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Opinions of Sunday, 3 September 2017

Columnist: Sumanguru Kante

Allow Napo do his work!

Politics’, it is said, ‘is all about perception’, and politicians and political organisations of all stripes go to great lengths to use the media to plant good images of themselves in the public imagination and frequently, to discredit their rivals via the same means.

But like every human activity, the use of the media to create perceptions about personalities and political organisations can be overdone. Creating perceptions in the public domain is in essence a solicitation of public support and sympathies for a cause. To do so with a malevolent intent thus amounts to an attempt to fool the public towards ends that may harm their own interests.

In democracies thus, journalists and political commentators professing neutrality and impartiality in the political space would be expected to be judicious and not cheaply avail themselves as instruments of vicious propaganda. How seriously the media take this responsibility could be the deciding factor between a country’s democratic politics remaining respectable and an arena of gross behaviours.

These are the reasons why we Ghanaians should worry when we see our journalists lending themselves to the falsification of facts. It would seem, however, that we are getting used to reading lies and deliberately twisted facts about politicians in the Ghanaian press. We don’t seem to see the big deal about policies being killed with deliberate acts of misinformation. Those passionate about good governance in Ghana should speak out against trends at wilful lies and the role of the press in their furtherance. With the comatose posture of the Ghana Media Commission on acts of irresponsible journalism, we ought to be vigilant about what we ingest in the press.

Willful acts of deception in the press do injure hard-earned reputations, and so while acknowledging the power of ‘perceptions’ in politics, we should also mind the gap between perception and facts; because as the Australian journalist Lenore Taylor rightly puts it, ‘everyone loses when politics [becomes] a game of perception, not policy’.

Against this background, I would wish to dedicate this piece to draw attention to the negative perceptions being systematically cultivated in the public domain against the current Minister of Education, Dr Matthew Opoku Prempeh aka Napo. The sinister campaign is meant to derail efforts by the Honourable Minister to arrest the mess in which pre-tertiary education in Ghana finds itself. I am prompted to speak up against this cynical agenda because I consider it a patriotic duty to redeem not only Napo’s integrity, but also help arrest the culture of negativity that characterises debates and conversations within Ghana’s political space.

As a fan of straightforward, no-nonsense approach to solving problems, I would like to see more of Napo’s kind dominating our politics, an issue the salience of which can be measured in the shambolic consequences of JDM’s flippant ministerial appointments. I could also have chosen Dr Bawumia as the focus of this piece because I sense the same orchestrated strategy by the usual suspects to drown his statements in vitriol and lies. This piece dwells on Napo’s case because I know some of the details around the persistent attempt to cast him as arrogant and disrespectful. As a co-member of a WhatsApp platform where he frequently takes the trouble to shed light on issues either falsely attributed to him or wilfully mispresented in the media, I am able to see the trend in the bad press he has been receiving from some groups, sadly with the support of some respected media houses. We need to read between the lines.

Some respected have been doing that, and have been able to discover for themselves the transformative ideas and energy Napo has been bringing to bear on the education sector. These include Professor Ansah Asare, Justice VCRAC Crabbe and HE Kofi Annan. Why do similarly intelligent members of the public fall for the misreported issues about the education minister, I am tempted to ask? We know that partisan political interests drive a good part of the bad press some wilfully generate against the Minister of education’s person and politics. But that is not all that there is to the opposition to Napo.

Context matters, and in Napo’s case the subtleties include the professional character of some of the people he has to work with. Interactions with educated people generate their own complexities. Ghana’s educated elite in particular is characterised by a presumptuous attitude that sometimes refuse to yield to valid points that differ with entrenched views. Where educated Ghanaians are gathered, winning debates or attempting to do so all the time is construed as arrogance. It is not uncommon thus to see people conceding sound ideas to mediocre points so as not to ruffle decorated feathers.

Napo, even his detractors would admit, is very articulate and quite logical. He comes to debates and meetings fully armed with facts. You would notice these about him if you have been following his participation in discussions on the radio and TV as I have been In a culture where false modesty and applauding ill-presented arguments is often seen as a virtue, Napo’s capacity for sound analysis and apparent dislike for soft-soaping issues of critical importance would feel like an affront to valorised norms and egos hankering after a stroke. ‘His case’, I would also say, is not helped by the prejudices with which society often judge people bearing his professional titles and academic qualifications. Primordial sentiments, we also know, are also constant mediators in interactions within Ghana’s political landscape. Accordingly, whatever somebody of Napo’s profile says in some given contexts would always risk being disconnected from the actual sentiments that inspired them. These, in my view, are some of the subtle undercurrents to persistent attempts to paint the Honourable Minister’s public image in haughty hues. We don’t have to join in that disruptive behaviour.

I have known Napo for more than thirty years and he is nothing like the arrogant person his detractors would like the public to believe he is. Those who choose to judge the substance of his public pronouncements and politics by the values that inform them would easily notice the stark contrast between his actual character and the mischief-driven portrait of the Minister being peddled along in the press by his detractors. A ready point of reference here is the emphasis he has been placing on the issues of ‘equity’, ‘equal access of opportunities to all’, and ‘social justice’. Those values came forcefully through during the promotion of the Free SHS programme and the system he is putting in place to grant pupils from deprived backgrounds the chance to enrol in the nation’s top-tier secondary schools. Arrogance may be demonstrated in a variety ways, but I don’t think they would include a passionate concern for the welfare and dignity of society’s least privileged. Napo’s humility of heart and respect for Ghanaians is evidenced in how he consistently engages professionals in the education sector (specific examples are cited in latter parts of this piece) and the general public on key policy issues with the hope to soliciting their input. Which of his predecessors, with all due respect, ever bothered to engage the public and educationists in like manner? How is arrogance demonstrated in a respect for people’s right to know how their children are being educated?

Contrary to the allegation that he is running his ministry in the press, the Honourable Minister has since his appointment taken the trouble to meet heads of our secondary schools twice!!! He has also consulted on a number of occasions with the rank and file of the teaching profession on important policy issues, well before announcing them to the public. Many, if not all, representatives of the Teachers’ unions have his personal phone number. How could such a Minister be accused of being inaccessible to teachers and other professionals in the education sector?

I can understand how some politicians and teachers would have a problem with Napo’s tendency to share with the public some of the problems he inherited at his ministry and the solutions he has adopted towards solving them. Napo’s approach denies them the opportunity to misreport his statements to the most important stakeholders of education within the state sector. That, I think, is the problem. Those who choose, however, to focus on Napo’s deeds and actions as a Minister would see a public servant doing everything possible to revamp the education sector. The smear campaign is just a ruse to divert attention from what he has been doing and hopes to accomplish within the education sector. I can be categorical about that because I am aware of some incidents that prove that point. to For the sake of brevity I will dwell on a few of them.

One of them relates to a statement made by the Education Minister in February, this year to the effect that heads of schools which record 90% failures in final exams would be held to account. Most reasonable people would see nothing wrong with such a statement given that heads of schools are at their level of operation, responsible for the implementation of policy goals outlined by the Ministry of Education. Where they fail, Napo, as minister of education, would also have failed. Ghanaians would be holding Napo to account for what goes wrong in the education sector under his watch. Why would some consider it anathema for him to do the same to those who are paid to implement his policies?

I understood the Honourable Minister as initiating a dialogue towards the investigation of situations that defy any rational explanation. I thus expected heads of all schools to keep an open mind on the issue and even embrace it as an opportunity to let the Ministry know in advance about situations at their institutions they think could impact adversely on their pupils’ performance. Sadly, however, the news outlet that reported the statement stated emphatically that Napo had asserted that he was going to sack heads of failing schools. But as we were to learn later from a press release by the Ministry of Education, Napo had in an interview with the media house that misreported his statement, explicitly stated in a response to a question from the reporting journalist that ‘asking for accountability’ from heads of failing schools should not be understood as ‘sacking anybody’.

The National Teachers Union some members of which incidentally have been accusing the Minister of running his ministry in the press did not bother to ask for clarification from the Minister. Instead, they called for Napo’s dismissal. This, rightly, was ignored by the President. By then, however, the incident, had elicited a groundswell of ill-tempered comments from the public. Many of these people would not factor into their assessments press release with which the Ministry of education sought to clear the air on the matter. Those looking to extract political leverage from the misreported news item might not even bother to read it. Effectively then, the mischievously concocted story would have made the Minister unpopular among some Ghanaians; all for no wrong done.

The incident has been giving detractors of Napo a point of reference to further the campaign to tarnish his public image. The reactions to the planned licensing of teachers in the country clearly reflect this fact. The policy, I understand, is meant to formally bring the teaching profession in line with similar mandatory pre-practice and professional development requirements architects, engineers, doctors, and lawyers et cetera have to satisfy to retain the right to practice. The policy was given legal effect via the Teachers Licencing Policy under the Education Act 778(2008). It received presidential assent on the 6th of January, 2009. The significance of this fact is that by the time NPP came to power in December, 2016, the decision to licence teachers had already been signed into law!!!

As also reported at MYJOYONLINE on 5th August, 2014, the National Teaching Council (NTC) of the Ministry of Education (it is entrusted with the issuing of the planned licensing programme and related processes and regulations), in collaboration with the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF), organised an in-service workshop on the Policy for 297 subject teachers drawn form a select number of Primary, Junior and Senior High Schools. The contents of those news reports on the planned Licencing of teachers appeared to have been repeated at Graphic Online on August 15th, this year. In a bizarre turn of events, however, MYJOYONLINE which had carried a report on the issue in 2014, re-published it around the same time; this time around Napo was made the author of the Policy. With that came the alleged threat to sack underperforming teachers falsely attributed to him.

Coincidence? Probably. But why are some teachers relying on that report in their public opposition to the policy when they know that the report is false? You would have to read the flurry of comments on the subject appearing on teacher union forums. Many are describing Napo was as hating teachers. Some others allude to his medical professional background as proof that he is not qualified to head the Ministry of Education ignoring the fact seven out of the 8 Education Ministers under the Fourth Republic preceding Napo were not trained teachers. That has never been cause enough for anybody to call for their dismissal. Why were things suddenly being seen differently in Napo’s case? People do not know this, but Napo has one of the most formidable backroom expert support in the current government.

His team of expert advisors include Professor Djangmah(chairman) Professor Anamuah Mensah, Mr Michael Nsowah(fromer GES-DG), Professor Dominic Fobih, and Reverend Mrs Afia Blay, just to mention a few. This is not only a capitulation to expertise; it also evidences Napo’s awareness of what he needs to blend his administrative skills with to achieve the successful transformation of education in Ghana.

The question, however, is why a respected media outlet would twist aspects of a news item it had already published on the internet, not once but twice. A mistake? Possibly. But what do respectable media houses do when they get things that terribly wrong and hurt people’s reputations in the process? Apologise in secret as I understand MYJOYONLINE did? What happens in such a situation to the wrong misperceptions about the Licencing Policy furrowed by purveyors of twisted facts into the public imagination?

Whatever the motive behind the publication of that article, it has offered some elements in the teaching profession the stick to attack the Licensing Policy with obfuscations and strawman arguments. I have seen a good number of them on some teacher union WhatsApp platforms. Many of the attacks dwell on the mischaracterisation of the policy as an instrument to weed people out of the teaching profession. The reason, as the allegation goes, is because ‘government’ anticipated that with the introduction of long distance degree courses there would be an excess supply of graduate teachers (as if government is under the obligation to employ every graduate as a teacher!!!!!). Other allegations run to the effect that the whole thing is part of Napo’s supposedly anti-teacher agenda! The few that admit that he is not the originator of the policy still manage to accuse him of having deliberately resurrected what in their opinion was a dead issue hitherto.

Sections of the general public unaware of the politics driving the opposition to the Policy have jumped on the protest bandwagon to rain abuses and accusations on the Education Minister. I myself was tempted in the same direction by Napo’s reticence in the face of the din around the policy. Fortunately I chanced upon a news report on MYJOYONLINE (https://www.myjoyonline.com/news/2017/august-17th/leave-out-education-minister-in-licensing-exam-attack-ntc-to-nagrat.php) in which Dr. Mrs Evelyn Oduro, acting Executive Secretary of National Teaching Council (NTC) was exhorting ‘teachers to stop attacking the minister of education’ unnecessarily on the Policy. That was when I learnt that the modalities on the implementation of the policy were all being handled by the NTC, and that the Honourable Minister has never been involved in the dissemination of ‘the information on teachers’ licensing examination’ as alleged by Napo’s critics and detractors.

The most compelling insight into the deliberate efforts to muddy the waters around the policy and Napo’s alleged association with it, however, would come from a post on the subject attributed to a certain Abdulai Baba Yusif. It appeared on a WhatsApp platform for teachers. The author is said to be the Northern Regional Secretary of Ghana National Association of Teachers. His post appeared to address what seems to be a series of deliberate misinformation on the Licencing Policy being posted on social media platforms by some teachers.

One gathers from the post that before Napo’s appointment teachers in the country had been briefed sufficiently on the policy through various channels: e.g. information in GNAT diaries for its members; reviews of the policy at various meetings on the subject in diverse locations in the country. The author, in an apparent disenchantment with some of his colleagues’ feigned ignorance on the details on the policy gave a point by point analysis of facts to the contrary. The post ends with an advice to leading members of GNAT to adopt more helpful strategies in future negotiations on the issue and to desist from the false propaganda and deliberate obfuscations around the policy. The gentleman’s post left me wondering why respected professionals (teachers and journalists alike) would deliberately twist facts to arouse public resentment against such a policy and worse still, against the Education Minster. The politics of self-interest, I guess. That is what it is all about.

But as some attempt to manipulate our emotions to resist sound policies and to dislike people working in our interest, we should endeavour to inform ourselves on the magnitude of the rot in pre-tertiary education in Ghana out attention is being diverted from. The details are frightening. It explains why many parents have been removing their wards from the state school system to the private sector which incidentally seems to outperform the state schools (even though their teachers are less well-trained and definitely less remunerated).

It is not widely known but only 2% of primary 2 pupils read and write at the required proficiency level ( EGRA 2015); only 20% of high school students manage to obtain the required grades for entry into the state’s tertiary institutions(what happens to the 80%?); among the over 677 High Schools in the country, only 80 are rated ‘good’ or ‘better’; many high schools have for well over a decade failed to send a single student to any tertiary institution….just the tip of the gargantuan iceberg representing the current state of pre-tertiary education in Ghana.

The current education Minister has rightly identified the problem in the lack of emphasis on educational outcomes in previous years. The Free SHS program is meant as a root and branch approach to addressing the problem. It is founded on the premise that successful educational achievement commences from being able to keep children within learning environments. The policy thus removes all excuses for the high absenteeism and dropout rates for children eligible to enrol at the SHS level. The over 110,000 JHS graduates who are not able to enrol at high schools they are placed in and the 8-10% students from the Northern parts of Ghana unable to take up scholarship offers at the SHS level for lack of finances would be some of the noticeable beneficiaries of the policy in this wise.

But it is not just about keeping children in school; the intention is to increase contact hours between teachers and pupils and to also create space for children develop independent learning skills under the guidance of teachers. The proposed extension of school hours is a step in that direction.

As an ancillary to that, the Ministry of Education will Increase school feeding slots by between 15-30%. For the first time in so many years, too, government will be providing students free textbooks for seven core subjects. School curriculums will also be enriched with the inclusion of history, French, comprehensive sexual education, financial literacy as subjects of study in our schools. In recognition of the crucial importance of basic learning skills to academic excellence at all levels of education, emphasis is being placed on equipping children at early learning stages with core foundational skills: reading, writing, arithmetic and creativity.

Napo’s ministry has also identified an estimated 8268 of Ghana’s pre-tertiary institutions requiring total refurbishment or reconstruction in some cases. The Ministry of education, with the kind assistance of the World Bank and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia has already started tackling the problem. These are lofty ideas and actions that deserve our support.

The issue of quality has been coming up in debates on the Free SHS programme, the suggestion being that it might compromise the quality of education at the SHS level. My curiosity here is why this was not a major issue in the past when children were being educated under trees without chalks and pencils, and at a time parents were being charged all sorts of fees is a legitimate subject of our curiosities. Napo on the other hand, has been focusing his energies on implementing the following as a way of improving standards of teaching and school administration and to motivate teachers:

(1) Plan to create 42 model secondary schools largely through a thorough upgrade of infrastructure of some select schools in the country;

(2) Addressing the problem of teacher absenteeism (currently stands at 20%) and low ‘time on task rates’ through a rigorous regime of school inspections and leadership accountability to be monitored by an independent Regulator.

(3) Revision of standards of assessment for pupils and curriculum Provision of a grant of GHC16,000 to district offices to support their administrative expenditures.

(4) Introduction of in-service training manuals for teachers as part of their continuous professional development.

(5) Provision of affordable housing for teachers.

(6) Cash allowance for heads of schools

(7) Training of school heads in management

(8) Decentralisation of administration of basic schools

Teachers will also receive extra cash incentives from the government based on the number of pupils they have to handle. The amount is calculated at GHC10 per pupil per term. So a school with say 1000 students will get GHC10000 per term.

Most beautiful of all, government will be mainstreaming vocational and technical education through extra support with resources, recognition, certification, and maintenance of high standards, The objective is to do away with prevailing perception of technical and vocational education as dumping grounds for those cannot make it to university.

Just a few of a slew of policies Napo and his team of seasoned educationists intend using to revamp education in the country.

Granted, many of the plans are yet to be implemented, they show a minister with a full grasp of the challenges facing education in the country. He will need our support as he strives to bring his ideas into being. There are vested interests in the country who would do everything possible to keep things in the business as usual mode. These include politicians, some sections of the media and sad to say, some members of the teaching profession. Their parochial interests are inimical to the prosperity of our children. At every turn of the way , they would seek to direct attention to negative perceptions about the education minister and the man in charge of it. We owe it to ourselves to ignore their politics of distraction. Napo will deliver. Let’s give him the peace of mind to do his job.

Lastly, I would like readers to know that everything said in this piece comes from my own assessments and facts known to me. Thanks for your attention.

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