time trusting it to handle “merit-based”scholarships for“proficient students”. It makes reckless and misleading assumptions about how the policy will be implemented without asking its proponents how they would in fact do it. The CPP, for instance, has never said it would abolish all fees and have government take onparental responsibilities.

'Strategic Issues and Facts: Why Free SSS Wont Solve the Problems in our Educational System.'

But the problem doesn’t end there.IMANIlater released an “unpublished paper” that sought “to further clarify [its] position” but only succeeded in cloudingthe issues further. Thevery title, “Strategic Issues and Facts: Why Free SSS (sic) Wont (sic) Solve the Problems in our Educational System”, is problematic because none of the advocates of free secondary education have claimed that it would “solve the problems of our educational system.”

In fact, for the CPP, free SHS would form part of broader educational and public sector reforms to ensure effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability. It is NOT designed to be a panacea to our educational problems. That’s IMANI’s fiction.

The rest of the paper is more emotional opinions than empirical facts. Indeed, IMANI seems blissfully unaware of the many authoritative materials that exist on Ghanaian education and can enrich their understanding of the issues. Instead, they choose to define problems in the sector as they wish and then propose solutions to fit their wishes. That's cynical and manipulative.

The following are a few good sources that might be of interest to those interested in the state,direction and potential of education in Ghana: The Education Management Information System (EMIS) produced by the Ministry of Education; the education sector annualperformance reports; the Anamuah-Mensah Report (Meeting the Challenges of Education in the Twenty First Century); the NPP Government’s White Paper on the Anamuah-Mensah Report; Education Strategic Plan, Volumes I and II; ESP (2010-2020); National Inclusive Education Policy; the CPP’s 2008 Manifesto (see section on “Social Policy”); the Seven-Year Development Plan (see section on Education, Manpower and Employment); and of course the government’s annual budget statements. In addition, a paper on “Financing and Outcomes of Education in Ghana” authored by me and Leslie Casely-Hayford (2008) is free on the internet.

Whither Free Secondary Education?

It is true that how government finances any policy, including free SHS, is of great importance and must be debatedby decision makers and the public alike, but money is not everything. When policies are made, plans are drawn and costed from those policies and where financing gaps are identified, as they often are, a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) is included as part of the implementation strategy. If we wait before every pesewa we need is in the bank, we will never develop. IMANI's inordinate obsession with cost (with all their miscalculations and deliberate misrepresentations) ignores the fact that if we have all the money in the world but can't plan well, it won't make any difference in our educational system; we will waste it. Conversely, if we can plan and manage our resources, including time, well, we can do more with less.

Thisrequiresa sound strategy grounded in fact, as any good policy should. For example, a simple switching of teachers' distance education classes from Fridays to Saturdays would result in nearly 20,000 teachers being available to teach on Fridays and thus addressing one of the major issues in education quality: teacher absenteeism. This is a documented fact, not some fluffy opinion. And it can have the greatest impact with the least cost, if any.

Many of those opposing free SHS often also insist that we should address the issue of quality before expanding access and participation. But the two are not mutually exclusive, and they can and are in fact best pursued together. Education quality is adiffuse and complexinstitutional challenge that exists in all jurisdictions,not just in Ghana. It requires continuous and innovative solutions. It is folly to think that it can be isolated and dealt with separately for the benefit of a few before being extended to the rest of the school population, for the system that proves successful for the few will collapse once it is expanded for the rest.

Similarly, means testing,which IMANI isnowadvocating,whether for education or anything else, cannot be done in isolation. It must form part of a broader social policy strategy designed to help the vulnerable in society, including those who cannot feed or house themselves.

And, yes, for that we will have to use "our money".Common sense requires that!

Can Ghana afford free secondary education? Uganda, a country with only 40% of Ghana's income, is already in its fifth year of free universal secondary education (USE).

Yes, we can, but only if we overcome the self-doubt, the cynicism and the gratuitous disinformationby those who should know better. Development is more than theincremental acquisitionof material things. It is also about the ability, the willingness, of a people to dream big, to pursue that which others dismiss as impossible – to change society in sweeping and fundamental ways. We need visionary policy makingnot pessimistic policy posturing. Whatever the financial cost, free secondary education will more than pay for itself through a better educated citizenry (including more tertiary education), higher labor productivity, increased household incomes, abigger national income, and of course a globally competitive economy.

Significantly, “imani” in Swahili means “faith”. It’s time we hadmore of itin ourselves!

Credit: Nii Moi Thompson.

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